by DAVID AXE
The heavy rains in Pakistan’s restive Swat Valley began in late July and didn’t let up for weeks. Flooding and landslides killed at least 1,500 people and displaced 4 million in the worst natural disaster to strike Pakistan in years.
The U.N. called for $500 million in foreign assistance for flood victims. The U.S. pledged $150 million. Great Britain offered $100 million. “It’s not bad for a normal disaster, but this isn’t a normal disaster,” U.N. aid chief John Holmes said of the pace of donations.
Money aside, America’s greatest contribution has been military in nature. The Pentagon has seized on the flood relief efforts as an opportunity to win hearts and minds in a region of Pakistan that has long harbored Islamic extremists and helped fuel the fighting in Afghanistan. “When you’re hungry, it’s hard to be angry at someone bringing you food,” Marine Captain Paul Duncan explained.
The Americans came from two directions starting on Aug. 5. From Afghanistan, the U.S. Army deployed four CH-47 and two UH-60 helicopters to Pakistan’s Ghazi air base. In a week, the six choppers evacuated 3,000 survivors and hauled 160 tons of supplies. On Aug. 11, a U.S. Navy amphibious group sailing the Indian Ocean launched at least seven helicopters to replace the Army birds, which were needed for combat operations back in Afghanistan.
The maritime contingent included four CH-53Es from the Marine air group and three Navy MH-53E minehunters stripped of their mine gear. The American force is capable of evacuating as many as 1,000 people per day while also bringing in tons of supplies. The H-53 is the West’s most powerful helicopter.
Weather has slowed the air operations, Army Brig. Gen. Mike Nagata said on Aug. 13. “We actually sent some helicopters in there to do a reconnaissance of the weather conditions in Swat. But what the pilots reported to us is that the weather was simply too bad up at that altitude within that valley for us to risk putting the bigger cargo helicopters in there. So we’re just going to have to be patient and wait for a break in the weather.”
The reinforcements boosted the efforts of Pakistan’s overwhelmed armed forces. “They’ve got large helicopters that can carry a lot of people and large amounts of relief supplies,” one officer said. “Our helicopters are too small.” U.S. aircraft and pilots are also better equipped for operations in poor weather and at night.
It’s not clear yet whether the relief efforts will help turn the tide of Pakistani sentiment. It’s not without precedent. The tsunami that killed 170,000 people in Aceh, Indonesia, also devastated the indigenous Free Aceh Movement rebellion. The government and rebels agreed to ceasefire to allow aid to flow into the region; that ceasefire turned into a permanent agreement. “Because of the tsunami, we had to stop and work together. God gave us this peace,” one resident said.
Swat is not Aceh, and the scale of the U.S. effort in Pakistan pales compared to the surge in assistance that followed the tsunami. Still, there’s reason to hope that nature’s merciless onslaught will force Pakistanis and Westerners to forge a lasting peace.