WASHINGTON - The United States pledged Wednesday a major effort to help millions hit by epic floods in Pakistan while also hoping to boost Washington's image there as the country's fragile government struggles with the crisis.
Experts said the disaster gave the Obama administration a rare chance to help reverse negative opinion of the U.S. role in the region, and also was an effort to counter extremist attempts to take advantage of the chaos caused by the floods.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Islamabad could count on U.S. help following floods that have already killed more than 1,400 people and displaced millions.
"They can look to the United States for our support," she said. "We have been working hard over the past year to build a partnership with the people of Pakistan and this is an essential element of that partnership."
U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke said Washington was also seeking to mobilize other nations to help in relief efforts.
"In the midst of so many other challenges, Pakistan now confronts another major natural disaster. The United States is responding rapidly," Holbrooke told Reuters.
South Asia expert Christine Fair, who has just returned from Pakistan, urged Washington to be unlimited in its response to the floods.
"But we should just be doing it to help people and not spin it. When aid is seen as being instrumentalized, it undercuts the whole value of the assistance," said Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University.
Washington's response, which includes $10 million in initial aid as well as helicopters, temporary bridges, food, generators and water, comes amid growing impatience over President Asif Ali Zardari's absence from Pakistan during the crisis.
Zardari went ahead with a state visit to Europe, leaving behind his civilian government and the powerful military to respond to the disaster as extremists continued their attacks.
"The fact that President Zardari is in a five-star hotel in London while his country drowns is a compelling picture," said Michael Krepon, a South Asia expert with the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank.
A senior U.S. official sought to play down concerns about Zardari not being in the country, saying the prime minister was focused on the crisis and there was not a vacuum.
"The key is how the government responds and we are doing everything we can to help," the U.S. official said.
CLINTON CRITICIZES EXTREMISTS
The military has taken the lead in dealing with relief efforts but it also is tackling Taliban militants who have continued their attacks despite the floods. On Wednesday, a suicide bomb killed a police officer in Peshawar.
"Violence like this is abhorrent at any time but especially at this time of crisis for the Pakistani people," Clinton said of the attack.
The United States is seeking closer cooperation from Pakistan in tracking down Taliban and al Qaeda leaders and in stabilizing neighboring Afghanistan.
Islamist charities, some tied to militant groups allied with the Taliban and al Qaeda, are competing with the government to give aid, possibly boosting their credibility.
Asked whether Washington was concerned about the role of Islamist charities, the head of the U.S. government's lead development agency said he saw Washington as a key player.
"We believe we are fueling the major part of this response and providing services and trying to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of people at a critical time," said Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
After the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan when Washington was quick to respond, opinion polls showed an improvement in attitudes toward the United States despite disapproval for the war in Iraq and other policies.
Brian Katulis, a Pakistan expert at the Center for American Progress, said the disaster was an opportunity for Washington to use its assistance to show the Pakistani people that it had "more than a transactional relationship" that dealt largely with security issues.
"Given all the baggage it is a very hard message to communicate verbally but this presents an opportunity to actually demonstrate that support to the Pakistani people," he said.