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In Pakistan, Militants Use Flood Aid To Seek Support

The United Nations is calling on the international community to step up flood relief efforts in Pakistan after Pakistan's president warned that terrorist groups could take advantage of the disaster to win support from the flood victims.

Pakistani officials say Islamist charities, some with ties to the militants, are providing aid while promoting their anti-government agendas, as they did after the deadly Kashmir earthquake in 2005.

The U.N.'s director of emergency programs, Louis-George Arsenault, criticized the international response to the floods, saying there was a "quite extraordinary" lack of support for what he called the largest humanitarian crisis in decades.

The flooding, which began nearly a month ago, has killed about 1,600 people and has affected nearly 17 million, including millions whose homes and livelihoods have been washed away, according to U.N. and Pakistani officials' estimates.

Floodwaters, food shortages and displaced people living in cramped conditions have raised concerns about the outbreaks of diseases, including cholera.

The United Nations says it has raised only about 70 percent of its $460 million emergency appeal for Pakistan, where the devastation has been spreading as floodwaters move down the Indus River valley. The United States last week increased its aid pledge to $150 million and has been diverting helicopters and other military assets from Afghanistan to help with the flood relief.

Pakistan's government has been widely criticized for mounting a slow and ineffective response to the crisis. Meanwhile, militant Islamist groups have scored points among the locals for their relief efforts, analysts say.

"There are a lot of reports of extremist groups stepping up to provide aid," says Molly Kinder, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit research organization dedicated to reducing poverty.

Kinder, whose work focuses on the effectiveness of U.S. foreign aid, says the government of Pakistan "has clearly lost the war" in terms of winning credit for its relief efforts. "Even if the reports are exaggerated, the extremists have created the impression that they care about ordinary people," she says.

Groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is officially banned in Pakistan, set up small food distribution sites in flooded areas soon after the flooding began.

An 'Opportunity For Terrorists'?

At a special meeting of the U.N. General Assembly last week, Pakistan's foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, said the international community must help address the upheaval created by the floods.

"If we fail, it could undermine the hard-won gains made by the government in our difficult and painful war against terrorism. We cannot allow this catastrophe to become an opportunity for the terrorists," he said.

Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper reported Monday that the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government — previously known as the North-West Frontier Province — is cracking down on relief workers affiliated with outlawed terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India.

Vali Nasr, a senior advisor to the U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, says the real effect of any aid those groups provide is overstated. "Yes, the extremists show up," he says. "They basically set up a tent and take pictures, but they can't get meaningful amounts of food and supplies to the disaster areas."

Nasr says the extremists face the same problem as governments and aid groups face: getting aid to flood victims is a logistics problem and the militants don't have the means to solve it on a significant scale.

Jan Egeland, a former U.N. official who managed the international response to the Indian Ocean tsunami, says he thinks the benefit to violent groups has been exaggerated. For one thing, he says, disaster victims tend not to remember the providers of short-term aid.

After the tsunami and the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, he says, the U.S. military "found that they were enjoying rare moments of popularity because they performed very well. But for the U.S. military as for the violent groups, that popularity doesn't last."

Egeland, who now directs the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, says it is long-term aid that wins support, both for governments and for militant groups. "Many would say that the reason that Hamas is as strong as it is in Gaza ... is its long-term social services. If somebody gives you your daily bread, your education, your health service, then you do feel a kind of loyalty."

Who Gets The Credit?

Kinder says the aim of U.S. flood-relief aid in Pakistan should be to support the Pakistani government and have the government be seen as the long-term provider of help and services.

"Right now, it's the [Pakistani] military that's seen as being effective, and we have an interest in seeing that a civilian elected government is stronger than the military," she says.

Kinder says that is more important to U.S. interests than winning the goodwill or gratitude of the Pakistani people toward Americans.

"Do we really have to have an American flag on everything?" she asks. "Our interest is not whether we're winning the [public relations] war, but whether the Pakistani government is winning."

Nasr says that the Pakistani government hasn't performed as badly as many reports have claimed. One reason casualties have been relatively low in relation to the scale of the disaster, he says, is that evacuations were carried out effectively.

But as the flooding moves south, some reports say the humanitarian aid is not moving with it.

Daniyal Mueenuddin, a Pakistani writer who owns a mango farm in the flooded area, says most of the flood relief has been concentrated in the north, where the population is tends to have anti-Western views.

He says that is a short-sighted approach.

"We have been spared, thank God, the effects of the wars that have been going on, and so we are much more susceptible to being grateful if the West can step in and take care of us now," Mueenuddin told NPR's Morning Edition.

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