US envoy talks up American aid in first visit to Pakistan following deadly floods

MAKLI, Pakistan (AP) — The U.S. special envoy to Pakistan sought to highlight Washington's aid efforts Wednesday during his first visit since massive floods devastated one of America's most important allies in the war against militancy.

Richard Holbrooke stressed that U.S. support is focused on saving lives, rather than winning hearts and minds or pushing Pakistan to step up operations against al-Qaida and the Taliban. He peppered his visits to two relief camps in southern Pakistan with reminders of just how much the U.S. has done.

"Our country has donated the most money and the most helicopters," Holbrooke told a local official during a briefing at a relief camp run by the Pakistani army in a small cricket stadium in the Makli area of Sindh province.

"We do it through the international organizations, so it may not be as visible, but it is very big," said Holbrooke, who wore a baseball cap for most of the visit that said "USAID: From The American People" — a reference to the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Other senior U.S. officials have also stressed that the flood relief is purely humanitarian. But even before the disaster hit, the U.S. was looking for ways to improve its image in Pakistan, a country where anti-American sentiment is pervasive despite spending billions of dollars in aid.

The U.S. has donated more than $260 million for flood relief and has provided 18 military helicopters to evacuate people and deliver food and supplies. It has also provided water purification kits and deployed mobile medical teams to help prevent the spread of disease.

But the scale of the disaster, which has killed more than 1,700 people and affected more than 18 million others, has overwhelmed both the international community and the Pakistani government.

Manzoor Ali Shaikh, the top official in Thatta, the district where Makli is located, told Holbrooke that he needs more food, water and shelter for the 500,000 displaced people camping out in his area. He also warned that the lack of proper sanitation was a "time bomb" of disease waiting to explode.

The floods first struck at the end of July following extremely heavy monsoon rains in the northwest. The floodwaters surged down the Indus River, submerging one-fifth of Pakistan at their peak — an area larger than England. More than 1.8 million houses have been damaged or destroyed, and at least 6 million people require urgent assistance to survive the next few months.

"My home was made of mud and bamboo, and it was totally washed way along with everything in it," flood victim Bachal Lashari told Holbrooke. "I need money so that I can travel to my village and start over," he said as he wove a traditional Pakistani bed in his tent at the relief camp.

Lashari and many of the other members of the camp fled from the area around Sujawal, a town of some 250,000 that was almost completely flooded at the end of August. Holbrooke swooped over the town in his helicopter as he made his way to the relief camp from the southern city of Karachi.

Much of the land for miles around Sujawal and Makli is still flooded, and it could take up to six months for the water to fully recede, said Shaikh, the local official. That means tens of thousands of people are going to remain dependent on the government and international groups for food, water and shelter.

The U.S. provided similar assistance when Pakistan was hit by a huge earthquake in 2005 that killed more than 80,000 people. That aid briefly helped boost public opinion of the U.S., but it has since declined, and 59 percent of the population now views the U.S. as an enemy, according to a recent Pew Research poll.

The flood relief could help improve the opinion of the U.S., but Washington has competition from Islamist charities that are also distributing aid. The area around the cricket stadium Holbrooke visited contained a camp run by Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamic political party known for its anti-American views.

Holbrooke made an unscheduled stop at a camp run by Saudi Arabia as he made his way back to his helicopter from the cricket stadium. He briefly chatted with Faiz Mohammed, a farmer who fled Sujawal along with his wife and six children. At the end of the discussion, Holbrooke asked if Mohammed knew where they were from.

Mohammed shook his head, and Holbrooke said, "We are from America, and we are here to help you."