Pakistan cannot catch a break. As if daily killings from sectarian and terrorist groups were not enough to inflict mass casualties on innocent Pakistanis, tremendous rains have caused huge floods that continue to plague the country’s western frontier (that’s right, the same border where the Pakistani military and American drones are hammering extremist strongholds).
Pakistani officials estimate that as of now, close to 1,200 people have died, with thousands more displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands of houses in the tribal areas have either been damaged or swept away in the wreckage, which is prompting the Islamabad government to label this flood the worst in the country’s history.
But it’s not all bad. Donations from a number of countries are pouring into Pakistan while humanitarian organizations have dispatched workers on the ground to deal with the swelling numbers of refugees that are making their way to displacement camps. For its part, the United States have given Pakistani authorities $10 million, over 11,000 pounds of supplies, over 200,000 meals and some kind words from Secretary Hillary Clinton herself.
The aid sounds like a lot, but Washington could be doing much better.
In fact, the floods should be perceived by the White House — and Congress — as a ripe opportunity to bridge the gaps between the millions of Pakistanis who view America as a hostile force and an American government whose dependence on Pakistan is growing by the day.
If recent opinion polls are any indication, America needs all the help it can get to improve its image in the eyes of Pakistanis. According to the Pew Research Center (PDF), only 17 percent of Pakistanis are actually supportive of the United States, with 11 percent regarding America as a partner. Compare this with the 18 percent of Pakistanis who view Al Qaeda in a favorable light, or the 25 percent who support Lashkar e-Taiba (the group most famous for its 2008 attack in Mumbai).
To put it mildly, the United States are not doing so hot in Pakistan — even among educated Pakistanis in urban areas. Pledging more than $10 million to the flood relief effort is a good start, but a concerted effort to put some American boots on the ground would add a human touch. Pakistanis need to witness Americans doing something for the Pakistani people rather than for the Pakistani government.
It’s not going to solve all of America’s PR problems in that corner of the world, but it sure won’t hurt. Sometimes compassion can be a lot more effective than a monetary contribution. If Pakistan is as much of a strategic ally as Washington says it is, perhaps the United States should start acting accordingly.