Obama's Pakistan Katrina? Helicopters for War, But Not Flood Relief

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Obama's Pakistan Katrina? Helicopters for War, But Not Flood Relief

"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," Rahm Emanuel said, correctly, in November 2008, referring to the economic crisis, and that fact that it created political opportunities to advance long-needed reforms.

But if the White House does not prominently, quickly and decisively bring all assets to bear in response to the flood crisis in Pakistan, it will be letting a serious crisis go to waste. It will be passing up an opportunity to show the Muslim world that the United States cares more about saving Muslim lives than taking them away. It will be passing up a unique opportunity to reframe and de-escalate the conflict in Afghanistan.

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported ("Fearing unrest, Pakistan seeks more U.S. flood aid"):

Pakistan wants the United States to supply immediately dozens more helicopters and significantly more money and supplies to help deal with the widespread flooding that has affected at least 14 million people there, senior Pakistani officials said Monday.

The U.S. has helicopters in the region. But:

A senior U.S. military official said transfer of additional helicopters, which are in short supply in Afghanistan, would require a political decision in Washington. "Do they exist in the region? Yes," he said. "Are they available? No."

A "political decision in Washington" means a decision by President Obama. That senior U.S. military official is exactly right. The decision to allocate more resources to flood relief isn't a decision for the military, and it would be absurd to blame the military for whatever decisions are made, because they are political decisions by the White House.

If it turns out that diverting helicopters would require a temporary decrease in the pace of aggressive combat operations in Afghanistan, the U.S. should turn that fact into an opportunity. Announce publicly that the pace of aggressive combat operations is going to decrease temporarily, because of the urgency of Pakistan flood relief, and call on the Afghan Taliban to de-escalate as well so the world can focus on the humanitarian crisis in Pakistan. However the Afghan Taliban respond, the U.S. occupies the high ground politically.

It would also be absurd to say that we can't afford to divert resources from the war to emergency flood relief, when much of the story told on behalf of the war is 1) all about "winning hearts and minds" and 2) all about Pakistan; and when the press is reporting that Islamist militants in Pakistan are cleaning our clock in the battle for flood relief.

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported ("Pakistani flood disaster gives opening to militants"):

Though aid from the United States and other sources has reached certain areas, scores of flood victims say they have received little if any help. That has created an opening for hard-line Islamist groups to provide a steady stream of relief, particularly in the country's hardest-hit region, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as North-West Frontier Province.

For Falah-e-Insaniat [a wing of the banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa militant group], the flood crisis has provided an ideal public relations vehicle. It's a golden opportunity to build bonds with large numbers of impoverished Pakistanis who can later be counted on when the militant side of the organization needs a hand, experts said.

[...]
Sayed Saleh Shah Bacha, president of a neighborhood shopkeepers association in Charsadda, said residents have told him they're ready to come to Falah-e-Insaniat's aid whenever the need arises. "People here are now saying, 'Because no one came to help us except Falah-e-Insaniat, from now on we will help the group whenever they need it,' " Bacha said.

On Friday, the New York Times reported ("Hard-Line Islam Fills Void In Pakistan's Flood Response"),

As public anger rises over the government's slow and chaotic response to Pakistan's worst flooding in 80 years, hard-line Islamic charities have stepped into the breach with a grass-roots efficiency that is earning them new support among Pakistan's beleaguered masses.

It is certainly not true that the U.S. isn't doing anything in response to the crisis and to Pakistan's requests. Today, the Washington Post reports ("As Pakistanis flee flood zone, officials decry shortage of international aid"):

U.S. officials said...that in response to Pakistan's need for more airlift capacity, the USS Peleliu, with about 16 heavy-lift helicopters, was awaiting final approval from the Pakistani government and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to dock in Karachi. The aircraft are expected to take over from four Chinook and two Black Hawk helicopters that were diverted from Afghanistan early last week.

But if it were war, our leaders would not content themselves with saying, "we tried to do something." If it were war, our leaders would say, "Failure is not an option."

General Petraeus recently said, referring to civilian casualties of the war in Afghanistan, "While we have made progress in our efforts to reduce coalition-caused civilian casualties, we know the measure by which our mission will be judged is protecting the population from harm by either side." That attitude should drive our response to the flood disaster in Pakistan. We will be judged in Pakistan not by whether we tried to do something, but by whether we succeeded on a scale commensurate with the crisis.

You can urge the White House to take decisive action here.

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy. Naiman has worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. He has masters degrees in economics and mathematics from the University of Illinois and has studied and worked in the Middle East. You can contact him here.

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