Torrential rains continue to torment Pakistan, flooding one-fifth of the country and affecting 15 million to 20 million people.

Yet out of this human tragedy could come an opportunity for a much-needed improvement in U.S.-Pakistani relations. Alternatively, the flood could wash away any hopes for a 2011 drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan next door.

The floodwaters have created the greatest natural disaster in Pakistan’s history, causing massive refugee flows, destroying roads and bridges, and isolating large swaths of the country. Hardest hit is the northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, abutting Afghanistan, where the Pakistani army is battling jihadis. The disaster has also hit populous Punjab province, where militants have deep roots.

Pakistan’s civilian government is totally overwhelmed. Public rage is rising, not helped by President Asif Ali Zardari’s refusal to cancel a trip to Europe as the waters were rising. Symbolism matters, especially when the first groups to ostentatiously offer aid have been Islamic militants. Noted Pakistani journalist Imtiaz Ali says, “The militants are filling the void in tribal areas … where there is no governance at all.”

The United States has already pledged $72 million in aid, by far the largest international donation, and sent desperately needed helicopters. In principle, the United States is in a position to replicate the “Chinook diplomacy” that created immense goodwill toward America in 2005, when the U.S. conducted a massive helicopter airlift after an earthquake in Pakistani Kashmir. Such goodwill is sadly lacking at a time when the United States needs more Pakistani cooperation to close off havens for Afghan militants in Pakistan.

According to a recent Pew poll, only 17 percent of Pakistanis surveyed had a favorable opinion of the United States. Despite the recent long-term commitment of $7.5 billion in U.S. civilian assistance, 48 percent of Pakistanis polled believed America gives them little or no aid.

Why? The United States usually lets Pakistan take credit for U.S. aid projects for two reasons: first, U.S. officials want to bolster the legitimacy of the country’s elected government; second, widespread anti-Americanism makes some Pakistani officials reluctant to be linked to U.S. funding.

But Pakistan’s reluctance to openly welcome U.S. aid has backfired in the past. In 2009, the Pakistani military bluntly rejected Chinook diplomacy, which could have helped 500,000 refugees who had fled the Swat Valley as Pakistani forces battled militants based there. Neither the military nor the civilian government had the resources or capacity to rebuild infrastructure wrecked by fighting in Swat and other tribal areas. That fostered public anger and joblessness that could pave the way for the militants to return.

Now Swat has been devastated again, by floods. What private reconstruction had been undertaken has been wiped out. The entire country is at risk of economic collapse.

Once again Pakistani officials face a choice. Their people are desperate for help the government can’t provide. A failure to offer such assistance could provoke massive civil unrest.

In this situation, the United States is best placed to provide swift help (in coordination with capable Pakistani private aid groups) and to facilitate lagging international aid. U.S. help will also be critical for reconstruction. But the Taliban — and some Pakistani pols and media — demand that their government reject U.S. aid.

This time, however, Pakistan’s civilian leadership recognizes the need for Chinook diplomacy, and the Pakistani military appears to have signed on. The United States temporarily reassigned four Chinook and two Black Hawk helicopters from Afghanistan. Now, 19 heavy-lift helicopters (along with 1,000 Marines) have arrived on the USS Peleliu, docked in Karachi.

Perhaps Pakistan officials took a closer look at the Pew poll: 64 percent of Pakistanis surveyed said they want better relations with the United States. And 65 percent had an unfavorable view of the Taliban.

Now is the time for Pakistan and the United States to join forces to surmount this crisis. Pakistanis must be made fully aware of U.S. aid, and U.S. officials should not hesitate to publicize their role.

The best hope for overcoming this disaster — and defeating al-Qaeda and its allies — is for Pakistan and the United States to work in tandem. If the two countries can’t publicly cooperate in the midst of a natural catastrophe, there is no hope at all.

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