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Clinton announces $110 million in refugee aid for Pakistan

The aid is partly to offset anger at the US-supported counterinsurgency campaign.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2009

Pakistani displaced people wait their turn to food stuff from a distribution point of World Food Program at the Jalozai camp in Peshawar, Pakistan on Tuesday, May 19, 2009.

Mohammad Sajjad/AP

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With Pakistan facing its worst refugee crisis since partition from India 60 years ago, the US is providing $110 million in emergency assistance for as many as 2 million refugees who have fled fighting in the Swat Valley.

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The United States often provides emergency aid in such circumstances, but the sizable assistance announced Tuesday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has a particular objective: to ease the hardship of Pakistanis who have been routed from their homes by fighting that the Pakistani military has pursued, at US insistence, against the Taliban.

With the US embarking on a new policy toward Pakistan that aims to defeat the country's extremist elements by winning over the population, the last thing the US needs is to start out even further behind in the battle for hearts and minds. As Secretary Clinton hinted in announcing the aid, the Obama administration wants to encourage the Pakistani people's early signs of cooperation and common purpose against the Taliban.

"We face a common threat, a common challenge, and now a common task," Clinton said in a White House briefing. "We have seen an enormous amount of support and determination out of the Pakistani government, military, and people in the last weeks to tackle the extremist challenge."

At least since last year, some members of Congress and a growing number of Pakistan and counterterrorism experts have concluded that a crucial missing ingredient in US policy was closer contact with the Pakistani people. This new aid package, while addressing a particular crisis, is also a "first step" in that new policy, some experts in the region say.

"For the last year, the consensus in Washington has been that we needed to create a stronger link to the Pakistani people, that that was in fact the missing link in our relations with a critical part of the world," says Frederick Barton, co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "This is a terrific first step to show we do care about the Pakistani people and not just about Afghanistan or terror."

America's image suffers from particularly low ratings in Pakistan. That has put the Pakistani government in a tight spot as it has come under US pressure for action against the Taliban, which this year has advanced beyond its traditional strongholds along the Afghan border. The Swat Valley, where fighting is now concentrated, is 70 miles outside the capital of Islamabad.

Earlier this year, US officials turned particularly frank in their criticism of Pakistan's government and military as an accord was signed with the Taliban allowing it to apply harsh Islamic law in Swat. The alarm rose as the Taliban used its Swat base to try to take over the adjacent Buner District, even closer to the capital.