The rains that have for the past two weeks caused the worst flooding in northwest Pakistan in eight decades have shifted attention from the country's battle against insurgency and militancy and the fragility of its relationship with the United States. As the monsoon rains move south, numerous roads, bridges and dams have been damaged. Crops have been destroyed. It is likely that next year's crops will not be planted. Yet amid all this destruction are reasons for optimism.
Rapid U.S. action to support Pakistan's relief efforts may help improve America's image among a population that generally resents the United States. Washington's $55 million aid pledge makes it the largest donor among the international community. U.S. Chinooks -- seen as angels of mercy after the 2005 earthquake -- are helping Pakistanis over flood-ravaged mountains and plains, and represent both U.S. ability to help Pakistanis and the Pakistani military's willingness to work with its U.S. counterparts. This collaboration will go a long way toward building relationships among rank-and-file service members. The head of Pakistan's air force is visiting the United States this week to see joint air exercises in Nevada. Such encounters will educate people and help both countries dispel false notions about each other.
Although much has been made of the negative findings in the July 29 Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, there are underlying signs of hope. Pew found that 68 percent of Pakistanis view the United States unfavorably and that 59 percent of respondents classify it as an enemy. But little has been said about the 64 percent of Pakistanis who consider it important to improve relations with the United States. This is an opportunity for both countries to increase public understanding. A Gallup poll of U.S. perceptions about 20 nations released in February showed that only 23 percent of Americans viewed Pakistan favorably. But while Americans 55 and older accounted for just 17 percent of the favorable ratings, it was heartening that Americans ages 18 to 34 accounted for 34 percent. There may be an opportunity to connect American and Pakistani youth and help them move past the entrenched narratives that have long driven policy decisions in both countries.
The U.S. and Pakistani narratives of each other's actions have diverged since Pakistan became a nation 63 years ago. By these tellings, Pakistan has shifted from the "most allied of allies" to a pariah state that was the target of U.S. sanctions. Much has been made of Pakistan's havens for terrorists; the country has been called a terrorist state in danger of being a failed state. Many in the United States see Pakistanis as duplicitous; they point to President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq lying in the 1980s, when he denied that Pakistan was enriching uranium to build a bomb to keep up with historic rival India. Yet in the Pakistani view, the United States is a fickle ally, in contrast to China, which has been an "all-weather" friend. Pakistanis' assessment is that Washington believed Zia's untruth because it needed Pakistan's support to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan -- further proof of Americans favoring transactional, fair-weather relationships.
The Obama administration and Congress have outlined a longer-term aid program under legislation sponsored by Sens. John F. Kerry and Richard Lugar and Rep. Howard Berman. The State Department map of the aid program shows projects all over Pakistan, which will help underscore that the aid is not only for the Afghan border region but is spread throughout the country and is for projects that meet the urgent needs of the people. Indeed, some of the disaster relief is now likely to be funded by the Kerry-Lugar-Berman legislation. But urgent and concentrated U.S. efforts must be made to reassess and restructure that project in light of the floods. The flow of funds must be speeded up. The true test of these plans ultimately will be in Pakistan -- in their implementation and in the political actions by its government and opposition parties to come together to help the millions of displaced and homeless flood victims.
To reconstruct damaged homes and infrastructure and help its people recover, Pakistan will require enormous aid -- not just from the United States and Europe but also from Muslim nations and its neighbors. Meanwhile, the battle against the homegrown insurgency and militancy that threaten Pakistan's polity rages on. Even as Washington focuses on leaving Afghanistan, it must not lose sight of Pakistan's long-term civil and military needs -- not just for short-term gain but in an effort to build a lasting relationship. To help change the long-entrenched story, Washington and Islamabad need to display consistent behavior. Trust must be built on mutual understanding and equally beneficial actions.
Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council and author of the center's recent report "Pakistan in the Danger Zone: A Tenuous US-Pakistan Relationship.