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Pakistani floods muddy waters for US aid program

by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Aug 12, 2010
The floods in Pakistan have muddied the waters for the Obama administration's long-term drive to help nuclear-armed Pakistan reduce the allure of extremism by better serving the Pakistani people.

For one thing, analysts say, the floods have allowed Islamist-linked groups to score points, at least in some places, by delivering aid to the needy before the US-backed government and international aid groups can.

For another, they add, the natural disaster will force Washington to divert part of its five-year, 7.5 billion dollar aid program into short-term relief.

The aid program is a linchpin of an Obama administration policy aimed at engaging more fully with Pakistan, which has long seen Washington as interested only in securing its military cooperation in fighting terrorism.

"The biggest setback for the US government's objective to build up the government so that it can more ably provide services to its people has been the flood itself," said Wendy Chamberlin, a former US ambassador to Pakistan.

"A good portion of it had been planned to go toward building new infrastructure, new roads, new electrical plants, power plants etc.," said Chamberlin, now president of the Middle East Institute, a think tank.

"And now that money is going to have to be rechanneled just to repair what was destroyed," she told AFP, citing information gleaned from her own contacts with US aid programs.

Nonetheless, she added, "the people still need their bridges repaired and their roads opened with the assistance of the United States."

Daniel Feldman, a senior State Department official, alluded to the flood's longer-term impact when he announced Tuesday that Washington was raising its emergency aid totals for Pakistan to 50 million dollars.

"So the immediate repercussions are dramatic," Feldman said before the totals climbed yet again to 76 million dollars.

"And yet almost more importantly is the fact that this is very much a medium to longer-term issue with food security, with the economic infrastructure, and with needs that will be ongoing for many months, if not years."

Analyst Ashley Tellis said US officials have already modified the goal of the aid package, passed by Congress in September last year, from the original one of boosting democratic institutions to that of building infrastructure.

Infrastructure was seen as giving quicker, more visible benefits to the Pakistani people.

"With the floods, I think there is still going to be yet another transmutation in the objectives, which is how can we use this money to provide immediate relief," Tellis told AFP.

Tellis, a south Asia analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the change is understandable given the scale of the disaster, "but it means that the aid program will continue to be a victim of a lack of focus."

Tellis said the floods have also boosted the Islamist extremists at the expense of the US-backed Pakistani government because aid groups linked to them have often been able to reach flood-hit areas first.

"This cannot but be a source of great frustration for the administration," he said.

But Chamberlin said the Islamists are in fact facing the same obstacles to aiding people as the Pakistani authorities and the international aid groups, including non-government organizations (NGOs).

"Is it significant phenomenon?" she asked of the Islamists' ability to provide aid to the needy. "I wouldn't say significant but certainly it exists as a phenomenon."

She also said there were "murky" ties between the Pakistani authorities and Islamist groups, such as the humanitarian arm of the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group.

Feldman said the Islamist aid presence has been "quite overblown," while a plethora of credible NGOs, both international and Pakistani, "are already doing very good work" in flood-hit zones.

In providing millions of dollars in emergency funds and helicopters for flood relief, President Barack Obama's administration also hopes to be seen as a true friend of a country where anti-American feelings run deep.

But Tellis predicted only a modest, short-lived public relations benefit from US aid efforts, not least because the scale of the disaster dwarfs anything Washington can do.

"Anti-Americanism is deeply rooted as (Pakistanis) perceive US involvement as driven by American interests rather than Pakistani interests, tied to perceptions of strong support for military regimes, tied to the unfortunate perception that US foreign policy is fundamentally anti-Islamic," he said.

related report
Pakistan scraps independence day celebrations
Pakistan will hold no official independence day celebrations on Saturday other than hoisting the national flag, out of deference to the 14 million people affected by unprecedented floods.

President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the military have scrapped the usual festivities.

"The president has decided that he will hold no celebrations in the presidency," Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, told AFP.

In his independence day message, the president will call on people "to come out and help your grief-stricken brethren," Babar said.

Zardari will also visit flood-affected areas in the northwest and the central province of Punjab.

The president has come under fire from flood victims, the political opposition and critics for his failure to cut short a visit to Europe last week to deal personally with what is now the country's worst humanitarian crisis.

On Thursday, he visited a hard-hit area in the southern province of Sindh and met survivors for the first time, two weeks after the floods began.

Gilani has also scrapped official independence day celebrations, however the flag hoisting ceremony will take place, the spokesman said.

The chief of staff of the army, General Ashfaq Kayani, also announced that the military had scrapped celebrations on Saturday and on September 6 and said that the money saved would be spent instead on relief efforts.

Saturday will mark 63 years since Pakistan's creation in 1947, with the end of British colonial rule and partition of the sub-continent.

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