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In Pakistan floods, US military shows its softer side

In humanitarian role, US military tries to win over hearts and minds in Pakistan.

Pakistan floods
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Kingsbury (right) and Pakistani soldiers sit on the cargo bay ramp of a heavy-lift helicopter while looking down at a flooded area in Swat Valley, Aug. 10. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Moazzam Khan had been trapped for more than a week by rushing floodwaters until, to his eternal surprise, a U.S. military helicopter arrived to airlift him to safety.

Khan was one of scores of Pakistanis in Kalam, a town in the Swat valley, rescued by the United States military. Massive floods in Pakistan have affected almost one-fourth of the country over the last three weeks, killing more than 1,600 people and displacing millions. Swat, a scenic tourist area already suffering from military operations against the Taliban, is one of the worst hit regions.

Khan, along with everyone else, was in disbelief. For them, U.S. helicopters had always indicated imminent bombings, not an imminent rescue.

“I could not believe it until I saw a huge chopper parked in a sprawling ground, and several people, including myself, were asked to line up to get on board,” Khan, who owns a small fruit farm in Kalam, said.

More than 250 U.S. marines and naval personnel, using 15 military helicopters and seven civilian planes, are engaged in rescue and relief operations in different parts of flood-stricken Pakistan. It is a humanitarian mission the United States hopes can help improve its standing in a country deeply suspicious of any American military activity.

In its effort to win over hearts and minds here, the United States quickly offered $150 million in aid to flood victims in Pakistan, which has emerged as a key, if sometimes irksome, ally in the U.S. fight against Islamic extremism.

The donation by the United States prompted others in the international community, particularly Pakistan’s more traditional allies like China and Saudi Arabia, to also begin pouring aid into the country.

Chairman of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. James Mates, is also on a visit to flood-hit areas to assess the gravity of the disaster, which has so far affected more than 20 million people, aid groups say, and is the worst natural disaster in recent memory.

Tens of thousands of people, including tourists, remain trapped in and around Kalam and the rest of Swat, where the raging floods have washed away all the bridges.

Although the Pakistan Army has led the rescue operation in Swat valley, a region where fighting between Taliban militants and the Pakistani troops continues unabated, it has been unable to cope with the huge number of victims.

Khan and others marooned there sent several SOS messages to the army and government agencies, but the few Pakistan Army helicopters that reached them were not enough to transport all of those stranded.

“After a wait of one-and-half weeks, we were informed that we were going to be rescued,” Khan said. “I thought it would be a [Pakistan] Army helicopter but when I saw white-skinned, tall pilots and other staff welcoming us, I got confused for a moment.”