- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Deadly floods in Pakistan have killed more than 1,600 people, according to the United Nations, and affected nearly fourteen million. The UN launched a fresh appeal on August 11 for $459 million (BBC), and international relief agencies warn many more people are at risk without additional aid. The international response to Pakistan’s latest crisis has been inadequate so far, says Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States has pledged $55 million in aid, besides sending food and other necessities. Holbrooke says Washington is also sending more helicopters to aid in relief efforts. Holbrooke dismisses reports of Islamic charities (AFP), some with links to banned militant groups, sponsoring their own aid efforts and gaining support. "[R]ight now, we have an emergency situation affecting at least fourteen million people and first we’re going to deal with that," he says, adding, "The more we deal with that, the more it is an answer" to these groups.
What has been the U.S. response to the Pakistan flooding disaster?
We leapt into the effort as soon as it occurred and led the international response. The United States immediately sent helicopters from Afghanistan with U.S. crews into the flooded zones. We have airlifted food in from our stocks in the Gulf and in Pakistan itself. We have committed large sums of money, and right now we have a U.S. military vessel in the region about to send more helicopters. We are contacting international governments and doing everything we can in this extraordinary challenge.
How many more helicopters is the United States sending?
I’m not able to give you the exact number, because that is a decision of the commanders on the ground. But it is a substantial number. It’s still raining in much of the country. Helicopters are having trouble getting in and out.
What should the United States focus on in the days ahead to help Islamabad?
The American people should recognize that this situation is affecting, already, over fourteen million people. Although the deaths are far less than they were in the [2004 Indian Ocean] tsunami, and in the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, and in Haiti, the overall number of people affected is much larger than all of those combined. The international recognition of this disaster has not yet been sufficient to its dimensions. That is because floods, unlike earthquakes and tsunamis, are not sudden catastrophes that hit and then the reconstruction begins. They’re rolling crises, which grow and are initially underestimated, and that is what has happened in Pakistan. Americans have been very focused on other, equally heart-wrenching, issues, like Haiti. I hope they will turn their attention as well to this extraordinary crisis that Pakistan is facing.
I feel that the international recognition of this disaster has not yet been sufficient to its dimensions.
What are your biggest fears regarding this crisis, especially the kind of setbacks Pakistan will face on economic development and expanding space for militant groups?
It looks like most of the crop has been wiped out. That will have a tremendously negative effect on the Pakistani economy, which was already under immense pressure. Many bridges, perhaps a hundred, have been washed out; dams and barrages are in danger of breaking, which would be an even more serious problem; and there’s an immense need for immediate relief followed by a huge reconstruction requirement. The greatest fear of the experts is that diseases will break out in refugee camps--bad water, cholera, typhoid--and we need to work hard on that so medicine is critically needed. Nobody knows the full extent [of damage] yet, but we do know that it is the worst flood in Pakistan’s history since independence and apparently the worst one since the 1920s.
There have been numerous reports (LAT) that Islamic charities with links to militant groups are gaining support as they step up their aid efforts, especially in areas that government hasn’t been able to reach. How could this affect the fight against extremism in the country?
I read those news reports. I’ve no way of independently confirming it; no journalists have been able to get into those areas. The people I’ve talked to question the accuracy of those reports. I don’t think we should even worry about those right now. We should just worry about relief and getting assistance to the people.
During the 2005 earthquake, and last year in the camps for people displaced from the Swat Valley, we saw groups such as Jamaat-ud Dawa and the Falah-i-Insaniyat foundation helping in relief efforts and gaining support.
I’m not in any position to assess whether what you said is actually true and across the board, but to the extent it’s true, it’s a matter of great concern. But right now, we have an emergency situation affecting at least fourteen million people and first we’re going to deal with that. The more we deal with that, the more it is an answer to the very statement you just made.
I don’t think Americans, having lived through something quite traumatic in New Orleans a few years ago, should be too quick to criticize another government faced with an even greater challenge with far less resources.
As a result of this crisis, is the United States contemplating any reassessments in its policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan?
I see no reason to reassess our support of Pakistan. On the contrary, we need to redouble our support, and that is why Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton, President [Barack] Obama, Senator [John] Kerry, myself, other senior Americans have been working so hard on this.
Are the priorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan going to change in any way?
Why should the priorities change as a result of the floods? We’ve got our priorities clearly established in deep consultations with the Pakistanis over the last year; we had a dramatic change in priorities. We inherited a situation where U.S. aid was military and there was almost no civilian aid. We now have $7.5 billion worth of economic aid under Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation; we’re focusing on water and energy; and we’re adding this dimension of emergency relief for the second time in a year and a half, the first being the Swat refugee crisis. So I see no reason to change our priorities regarding our support of the Pakistani people and their desperate economic needs.
How do you plan to ensure that aid disbursement will be effective, given concerns that the Pakistani government and institutions have not proved that efficient in the past?
There are a large number of aid organizations people can contribute to. For a list of the organizations your readers and viewers should visit interaction.org. For information on donations, they can visit cidi.org and USAID.gov/pakistanflooding/.
Finally, and most importantly, there is a way that individual Americans can open their hearts and contribute $10 each by simply texting the word SWAT to the number 50555. Each text will result in a donation of $10 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ special Pakistan flood relief effort.
The enormous scale of floods would have been a challenge for any government. However, the government in Islamabad has been particularly exposed as weak, with the army at the forefront of rescue efforts. Is Washington concerned that this could damage the civil-military balance in Pakistan or its fragile democracy?
The United States supports civilian democratically elected government in Pakistan. We have done that ever since Barack Obama became president, with great intensity, and hence the Kerry-Lugar-Berman [legislation]. We will continue to do that. As for the government’s response to the crisis, many people have been critical of it. I don’t think Americans, having lived through something quite traumatic in New Orleans a few years ago, should be too quick to criticize another government faced with an even greater challenge with far less resources. Pakistanis are doing their best and we support them.