Rescuing Pakistan

The U.S.- Pakistan relationship is critical to American security interests and the fight against terrorism. It has also been marked in recent years by a jarring note of suspicion and distrust on both sides about the ultimate intentions of the other. U.S. officials have expressed increasing frustration with the Pakistani army's apparent unwillingness to go after Taliban insurgents based along the country's border with Afghanistan.

That's why the American response to one of Pakistan's worst-ever natural disasters is of such extraordinary importance.

Pakistan is a nuclear nation in one of the world's most volatile neighborhoods. It borders Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been engaged in combat for almost nine years in a mission that many Americans are finding increasingly difficult to justify. Pakistan is, of course, thought to be where Osama bin Laden is hiding. It is a place where Islamic extremists are gaining strength and where elements of the security forces are in league with those extremists. And it is a nation that has received about $9 billion in American aid over the past decade.

In the wake of massive flooding that has swept Pakistan this month, United Nations officials have called for $460 million in emergency aid from the international community, and so far the U.S. has been the largest donor. But will America's humanitarian response improve our image among the large segment of the population there that is increasingly hostile to a U.S. presence in the region?

American policymakers are hoping that it will, even though past experience suggests that any shift in attitudes may be short-lived. (Pakistanis responded warmly to U.S. relief efforts after an earthquake in 2005 killed tens of thousands, but the goodwill was largely ephemeral.) On the other hand, the U.S. can hardly stand by and do nothing. That would risk validating the claims of opponents who have charged all along that the U.S. is only interested in using Pakistan as a foil in its war on terror. It would also contradict our history and our values, not to mention the expectations of a world that still looks to the United States to lead the charge when disaster strikes, whether it's an earthquake in Haiti or tsunami in East Asia.

Geopolitics aside, the flooding that has struck Pakistan, while horrible to behold, is the type of disaster that often breeds its worst misery once the shocking images of submerged villages and overflowing rivers have become memories. More than 1,000 people are already dead, but without food and fresh water, millions of Pakistanis may be at risk of starvation, cholera and other diseases in the coming months. Over the longer term, the loss of millions of acres of cropland — as well as the destruction of huge amounts of stored food and livestock — could lead to massive food shortages, as well as widespread loss of unemployment in an economy that, despite the modernity of Pakistan's major cities, still relies to a large extent on agriculture.

This is a society that was already at high risk for instability. Now the potential for chaos would be difficult to overstate. The devastation unleashed by nature will no doubt work to the advantage of extremist forces (although nature in this case was abetted by an exceptionally inept and feckless Pakistani government response). The Taliban and like-minded groups will take advantage of Pakistan's misery to extend their influence — unless the world community, led by the United States, mounts a vigorous campaign of relief and reconstruction.