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.
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.
But that advance has jarred the Pakistani government into action – the military offensive that it says has killed 1,000 Taliban fighters but has also uprooted 2 million civilians. It is this new government resolve that the US wants to encourage, while easing the living conditions of refugees.
"What the Pakistanis are doing now deserves our full support," Clinton said. "They're doing it, and we're encouraging them to do it because we think it's in their interests. But we also believe it's in the interests of our long-term struggle against extremism and, in particular, the Al Qaeda network."
Al Qaeda's leadership is thought to be holed up in the rugged terrain of Pakistan's northwest tribal areas.
Five US senators, in a letter Tuesday to President Obama, said they were concerned that a failure by the international community to meet the Pakistani humanitarian crisis would provide a vacuum for the country's extremist elements to fill.
"We are deeply concerned that if not adequately addressed, the crisis could undermine the Pakistani government and compromise our ability to help stabilize the country," wrote Sens. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, Bob Casey Jr. (D) of Pennsylvania, and Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona. "We note with concern that the media is reporting the charity wings of designated terrorist organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba are already rushing to provide assistance in the absence of a sufficient government response."
In providing the assistance, the US is also harking back to the effectiveness of emergency aid it provided to Indonesia at the time of the 2004 tsunami, and to Pakistan in 2005 following a devastating earthquake. In both cases, US officials on the ground offered evidence that the quick American response to human needs was much more effective in changing people's attitudes about the US than more-traditional public-relations campaigns and government-to-government contacts.
The earthquake aid was "a success to refer to," says Mr. Barton of CSIS. "It suggested how we might start addressing this crying need to establish some kind of trust and relationship with the Pakistani people."
In presenting the new aid, Clinton noted the effort will include a number of new-tech "tools" for meeting the challenge. The US will work with the Pakistani government to put the refugees' cellphones to use, letting them know when and where aid is available. Cellphones and text messaging will also be used to try to link separated family members.
Americans can also get in the act, she said. By texting the word "swat" to the number 20222, anyone can make a $5 donation to the UN High Commissioner's Office for Refugees for use in the Swat Valley crisis. Clinton said she tested the donation system before announcing it, and it worked.