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WashPost: Hope amid Pakistan's tragedy

Author: Shuja Nawaz, Director, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council
August 12, 2010

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The rains that have for the past two weeks caused the worst flooding in northwest Pakistan in eight decades have shifted attention from the country's battle against insurgency and militancy and the fragility of its relationship with the United States. As the monsoon rains move south, numerous roads, bridges and dams have been damaged. Crops have been destroyed. It is likely that next year's crops will not be planted. Yet amid all this destruction are reasons for optimism.

Rapid U.S. action to support Pakistan's relief efforts may help improve America's image among a population that generally resents the United States. Washington's $55 million aid pledge makes it the largest donor among the international community. U.S. Chinooks -- seen as angels of mercy after the 2005 earthquake -- are helping Pakistanis over flood-ravaged mountains and plains, and represent both U.S. ability to help Pakistanis and the Pakistani military's willingness to work with its U.S. counterparts. This collaboration will go a long way toward building relationships among rank-and-file service members. The head of Pakistan's air force is visiting the United States this week to see joint air exercises in Nevada. Such encounters will educate people and help both countries dispel false notions about each other.

Although much has been made of the negative findings in the July 29 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, there are underlying signs of hope. Pew found that 68 percent of Pakistanis view the United States unfavorably and that 59 percent of respondents classify it as an enemy. But little has been said about the 64 percent of Pakistanis who consider it important to improve relations with the United States. This is an opportunity for both countries to increase public understanding. A Gallup poll of U.S. perceptions about 20 nations released in February showed that only 23 percent of Americans viewed Pakistan favorably. But while Americans 55 and older accounted for just 17 percent of the favorable ratings, it was heartening that Americans ages 18 to 34 accounted for 34 percent. There may be an opportunity to connect American and Pakistani youth and help them move past the entrenched narratives that have long driven policy decisions in both countries.

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