NEW DELHI, India—These recent months, the world seems heavy with natural disasters. Here in Asia, I’ve been feeling weighed down by all the tragedy and almost worn out by images of people scrabbling beneath the rubble. There’s a temptation to metaphorically change the channel, conclude that nature is terrible, and go on to other things. But natural disasters are also always political. In the case of the South Asian earthquake, it took only a day or two for the disaster to lay bare the political fault lines of the troubled region. Now, as the death toll balloons toward 30,000, and rescuers struggle to get tents and blankets and high-energy biscuits to victims in remote areas, politicians in Delhi, Islamabad, and Washington pick at their own sores.
The vast majority of the quake’s destruction was in the small, resource-poor villages that are dotted through the breathtakingly beautiful mountains of Pakistani-held Kashmir. Across the Line of Control, which divides Pakistan from its nuclear rival, the mountain villages look the same—clusters of stone and mud houses where goats chomp on mountain flowers—and the Kashmiri people look the same—fine-featured and weathered by the harsh Himalayan sun—but their government is India. These villages were also hit, though not nearly as badly. Just over 1,000 people are reported dead so far on the Indian side.
But on both sides of the border, many villagers still wait, in the hailstorms and rain, in the rubble of their houses, for medical help and food. Neither the Pakistani nor the Indian armies have been able to reach all the remotest areas.
The way those deficiencies have played out on the official level is telling. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf continues to make emotional appeals for the world’s assistance. He gratefully accepted the U.S. offer of $50 million—and then asked for more. India’s defense minister, meanwhile, reportedly told Donald Rumsfeld that we don’t need American help, thanks very much—and by the way, we may have been hit, but we are sending planeloads of aid to Pakistan. India is a proud and ambitious nation, and although it did accept Washington’s initial offer of $100,000, it refuses to allow international groups to come in and help with the relief effort, just as it did after the December tsunami hit its southern shore.
The United States is walking a careful line in this nuclear neighborhood. It has a lot staked on South Asia, and especially on Pakistan, which the Bush administration always calls a “key ally in the war on terror.” U.S. officials believe that Osama Bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders may be hiding in the very mountains of northwest Pakistan where the quake struck. So, the Bush administration fast-tracked its response to the earthquake—eager to prove its loyalty to a key ally in its time of need and aware that its slow response to the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina hadn’t been good for ratings. The day after the quake, President Bush called President Musharraf to ask what he could do.
Four days later, the United States diverted eight helicopters from military operations in neighboring Afghanistan to ferry the injured to hospitals in Islamabad. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made an unscheduled stop in Pakistan at the end of her Central Asian tour, and she promised two dozen more helicopters in the next few days. Secretary Rice took pains to emphasize that the United States is with Pakistan for the long term. She’s aware that Washington has a lot of work to do in Pakistan—and next door in Afghanistan—to win back trust. In Kabul this week, Rice acknowledged that the U.S. abandonment of the region in 1989, after Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, was bad for everyone, including America. (In the years of civil war and chaos that followed, al-Qaida gathered strength.) But it will take more than that acknowledgement to get the Afghan and Pakistani people back on Washington’s side. The Bush administration is probably betting that pictures of U.S. soldiers carrying injured earthquake victims to hospitals will improve their image in the region—especially in the holy month of Ramadan.
After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, both Pakistan and India sent aid to the United States. As much as people here were saddened by the destruction, you could almost hear Indian and Pakistani politicians cackling at the irony of it—the world’s No. 1 superpower looking like a developing country. In fact, New Orleans looked worse, in some shots, than did Bombay after this summer’s horrific floods or Sri Lanka after the tsunami. In fact, tiny Sri Lanka, which received a massive $2 billion from the international community after the tsunami, was so moved by those images that it donated $25,000 to the U.S. hurricane-relief effort. Third World aid to America can’t but be loaded with meaning. The same goes for America’s aid to Pakistan and India—it’s a recognition of the strategic importance of the region, an apology, an IOU slip, and a push for peace between old foes India and Pakistan.
Immediately after the quake, political leaders on both sides of the Line of Control started calling for a cease-fire between India and Pakistan. Just as, after the tsunami, many hoped the tragedy would act as a unifying force in Indonesia and Sri Lanka—both racked for decades by civil wars—analysts here hoped the natural disaster would spur some political soul-searching, or at least some cooperation across the border.
But the tsunami only sharpened Sri Lanka’s divisions. And this week, analysts in Pakistan and India have been disappointed by the lack of unity in providing aid. Pakistan fiercely denied reports from India that Indian soldiers crossed the Line of Control to help Pakistani solders rebuild their bunkers. India’s first planeload of relief supplies to Pakistan was initially turned away at the Islamabad airport, though it was later accepted. And Kashmiris on the Indian side complain that the Indian government won’t let them cross over the border to see if their relatives on the Pakistani side are alive.
As the first, tragic week after the earthquake draws to a close, it doesn’t look like the disaster will spur a sudden push toward peace. So, Washington is trying not to step on too many toes in rather prickly India by offering too much aid, and being careful not to appear too absent in rather needy Pakistan by not offering enough.