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Time to help an ally in need

Pakistan is desperate for aid after a killer quake. The U.S. should seize the chance to assist a country on the front lines of the war on terror.

October 23, 2005|Anatol Lieven and Rajan Menon | ANATOL LIEVEN is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. RAJAN MENON, also a senior fellow at the foundation, is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

THE OCT. 8 earthquake that crushed northern Pakistan has given the Bush administration a chance to repeat its successful response to the tsunami in Asia: Deliver substantial assistance, save lives and have a major political impact.

What the administration did then -- after initial criticism for pledging a paltry sum of aid -- was morally commendable. It was also strategically astute. If success in the struggle against terrorism requires that the United States win friends in the Islamic world, then helping Indonesia, the world's largest Islamic country and a key U.S. ally in the struggle against terrorism -- was surely a sensible way to go about it.

By contrast, the administration's response in Pakistan has been inadequate at best. This is strange. Pakistan is on the front lines in the war on terrorism. The quake has killed at least 50,000 of its people. In a remote mountainous area, with winter coming, about 2.5 million people are homeless. The World Food Program estimates that half a million have yet to receive any food deliveries. There is a desperate shortage of tents. There are also far too few helicopters to deliver essential supplies. The U.N. has received less than 25% of the funds it needs in Pakistan.

Surely it's obvious what the administration should do. Yet apart from a fly-in to Pakistan by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, its response has so far been pitiful.

The U.S. has pledged only $50 million in aid, a tiny fraction of what it is capable of providing. According to USAID, as of Oct. 17, nine days after the earthquake struck, the U.S. military had flown only 168 helicopter sorties to the affected areas. It can certainly do much more in a country next door to Afghanistan and near the Persian Gulf, where substantial U.S. airborne forces are deployed.

This anemic reaction is obtuse. Apart from Iraq and Afghanistan, no country is more critical to the war on terror than Pakistan. With more than 150 million people, Pakistan has almost as large a population as the entire Arab world. Islamist extremists have made dangerous inroads there and have twice tried to kill President Pervez Musharraf, without whom the American presence in Pakistan would be imperiled.

Most of the top Al Qaeda operatives captured have been apprehended in Pakistan with the help of Pakistani authorities. The Pashtun areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan are a hotbed of support for the Taliban and probably harbor Osama bin Laden. Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons and, in the past, has been involved in nuclear smuggling. Its survival as a U.S. ally is therefore one of America's most vital interests.

BUT IF THE Pakistani state proves unable to look after its people in a crisis, its domestic authority is bound to suffer. That authority, and Pakistan's ability to take part in the war on terror, will also suffer if, having given valuable help to the U.S., it gets little in return.

Much has been said in the U.S. in recent years about Pakistan's actual or potential unreliability as an ally; some of it is fair. But reliability cuts both ways. The same U.S. pundits who have listed Pakistan's faults and who lecture Pakistan on how to run its affairs are silent in the face of the administration's failure. To Pakistanis, we are like a rich man in a manor who hectors his poor neighbors about their faults but refuses to help them in time of desperate need.

Why is the White House reacting so tepidly in Pakistan after handling the tsunami disaster so well? The answer may be that an administration that is becoming increasingly monarchical and politicized is also becoming increasingly paralyzed. It's foreign policy crew can still walk and chew gum simultaneously, but it may not be able to think at the same time.

Whatever the reason, by failing to extend more generous and visible assistance to Pakistan, the Bush administration is committing a grave moral and political blunder.

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