U.S. aims to wash away hatred in Pakistan flood relief work

The view from an open cargo door of a U.S. Marine helicopter showed what the relentless floodwater has done to this small mountain village. Near toppled electricity towers, hotel rooftops severed from their walls lay in the rushing water of the Swat River. Segments of bridges have been swept away. At one span, only concrete buttresses were left standing.

As the helicopter touched down, Pakistanis with blank, tired faces, some with whatever clothes they could salvage stuffed into small plastic bags, desperately waited their turn to be taken to safety.

As the U.S. carries out rescue missions and pours millions of dollars of relief into flood-ravaged Pakistan, Washington hopes the aid will chip away at the deep hatred and mistrust that many Pakistanis have for America. Though the two nations’ governments remain allies in the fight against terrorism, Pakistanis have long viewed the United States as an exploitative power interested more in controlling their country than nurturing its prosperity.

The floods give the United States a unique opportunity to shore up a crucial alliance even as it pursues a “hearts and minds” campaign, which calls for moving the focus of U.S. aid from Pakistan’s military to its deep-seated economic and infrastructure woes.

So far, the U.S. has delivered $87 million in relief, and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who visited Pakistan on Thursday, said Washington would raise the amount to $150 million.

The U.S. has pledged more in flood assistance to Pakistan than any other country. Fellow Muslim states have been slow to come through, exhibiting a reluctance that one Pakistani newspaper called shocking. Meanwhile, in a move that reflected this nation’s desperate need, Islamabad agreed Friday to accept $5 million in flood relief from its nuclear archrival and neighbor, India.

Much of the U.S. relief so far has targeted the northwest, particularly the Swat Valley, a region that Pakistani troops wrested from the control of Taliban insurgents a year ago only to see it become decimated by the catastrophic monsoon floods.

In Kalam, U.S. CH-53 transport helicopters land as many as eight times a day in a mountain glade to pick up scores of stranded residents. On a recent sun-scorched morning, about 70 people jammed into the CH-53’s grimy cargo bay, sitting shoulder to shoulder on stacked bags of flour. They carried whatever they could salvage from mud huts obliterated by walls of water: rugs, luggage, pots and pans and clothes stuffed into small plastic bags.

“The U.S. has been doing a good job here,” said Muhammad Din, 27, with an infant son cradled in his arm. “This should change people’s minds here about America.”

On one flight this week, an old man leaving the helicopter turned to Marine Capt. Paul Duncan and tried to give him one of the only possessions he still had: the shawl off his back.

In broken English, the old man’s son told Duncan, “Thank you very much. America good.”

Nestled in the verdant ridges of the Upper Swat Valley, the village had been trying to regain its status as a prime tourist destination for middle-class Pakistanis. Then the flood came, leaving Kalam an island, robbed of electricity, clean drinking water and access to fresh supplies of food and medicine.

U.S. military helicopters that are taking out as many as 940 residents from Kalam daily are bringing in about 44 tons of flour, cooking oil, tea and other goods for those still stranded there. Eight Marine transport helicopters have been used in the operation, and four CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters arrived this week at Ghazi air base, where the U.S. relief effort is centered.

The rescue and relief missions began at the request of the Pakistani government and are carried out in close coordination with the nation’s military. Pakistani soldiers armed with automatic rifles provide security on the flights and at drop-off and pickup points. None of the Marines on board is armed, Duncan said.

Pakistani soldiers working with the Marines say U.S. involvement in the relief effort has been invaluable.

“They’ve got large helicopters that can carry a lot of people and large amounts of relief supplies,” said one officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists. “Our helicopters are too small. U.S. troops have really helped us here.”

Many Pakistanis say they have not been swayed by the U.S. rescue missions and millions of dollars of flood relief. In Islamabad, the capital, people talk of an America they say will expect something in return for its helping hand, an America that has neglected Pakistan too many times to make amends.

“If the U.S. gives us aid, only our rulers receive it,” said Muhammad Jamshed, a 28-year-old salesman at an Islamabad clothing shop. “The U.S. wants to win the hearts of people with this aid, but it won’t happen. We do not need this aid. God is here and he will provide aid to us.”

In Kalam and the rest of Swat, however, the attitude has been very different, said Duncan, 38, of Gary, Ind.

“The experience I’ve had so far has been very positive, almost to the point of surprise,” Duncan said. “When you’re hungry, it’s hard to be angry at someone bringing you food.”