In the past few weeks, intense flooding in northern Pakistan has set off an enormous humanitarian disaster, killing thousands of people and displacing as many as 2 million more. The international community has responded by sending aid and humanitarian workers to the region, dispatching civilian and military staff to assist Pakistanis injured in and fleeing the floods.
The United States has played a major role in the response, delivering tens of millions of dollars in aid to beleagured refugees. However, the Washington Post reports that one key element of the U.S. response — Chinook transport helicopters — are in short supply to be sent to Pakistan, because they are assisting troops in combat in Afghanistan. One unnamed U.S. official tells the Post that sending additional helicopters would “require a political decision in Washington” because “it’s not like we have a great surplus of helicopters in theater that are not engaging“:
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 United States has already diverted six Chinook transport helicopters from the Afghanistan war to Pakistan over the past 10 days for rescue missions and aid delivery. […]
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.”
“It’s a question of risk mitigation,” the official said. “Helicopter lift is critical to the mission” in Afghanistan, where road transport is difficult and dangerous, he said. “It’s not like we have a great surplus of helicopters in theater that are not engaging.”
The slowness in delivering aid to the Pakistani public also has many Pakistani officials worried that the flooding “could open the door to a Taliban resurgence as the government falters in its efforts to provide basic services.” The extremist group has warned against Pakistanis accepting foreign aid, looking to tap into its own financial resources to take advantage of the situation. Already, extremist political parties are stepping in to lead “the relief and rescue effort,” with Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s largest right-wing Islamist group, claiming it has up to 100,000 activists working in relief in the area.
Indeed, many have pointed out that increasing U.S. aid to suffering Pakistanis could be a major tool to build trust and support for the United States and undercut support for the already unpopular Pakistani extremist groups. Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs, notes that following the 2005 earthquake in the Kashmir region, American aid became a major symbol of goodwill in the region. “The Chinooks became known then as ‘angels of mercy,'” says Inderfurth. “We need to dispatch those angels again.” Unfortunately, international aid has not matched the robust response to the 2005 earthquake. Following that disaster, the international committee pledged $247 million in aid; following the flooding, only $91 million has been pledged.