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NATO Faces Challenge in Pakistan Earthquake Response

16 November 2005

"But we have already made a difference," U.S. diplomat says in webchat

By Vince Crawley
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- NATO faces extreme challenges and high costs in rushing humanitarian aid to earthquake-devastated Pakistan, but a U.S. diplomat says the alliance quickly is gaining experience and is starting talks possibly to extend the emergency mission beyond January 2006.

“NATO will learn lessons from this experience, but we have already made a difference,” John M. Koenig, deputy chief of the U.S. Mission to NATO, said in a State Department-sponsored Internet discussion November 16 from the alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.  During the one-hour discussion, Koenig responded to uncensored questions from the public in several countries.

The October 8 earthquake in South Asia killed at least 74,000 and affected at least 3 million people, many in Pakistani Kashmir. The Pakistan government on October 10 formally requested disaster assistance from the 26-nation NATO military alliance. Within a day, NATO agreed to build an air bridge to Islamabad, Pakistan, to begin airlifting emergency supplies from Germany and Turkey. As of November 16, NATO was coordinating military relief efforts for 41 nations that are either alliance members or partners.

Koenig said that NATO’s military forces have little experience in large-scale emergency humanitarian operations. But he also said the alliance has been able to use its newly created rapid-reaction force to deploy personnel to some of the world’s most forbidding terrain more than 2,735 kilometers from easternmost borders of NATO-member nations.

Asked if the Pakistan effort “is a harder mission than NATO expected,” Koenig replied, “The simple answer is ‘yes.’”

“Given the distance to Pakistan and the need to transport not just relief supplies but also heavy equipment and helicopters, this has been a learning experience for the alliance. The cost is also high – millions and millions of dollars,” he said.

Koenig noted that “the alliance does not have much experience in providing humanitarian emergency relief.” Hurricane Katrina, which stuck the Gulf Coast of the United States in August, “was the first time NATO got involved in this important area of work,” he said.  At the request of the United States, the alliance in September and early October sent 12 cargo planes to Little Rock Air Base in Arkansas, carrying 189 tons of relief goods donated by European allies for U.S. hurricane victims.

The earthquake relief effort is significantly larger, with more than 80 long-range relief flights to Pakistan delivering nearly 2,000 tons of cargo, including 11,000 all-weather tents and more than 125,000 blankets and 2,000 stoves. In addition, NATO nations have sent dozens of helicopters to help rescue victims and bring supplies to isolated mountain regions where authorities are racing against the rapid approach of winter.

“Allies recognize that we need to be prepared to respond when the need is great, as on Gulf Coast and in Pakistan,” Koenig said, “but we are still adjusting to the demands this places on alliance forces and resources.”

For more information on the earthquake and its aftermath, see U.S. Response to Earthquake in South Asia.

ALLIANCE WORKING ON FOUR CONTINENTS

At the same time, the military alliance also is committed heavily to security and peacekeeping duties in nearby Afghanistan, is fielding a military training mission in Iraq and has helped transport peacekeepers in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“This fall, NATO has been operationally deployed on four continents in missions ranging from disaster response, as in the U.S. and Pakistan, to peacekeeping, training and counter-terrorism,” Koenig said.

As of November 16, more than 300 NATO personnel were in Pakistan, including engineers and medical units. The number is expected soon to reach more than 1,000 with the arrival of troops from Poland, Italy and Spain. The Netherlands also has provided a medical unit. In addition, some NATO nations have contributed personnel and equipment on a bilateral basis. For example, the United States has deployed more than 1,000 military personnel, two-dozen helicopters and two large medical teams that each number more than 200 troops.

One of NATO’s key contributions, Koenig said, has been to airlift emergency supplies donated by countries as well as by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

“On the ground, we are working with the Pakistanis to clear roads and set up camps and hospitals,” he said.

Koenig stressed that NATO forces are in Pakistan at the request of the Pakistan government. The current mission expires in January 2006, 90 days after the initial request for assistance.

“The NATO mission can be extended at the request of the Pakistan government,” he said. “We discussed this issue at a meeting of NATO ambassadors this morning and are going to reach out to the authorities in Islamabad to learn more clearly what they need, including whether NATO should plan to stay on beyond 90 days.”

Koenig said the alliance was able to start airlifting urgently needed supplies very soon after Pakistan’s initial request. “But as you know, the need is for more than just relief supplies alone and will last into the winter, at least,” Koenig said. “So one of the challenges that NATO is facing right now is how to sustain the effort for several months in line with Pakistan’s evolving priorities and needs.”

He was also asked if the Pakistan mission foreshadows future relief work in areas far from the traditional boundaries of NATO nations.

“While NATO might be called upon to assist in further disaster-response operations – indeed, that is what we at NATO headquarters expect – our central mission remains ensuring the security of allied nations and people,” Koenig said.

“Over the years, as the challenges confronting allies have change – from Cold War threats to ethnic cleansing in Southeast Europe and now terrorism and WMD [weapons of mass destruction] proliferation – NATO has transformed to meet them. We want that to continue.”

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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