Alarm bells went off in Washington Thursday when the Pakistani media reported that USAID chief Rajiv Shah had visited a relief camp run by a group associated with terrorists. But according to the aid agency, that's simply not the case.
Pakistan's Dawn newspaper was the first to allege that Shah, who has been touring the flood-ravaged region, had stopped in the town of Sukkur Wednesday to drop off two trucks of emergency supplies in a relief camp supposedly run by Falah-i-Insaniat (FI), which it described as "the latest reincarnation of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian arm of the banned terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT)." The group is said to have longstanding ties to both Pakistan's main spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and al Qaeda.
Yahya Mujahid, the spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, reportedly claimed that the group distributed Shah's supplies. Dawn reported that the camp's entrance featured a large banner that read "Relief Camp -- Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation."
But Rick Snelsire, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, said in a statement that Shah visited the Double Session High School in Sukkur, where 1,200 Pakistanis displaced from their homes are seeking refuge. This school "is under the supervision of the government of Pakistan," noted Snelsire. "At no time during his visit did Dr. Shah encounter or meet with any members of a banned extremist organization."
Shah also announced another $50 million in U.S. disaster relief aid, bring the total U.S. commitment to Pakistan up to $200 million. The additional money will come from funds appropriated under the Kerry-Lugar-Berman Pakistani aid bill.
The incident highlights how the flood disaster has become a competition between Islamic charities and groups and the government of Pakistan, aided by the international community. Although the United States has been the largest international aid donor following the floods, there are few signs that Pakistanis' views of the United States have improved.
In an event at the Brookings Institution this week, retired general Jehangir Karamat, who served as chief of staff of the Pakistani Army and as ambassador to the United States, said that negative Pakistani media coverage was to blame.
"[W]hat happens between Pakistan and the U.S., the positive side doesn't come up in the media. The negative side comes up in the media, in discussion. And that takes over the whole discourse on U.S.-Pakistan relations," he said. "But I think in informed circles it's very much known what the U.S. is doing for Pakistan."
The Obama administration is quick to point out that the United States has actively engaged in relief efforts in Pakistan, including the dispersal of $1.5 billion in Kerry-Lugar funds. Officials point also to the bilateral Strategic Dialogue initiated in Washington earlier this year as evidence of improving ties between the two countries.
But although Shah is technically the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the flood area, the U.S. response is actually being coordinated by the office of Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the immediate aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, in contrast, USAID was formally in the lead, and the agency ran a "war room" to coordinate relief efforts across the U.S. government.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed that "responsibility would continue to rest with Richard Holbrooke" in managing the aid effort, adding that Shah continues to play a pivotal role.
The politics in Pakistan are more complex than in Haiti, however, and Holbrooke's office may be better positioned to manage the interagency effort this time around. The Pakistan aid effort "comes within a broader strategy in terms of the nature of our relationship with Pakistan, as well as supporting Pakistan in its own efforts to deal with the extremist elements within its borders," noted Crowley. "So our strategy with respect to Pakistan is broader than is the case with Haiti."
There is also a functioning government in Pakistan to work with, which was not the case in Haiti.
Holbrooke's aide Vali Nasr explained the value of using Holbrooke's team and relationships in Pakistan to spearhead the flood relief effort.
"The U.S. was able to react very quickly, largely because of the interagency teams that it has put together, especially in the SRAP -- the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan -- which has made for much more rapid turnaround to addressing these kinds of issues," Nasr said at Brookings.
UPDATE: The Washington Post reported that Shah bumped into the LET during his visit to Sukker. "U.S. officials said after Shah's visit that they had not been aware of the Islamist charity's role at the camp and that they have no control over which organizations helped when and where," the Post said.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.