Pakistan needs help.  President Asif Ali Zardari and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, who were publicly urged last month by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to “recognize the real threats to their country,” have sent a considerable military force to staunch the spreading extremist threat in the Swat region near Afghanistan.

But now they are struggling to cope with a reported exodus of over one million Pakistanis – perhaps the largest in the troubled nation’s history after the flood of refugees at the time of independence – who want to escape the fighting.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently warned:  “This is a huge and rapidly unfolding emergency which is going to require considerable resources beyond those that currently exist in the region.”

Pakistan has begun to put together an official relief effort, but it is hampered by a lack of financing and equipment.  If Pakistan’s leadership fails to provide timely relief to the internally displaced population, it almost certainly will suffer a serious backlash of public resentment.  Ironically, this might accomplish the very destabilization of central authority that the Islamist militants and their Al Qaeda associates hope for – and that the United States and its NATO Allies want to prevent.

But what can NATO do?  History suggests that it can do a lot and rapidly.  Moreover, a broad-based NATO support may be politically more palatable than any single-country relief effort in Pakistan.

In October 2005, when Pakistan requested NATO assistance to deal with a devastating earthquake, the Alliance needed only three days to activate its NATO Response Force (NRF) and begin a major airlift of relief supplies.  NATO engineering and medical units and heavy lift helicopters soon followed.  By February 2006, NATO’s “air bridge” of 168 flights had delivered nearly 3,500 tons of aid, its engineers had repaired essential roads and shelters and its doctors had treated over 8,000 patients, often in remote villages.

The 17-week operation, which involved about 1,200 Allied military personnel, opened the door to political dialogue as well: over the next year, high-level NATO and Pakistani officials exchanged their first-ever visits, Pakistani military officers and civilians attended a NATO school in Germany and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Pakistan and Afghanistan opened a joint intelligence operations center in Kabul.  Last year, General Kayani visited NATO headquarters and spoke about the regional dimensions of Pakistan’s security concerns.

NATO’s stake in Pakistan has steadily increased since its earthquake relief operation.  Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan’s western territories have fueled the growing insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan, producing a virtual stalemate there with ISAF and Afghan army forces, and NATO supply routes through Pakistan are under attack.  Allied leaders first acknowledged the need for a regional approach during their April 2008 Bucharest Summit, but faced with mounting violence, they were more explicit at last month’s Strasbourg-Kehl Summit, warning: “[E]xtremists in Pakistan especially in western areas and insurgency in Afghanistan undermine security and stability in both countries and … the problems are deeply intertwined.”

A NATO combat role inside Pakistan is simply inconceivable, but many of the capabilities employed by the Alliance in the earthquake’s aftermath would be relevant today.  The NRF has a readily available air component, now under UK command, that could recreate the 2005-6 air bridge to deliver the tents, field hospitals and medical and other supplies donated by Allies, Partners, international aid agencies and non-government organizations.  A prominent British role in the NATO mission would be quite acceptable to the Pakistani leadership and public, given long ties between Pakistan and the United Kingdom.  Theater air assets, both fixed wing and helicopters, could help with distribution within Pakistan.  The NRF land component, now under French command, could deploy engineer units and medical personnel to work directly with the displaced persons.

As was the case after the earthquake, NATO would work in support of Pakistan’s military and civilian authorities and in coordination with the UN, European Commission and other international donors.  Thus, the Alliance would operationalize the “comprehensive approach” (NATO-speak for the effective combination of civilian and military capabilities in a “whole of government” effort) agreed in its Declaration on Alliance Security at Strasbourg-Kehl.

To be sure, even a limited operation of two to three months would be costly.  Some of the Allies involved in the post-earthquake effort complained bitterly at the time about the lack of NATO common funding for their NRF role.  NATO needs to take urgent action to alleviate that problem – for now, common funding covers only the fuel of NRF air assets – but costs cannot be a show-stopper.  Providing security for the NATO personnel would be another important consideration, but with careful planning and reasonable cooperation from the Pakistani military, this need not be an insuperable obstacle.  (NATO personnel were generally well-received by the population in 2005-6.)

On the other hand, beyond the inherent moral value of humanitarian relief, the strategic impact of demonstrating NATO’s willingness to once again extend a hand to a Muslim population that is voting with its feet against extremist domination should not be underestimated.  Think about winning “hearts and minds.”

NATO’s top decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, would have to agree by consensus on any Alliance involvement.   As a first step, the Council presumably would need an expeditious assessment by its military and civilian staffs of the risks, costs and benefits of such involvement.  But the Council will not ask for such an assessment absent an official request for assistance by Pakistan.

Will someone in Islamabad pick up the phone?

Leo Michel is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies.  These are his personal views.  Shuja Nawaz is Director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. 

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