I've written about the follies of foreign aid and derided the UN for calling America "stingy", and the recent devestating earthquake in Pakistan has provided America with yet another opportunity to prove our critics wrong.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan--From the air, the town of Balakot, at the lip of the Kaghan Valley in Pakistan's mountainous North-West Frontier Province, resembles pictures of Hiroshima circa late summer 1945: All but a few buildings have been reduced absolutely to rubble. There were some 50,000 people in this town on the morning of Oct. 8; a six-second earthquake that day killed an estimated 16,000 outright. Now survivors live mainly in scattered tent villages, not all of them properly winterized. And winter has begun.
The people of Balakot and dozens of other devastated towns are much on the mind of Rear Adm. Michael A. LeFever, 51, the man in charge of the U.S. military's 1,000-man, $110 million-and-counting relief effort here. "I'll never forget landing and smelling gangrene and smelling death," he says of his first trip to the disaster zone where 73,000 died. "The first couple of days were overwhelming."
It was Pakistan's good fortune in those critical days that Adm. LeFever could call in heavy-lift helicopters, particularly the tandem-rotor Chinook, from bases in nearby Afghanistan. Every road into the Frontier Province and the neighboring Azad Kashmir region had been rendered impassable by huge landslides. Every hospital in the region except one had been destroyed. The Pakistan government, which lost nearly its entire civil administration in the region as well as hundreds of soldiers, lacked the airlift capacity to bring adequate relief north and the critically injured south. The Chinooks were among the few helicopters able to reach, supply and evacuate places that, even under normal conditions, are some of the most inaccessible on earth.
Since then, U.S. helicopters have flown 2,500 sorties, carried 16,000 passengers and delivered nearly 6,000 tons of aid. Just as importantly, the Chinook has become America's new emblem in Pakistan, a byword for salvation in an area where until recently the U.S. was widely and fanatically detested. Toy Chinooks (made in China, of course) are suddenly popular with Pakistani children. A Kashmiri imam who denounced the U.S. in a recent sermon was booed and heckled by worshippers. "Pakistan is not a nation of ingrates," a local businessman told me over dinner the other night. "We know where the help is coming from."
The American military is one of the greatest forces for good in the world at this moment, perhaps second only to Christianity.