New fault lines: Washington deploys ‘soft power’

Pakistanis haven’t forgotten how after 9/11 numerous western dignitaries rushed to Islamabad to give a ‘pat on the back’ to General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan was the front-line state in the ‘war against terrorism’ and subsequently played a key role for what was primarily a western ‘enterprise’. Now, following the devastating October 8 earthquake, Pakistan’s own ‘enterprise’ of relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction involves megabucks.

General Musharraf went on the offensive claiming that the effort is wanting as no westerners are at risk, that Pakistan which has helped the international community in fighting terrorism deserves more, that inadequate support may fuel terrorism. There is a stark contrast between the support the international community provided to countries affected by the tsunami and what has offered after the earthquake. Even the UN has been paralysed by a shortage of funds. On the ground the UN has some 100 people in Muzaffarabad coordinating relief for what some estimate to be over three million people rendered homeless by the killer quake.

However, the United States stands out as a willing supporter in this long hour of need. In fact, never before in Pakistan-US relations has any administration in Washington come forward with this degree of willingness to help our country. The past has been a tale of constant woe. Then, in the Pakistani perception, the US contributed to many of this country’s political catastrophes. Now it is a lead country among supporters. And there are concrete indicators to illustrate this:

  • US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was among the first foreign dignitaries to visit Pakistan immediately after the earthquake. Her boss’s instructions are that she is to make the case for internationally support to Pakistan.
  • Bush and his team have been lobbying with governments, international agencies and the corporate sector to provide Pakistan with urgently needed resources. "We will be talking to the United Nations and others to urge all of us to do more," Bush assured Musharraf in a recent telephone conversation.
  • A presidential delegation led by US Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes with Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs Christina Rocca and Deputy Assistant Secretary Mark Ward travelled to the earthquake-hit areas. Representatives from the corporate sector including the CEOs of Pfizer, Xerox and UPS were also in the delegation.
  • Bush announced, with the participation of the corporate sector, the setting up of the South Asia Earthquake Relief Fund. The corporate presence includes Citigroup and General Electric. The Fund has been created to fill massive resource gaps. With 90,000 killed and three million homeless, there is fear that 500,000 more may die if support does not come urgently. Over a million children in AJK need immunisation against measles, tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria and polio before winter bites. Unicef says an additional $4 million is needed to complete the programme over the next two to three weeks.
  • Washington has been the lead provider of helicopters which are a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people stranded in remote areas. It has promised to deploy more, hopefully soon.
  • Unprecedented bipartisan support for Pakistan has emerged in Congress. A bipartisan resolution seeking $1 billion for earthquake victims in Pakistan has been moved, signed by two key members of the Congressional Pakistan Caucus, Dan Burton and Sheila Jackson Lee. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Tom Davis, categorically stated that "Pakistan is a staunch supporter of the United States in the ongoing war on terrorism. We must help them cope with this disaster … I consider myself a friend of Pakistan. Our destinies are intertwined and we must continue to work together."
  • Unlike any previous Pakistan-specific coverage in the past, the US media extensively reported on the earthquake tragedy. In fact, from among all the foreign channels, CNN International’s coverage was the most impressive. Endlessly and with compassion, keeping politics aside, it covered the tragedy as if it was ‘their own’.
  • Almost 1,000 US military personnel are now taking part in relief operations. Musharraf says, "these Chinook helicopters have become a household name, and everyone knows that the United States has provided this aid."
  • Other support initiatives by other countries are likely to push US assistance in new directions. On November 15, British first lady Cherie Blair announced that the UK has granted trade concessions to Pakistan to aid recovery.
  • Of the private sector efforts, Alexander Saunders’ efforts stand out for their effectiveness and continuity. Founder of Clearwater, an environmental organisation, Saunders has rallied support in the US and managed to secure donations of large prefab shelters worth millions of dollars to Pakistan from individual donors, foundations and corporations. On Friday, a plane left the US with 300 large shelters and a team of 10 consultants went along to train people on how to erect them.
  • Similarly, efforts of a dynamic NGO, Kashmir Earthquake Relief (KER), are getting a boost from artists like The Roots, Mos Def, Hieroglyphics, Goapele, and more in the works. KER is also going through clubs, DJs, artists and other trendsetters to mobilise support. With celebrity support, online auctions, benefit concerts and a fashion benefit are being planned. In addition to The North Face, the New York Life Insurance Company has also been supportive of KER.

Apart from empathy and compassion, there are strategic reasons for Washington being this forthcoming in its support for Pakistan. The Western press itself reports that "the US military has played a key role in the disaster operation, a move analysts say is partly aimed at overcoming resentment to its war on Islamist militancy."

In an NBC programme, Musharraf also replied in the affirmative when asked if increased aid would help in the fight against terrorism. He said: "The people would understand that joining the coalition, fighting against terrorism, joining, supporting the US against terrorism, were all correct decisions." Musharraf was implying, "don’t give aid and have my decision to support the US war on terror criticised by Pakistanis."

Given the outcome of US humanitarian assistance to tsunami-hit Indonesia, Washington knows such help just doesn’t save lives. It wins friends too. According to post-tsunami polls conducted by the non-profit group Terror-Free Tomorrow, support for Osama bin Laden dropped by half as a result of international assistance to tsunami victims in the world’s largest Muslim nation. In Pakistan too Washington desperately needs friends. At the public level, Washington’s ‘war on terror’ has further complicated an already estranged bilateral relationship. Goodwill and trust deficits are writ large on the history of Pakistan-US engagement.

The earthquake has provided Washington an opportunity to tackle these deficits. Washington has seized that opportunity. It now seeks to do more than the others, particularly organisations like Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the Al-Rasheed Trust. If this translates into more help to the earthquake victims, it will be positive competition. Washington’s deployment of its ‘soft power’ should be welcomed. It is a far cry from the gun-toting and, often, criminally callous Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq.