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U.S. Effort to Aid Pakistan Flood Victims Confronts Challenges

October 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As the need for food, water and shelter continue in flood-ravaged areas of Pakistan, American aid groups are running into difficulties in getting supplies to victims. Special Correspondent Jeffrey Kaye reports from Pakistan.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: the United States’ effort to aid flood victims in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. We have a report from special correspondent Jeffrey Kaye.

JEFFREY KAYE: When massive floods struck Pakistan more than two months ago, the U.S. government promised to be the first, with the most assistance. As the scope of the disaster spread to affect some 20 million people, U.S. officials held to their pledge, seeing not only a critical need, but the opportunity to win hearts and minds in a country where, according to a recent survey, 59 percent of the population described the U.S. as an enemy.

As waters recede in Northern Pakistan in the Swat Valley, the U.S. Army is flying helicopter missions to isolated areas, delivering food and supplies and evacuating residents. The danger here is palpable.

Until about a year ago, this was a Taliban stronghold. Lieutenant Colonel John Knightstep is a Chinook helicopter pilot who also commands the air relief task force.

LT. COL. JOHN KNIGHTSTEP, U.S. Army: There’s been no threat. And I know, in the past, Swat has had some issues and troubles, and they had a real extensive fight a couple years back. And the Pak military went in by force, and they stayed there.

JEFFREY KAYE: The U.S. helicopter runs are closely guarded by the Pakistani military. The landing sites have rings of security, so soldiers are in these mountains surrounding the sites. They have also set up perimeters much closer in.

Aid workers and evacuees have to pass layers of Pakistani security checks to even get near the helicopters. While the U.S. has provided humanitarian assistance, American airpower is also a source of tension between the U.S. and Pakistan. While these helicopters are saving lives, elsewhere, along the border with Afghanistan, American helicopters recently killed three Pakistani border soldiers, leading to the temporary closure of a key supply route.

Besides flying in food, U.S. helicopters are also transporting building supplies for winter shelter. At the same time, it is evacuating residents who need to leave the area, a process that can lead to tense moments, as soldiers decide who can go and when.

On return flights, U.S. aid choppers turn into delivery vehicles, making sure that farmers get their vegetables to market.

LT. COL. JOHN KNIGHTSTEP: We are providing limited commerce out. And that’s really to keep the economic viability within that area, too. If we were just to let that commerce sit there and rot — as you noticed, there was no trucks moving along the roads today. The only way that commerce and that agriculture will get out is if we can get it out. And that’s their livelihood for the next year.

JEFFREY KAYE: The direct delivery of U.S. aid is the exception, not the rule. Even though the U.S. is the largest single aid donor for Pakistan flood relief, it outsources the distribution of assistance.

WILLIAM BERGER, U.S. Agency for International Development: Mainly, we work through international organizations, through non-governmental organizations that are on the ground, know the place.

JEFFREY KAYE: William Berger of the State Department’s Agency for International Development, USAID, oversees America’s Pakistan relief efforts. We caught up with him Monday as he toured U.S.-funded recovery operations in the Charsadda, in northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of the country’s worst-hit areas.

Berger says a key goal of U.S. aid, in addition to immediate relief, is to help stimulate the economy.

WILLIAM BERGER: Getting these people not just the food that they need to eat today, but jobs, getting their livelihoods restored, so that they will be able to support themselves in the future, and they will — doing cash for work and food for work, so that there’s money circulating in the economy, so that all of the vendors will also survive and thrive.

As a matter of fact, you noticed as we came in that the markets, these markets have returned very quickly. This is a very resilient and entrepreneurial people. If we can get money and support to these communities, then the markets will come back and the whole economy will come back up.

JEFFREY KAYE: In the village of Shinkai Corona (ph), not only were 80 percent of the houses damaged; the economy was devastated, as floodwaters killed livestock and ravished crops.

Farmer Faizal Khan supports a family of nine. His sugarcane crop was wiped out by diseases and infested with borer bugs.

FAIZAL KHAN, farmer (through translator): The land is completely filled with silt and mud and can’t be cultivated. I don’t think I will be able to plant a winter wheat crop, so my family will not have food. My livelihood is completely collapsed. I will work in the village and get the food sponsored by the people of America. I’m very thankful for that, and hope it can be continued in the future, until we recover.

JEFFREY KAYE: Despite Khan’s enthusiasm for U.S. aid, some humanitarian groups believe advertising their U.S. connections in areas where extremists are active will put them in harm’s way.

One veteran aid official in Pakistan who asked us not to use his name said militants have stated that they will target American-supported relief efforts. The question is, how much risk should USAID’s partners absorb to make sure the U.S. gets credit?

But Asif Ullah Khan, the head of Pakistan-based Lawari Humanitarian organization, doesn’t share that concern. He works for the U.N.’s World Food Program to distribute U.S. finance assistance.

ASIF ULLAH KHAN, Lawari Humanitarian Organization: Through WFP, we are giving the wheat flour, the (INAUDIBLE) wheat flour, which has got the USAID with its logo written on it. So, it is getting to every home. People are taking it. People are thankful. I mean, that’s what I think. I mean, I don’t see any sort of resistance in that regard.

JEFFREY KAYE: The USAID has strict labeling and marketing requirements for programs it funds, but the agency’s Berger says it can waive those requirements on a case-by-case basis.

Berger himself is well aware of the security risks of a public profile. USAID officials are required to travel with armed escorts, limiting their ability to assess their own projects.

One involves reconstruction of schools in the village of Shinkai Corona (ph). Schools were destroyed by mud and water. With the help of the U.S.-financed food-for-work program, a boys school is now back in session. A girls school is next in line for repair. Berger says the goal of disaster relief is humanitarian, rather than political.

WILLIAM BERGER: What we’re focused on is getting these people’s lives restored and doing development. I think, if we do that well, it will be appreciated.

But what we’re focused on is getting people’s lives back together and the humanitarian operation. It’s a little too early to make judgments about the impressions that people will have of this, that it’s a long-term process. And the United States is committed to helping Pakistan for many years to come.

JEFFREY KAYE: Even before the floods, the U.S. committed to a five-year $7.5 billion aid package for Pakistan, seeing development assistance and now disaster relief as critical components in shoring up a troubled ally.