The U.S. military is pressing ahead in its efforts to support Pakistan’s army in bringing relief to millions of people affected by the worst flooding in the country’s history, undeterred by suspicions about its intentions.
Amid conspiracy theories that U.S. forces deployed in Pakistan could also be used against terrorists, a senior officer says the military does not spend a lot of time or energy worrying about rumors of hidden agendas behind the assistance.
“We would chase these things endlessly if we decided to make that our focus,” U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Michael Nagata told reporters in a conference call from Pakistan.
“What we try to do every single day is provide the support, the assistance and the partnership that the Pakistani government and military ask us for,” he said. “We’re not here to conduct anything other than humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in Pakistan Sunday he had never seen such devastation, despite having witnessed the results of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and this year’s earthquake in Haiti.
Although the current death toll, around 1,600, is much lower than those earlier disasters, an estimated 20 million people reportedly are affected, with two million homeless and some six million in serious need of food and water. Cholera and other waterborne disease epidemics are looming, health experts warn.
The longer term damage in the still-unfolding disaster is harder to quantify, but huge swathes of Pakistan’s farmland have been destroyed, setting the scene for a major food crisis in the coming months.
The cotton crop also has been ruined. According to the Center for Research and Security Studies cotton and related products account for 67 percent of Pakistan’s export earnings.
Although the flooding has affected all four of Pakistan’s provinces and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the worst-hit area for fatalities (about 1,000) and destruction of homes (415,000 plus) has been Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province), according to Pakistani government figures.
On August 4 the U.S. Army deployed six helicopters from Afghanistan to an airbase in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and over the ensuing days they rescued more than 3,500 stranded people and delivered hundreds of thousands of pounds of emergency relief supplies, despite poor weather conditions.
On August 11 Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered in 19 U.S. Marine and U.S. Navy helicopters, and the first of these, U.S. Marine CH-53E Super Stallions, began arriving the following day. Some are deploying from the USS Peleliu, an amphibious assault ship now in waters off Karachi.
As happened in the aftermath of a massive South Asian earthquake in 2005, charities linked to militant organizations are reportedly carrying out relief missions in flood-stricken areas where government aid has yet to reach, especially in the north-west.
They include Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), which the U.S. State Department calls a “front operation” for Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), a jihadist group playing a growing role in anti-coalition terrorism in Afghanistan.
Nagata, who is attached to a division of the U.S. Embassy known as the Office of the Defense Representative Pakistan, said there had been no reports of encounters between U.S. forces involved in the relief effort and militants.
He acknowledged the militant threat in the region, but said the Pakistani military “have done simply an incredibly energetic and totally committed job at providing multiple layers of security around our activities both in the air and on the ground. And frankly, we’ve just seen no evidence of a threat so far.”
‘Reports of thousands of troops not true’
The U.S. has been pressing Pakistani authorities – without success – to expand a military offensive in the country’s northwest to take in areas of FATA that are havens for Taliban and allied terrorists fighting in Afghanistan like the Haqqani network.
Against that background, rumors quickly began circulating on Pakistani Web sites and blogs that the U.S. military relief mission may provide a cover for anti-terror operations, with talk of “thousands” of U.S. troops inside the country.
Nagata could not put a definitive figure on the number of U.S. personnel involved but said it was far lower than that. Before the floods there were about 250 personnel in the country, either based at the U.S. Embassy or involved in training and “other forms of engagement with our Pakistan military partners,” he said.
A U.S. Army element involved in the initial flood relief comprised about 100 people – helicopter crew, logistics, maintenance staff. Now a U.S. Marine contingent is taking over, but there were probably fewer than 100 Marines on the ground as of late last week, he said.
Nagata said “talk about thousands of Marines or thousands of U.S. military personnel that are in Pakistan” was simply “not true.”
The U.N.’s emergency relief coordinator John Holmes has appealed for $460 million in international aid, saying the most critical priorities include food, clean water, shelter and emergency health care.
According to the State Department, the U.S. has pledged approximately $76 million in assistance.
Americans also are being invited to contribute by texting the word “SWAT” to 50555. Each text sends a $10 donation to a U.N. High Commission for Refugees program to provide tents and emergency aid to displaced families.
Patrick Goodenough – CNS News