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 Postreported
("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 Timesreported
("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 Postreports
("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

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.

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