GHAZI: For US combat pilots in Afghanistan, there are two reasons to visit Pakistan: to help provide aid to the millions affected by devastating floods, and to improve America’s image.
Torrential monsoon rains have lashed Pakistan for two weeks, triggering catastrophic flooding that the UN says has affected 13.8 million people, in a disaster eclipsing the 2004 tsunami that killed 220,000 across Asia.
The government says the international community has promised 92 million dollars, but it is the presence of US military helicopters that may incite the most controversy in Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is endemic.
The White House said that US helicopters have helped to save more than 1,000 lives in Pakistan. Washington has provided 35 million dollars in aid, including 436,000 meals and 12 pre-fabricated bridges.
“The primary focus of our mission is to provide food to people,” Major Daniel Rice, commanding officer of the US aviation fleet in Pakistan, told AFP.
Asked whether it would help remove misunderstandings about the United States in Pakistan, he said: “I certainly hope so.”
“We are learning from each other every day... We are talking about each other’s families as we deal together with the calamity here,” Rice added.
After being grounded because of bad weather, helicopters flew sorties on Monday evacuating people and bringing food supplies to Swat.
“We are here to help people of Pakistan... Pilots have come back saying they saw lots of smiles, waving of hands and thumbs up while delivering supplies and shifting people to safer areas... and that is a good sign,” said Rice.
The US has sent four Chinooks and two Blackhawks to Pakistan, which fly with a representative of the Pakistani military on board. Authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have warmly welcomed the US assistance.
“Floods have devastated the communications system in our province. US helicopters, in this crisis situation, have become a backbone in the relief operations,” information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain told AFP.
The lounge near the base’s apron hummed with activity as pilots of the Pakistani and US armies sat together, exchanging pleasantries and gulping tea and coffee as it rained intermittently, with low visibility outside.
“Let people of Pakistan decide about our image as we deliver supplies and carry people from flood-affected areas,” said US pilot George Kelly, adding that “very poor” weather was one of the main challenges.
Sergeant Curtis Hissong was equally upbeat. “It gives us satisfaction to deliver food supplies to Pakistanis stranded in different areas.
In flood-hit Kalam, Bahrullah Khan, 38, a teacher who has been stranded there since floods struck while he was on holiday, said the American help was a blessing.
“Pakistani helicopters evacuate army people or people of their own choice. The US helicopters in this situation are really a blessing for us.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2010.