In 'heartland of jihad,' an American helping hand

Americans have spread free matchbooks and pamphlets in Pakistan offering vast sums of money to get information about Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. Nothing has worked.

But dropping food, tents, and a helping hand in the aftermath of the Oct. 8 earthquake is buying the US some newfound goodwill here that some hope may eventually yield important leads in the war on terror.

The area worst hit by the quake also happens to be the epicenter of Pakistan's extremist community, a place dotted with camps training jihadis to fight in Indian Kashmir. Al Qaeda has used this militant infrastructure to communicate, to recruit, and - some speculate - to shelter top leaders. Investigators have traced one of the July 7 London bombers to a camp in this area.

"This is really the heartland of jihad, where a lot of recruits are drawn for Al Qaeda and fighting in Kashmir," says Pervez Hoodhoy, a political analyst in Islamabad. "When they see the Americans come and do something for their people, irrespective of who has been hurt, I think that goes a long way."

It's too early to see how big a bounce the US will get from its mission of mercy here, and impossible to gauge whether it will last.

But some analysts are comparing it to the so-called "tsunami effect" across the Indian Ocean, where attitudes toward Washington became more favorable after high-profile US efforts in the wake of that 2004 disaster. According to a June Pew Institute study, 79 percent of Indonesians say they view the US more favorably because of the relief efforts. Still, only 38 percent of Indonesians say that they have an overall positive view of the US. But even that figure is up from a low of 15 percent in 2003.

In Pakistan, animosity toward America - and especially its military - runs deep. The latest Pew survey found only 23 percent of Pakistanis view the US favorably. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Pakistan has refused to permit US troops to hunt terrorists on its soil, saying the public would never accept it.

But anecdotal evidence suggests that the US military's role in northern Pakistan, in one of the largest rescue efforts this country has ever seen, is changing attitudes here too.

At the country's main air base, a cargo plane is unloading crates plastered with Stars and Stripes decals. US soldiers dart across the flight line.

US aircraft, including massive cargo helicopters now making up to six sorties a day, were diverted from Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Middle East. More than one million pounds of USAID has been delivered. Some 400 soldiers and USAID support staff are already on the ground. A mobile army surgical hospital or MASH, along with another 200 or so medical staff, are on the way.

The sight of American troops lending a helping hand to quake victims is reverberating through the countryside here.

"They are really helping us a lot," says Bashir Ayub, who was evacuated to Islamabad by US troops for medical treatment. "A lot of people here don't understand that they really aren't that bad."

US officials say they are motivated by nothing more than compassion. "We are here to help a friend in need," says US ambassador Ryan Crocker during a recent visit to the flight line. "We'll worry about the popularity contest later."

Others extending a helping hand, including the Pakistani and Indian militaries as well as Islamic militant groups and Kashmiri separatists, also stand to benefit from the good public relations of disaster relief.

And any burnishing of America's image will continue to be tempered by widespread dissatisfaction with US foreign policy in the Middle East.

But the US is still making a significant "hearts and minds" effort here, and it's not just quake relief. USAID is launching massive projects across the border region to build schools, train teachers, build democracy, and provide low interest loans. The total price tag: more than half a billion dollars.

For US soldiers this week dropping vitally needed supplies to desperate people trapped in the Himalayas, it doesn't matter what the long-term goal is.

"They are really hurting out there - totally desperate," says Sgt. Paul Zavas of Dallas, Texas. "The second we drop something they come out of the woodwork. Every day you feel like you are doing something good."

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