- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2005

The highly visible U.S. role in Pakistan’s earthquake-relief efforts could improve popular attitudes toward America in the region, just as U.S. aid after the tsunami produced a sharp pro-U.S. swing in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries.

As with the tsunami-relief effort, it was U.S. military helicopters and C-17 cargo planes yesterday that began delivering and distributing much of the international aid flooding into the region. President Bush has pledged an initial $50 million to aid victims of Saturday’s quake in Pakistan.

“I think [U.S. aid] will definitely have an impact, especially at the popular level,” said S. Azmat Hassan, a career Pakistani diplomat who now teaches at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

“Government-to-government relations between Pakistan and Washington have been good since September 11, but public opinion until now has been a very different matter,” he added.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a tour of Central Asia, told reporters she was considering a side trip to Pakistan to underscore U.S. concern.

“I want to be very clear to the Pakistani people that the American people stand with them,” she said.

Analysts expect Saturday’s quake to have a number of political aftershocks, affecting everything from Pakistan’s nuclear standoff with India to the hunt for al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a U.S. ally in the global war on terror, also faces a delicate time. A botched domestic response to the tragedy could produce profound political change, as happened after the Armenian earthquake of 1988 in the Soviet Union and the 1999 earthquake in Turkey.

News reports from the region say survivors in both Pakistan and India are already complaining of sluggish relief efforts.

In India-controlled Kashmir, angry villagers blocked a key supply road for nearly an hour to protest the government’s tardy response.

In the South Asian tsunami that struck Dec. 26, diplomats said the media images of U.S. soldiers and sailors distributing aid to stricken areas gave a much-needed boost to America’s image in the region.

In heavily Muslim Indonesia, for example, just 15 percent of the population held a favorable view of U.S. foreign policy in 2003, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The numbers reflected in large part opposition to the war in Iraq and strong U.S. backing for Israel.

But a Pew survey this year found that favorable views of the United States had more than doubled to 38 percent. About 79 percent of Indonesians polled said the U.S. response had improved their feelings toward America.

U.S. officials face a similar public diplomacy challenge in Pakistan.

Just 23 percent of Pakistanis polled earlier this year had a favorable opinion of the United States, while 51 percent of Pakistanis said they would “have confidence” in bin Laden as a world leader.

The quake has fired speculation about the fate of bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, widely believed to be hiding out near the Afghan border. But Pentagon officials said yesterday there was no evidence that bin Laden or his associates had been harmed.

Indian analysts speculated that the quake could enhance a thaw between their country and Pakistan, much as the 1999 Turkish quake revolutionized relations with Greece.

Pakistani officials said they would accept an Indian offer of 25 tons of food and humanitarian aid, but drew the line at allowing Indian forces across the border or organizing joint relief teams in the disputed Kashmir region.

Abraham Rabinovich in Jerusalem contributed to this report.



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