MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Pakistan, a massive international relief effort is underway to help victims of devastating floods. The U.S. is donating $55 million along with relief supplies and assistance. But help has been slow to reach millions of people affected by the flooding, and now there are concerns among U.S. officials that hard-line Islamist groups are capitalizing on the tragedy.
NPR's Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM: The floods, which have ravaged many parts of Pakistan, are being called the country's worst ever natural disaster. The crisis has affected some 14 million people. At least 1,500 people have died and thousands forced to flee their homes.
Bad weather has hampered efforts to get aid into the stricken areas, says Mark Ward, the Obama administration's point person on international disaster relief. Ward says even helicopters used to shuttle in aid packages and run rescue missions have often had difficulty taking off.
Mr. MARK WARD (Acting Director, Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, USAID): The real problem has been the rain. None of us have been able to be as visible and get the access that we wanted because everything's been grounded. The only way we've been able to get anything around these isolated communities is by four-wheel drive and mules.
NORTHAM: The hardest hit areas are in the northwest of the country, where the Taliban and al-Qaida have strongholds. That's also been the most difficult area for Pakistani and international relief workers to reach.
The Pakistani government is being criticized for its slow and seemingly ineffective response to the crisis; criticism that was compounded when Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari went ahead with a European tour despite the unfolding disaster back home.
Thomas Johnson, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, says charitable organizations associated with militant Islamist groups have capitalized on the situation, providing food and shelter to people in need.
Professor THOMAS JOHNSON (National Security Affairs Department, Naval Postgraduate School): The government was very slow in responding, the army was criticized for not being able to mobilize their people fast enough, and in some very volatile areas. So the Islamists have been taking advantage of this by trying to fill the gaps that the government have not been able to meet.
NORTHAM: At least one of the Islamist groups providing relief to flood victims is associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization responsible for the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. Johnson says the radical group has charity networks already set up in parts of the country. Disaster relief coordinator Mark Ward says that's helped them respond quickly.
Mr. WARD: While it may be true that some terrorist groups have been providing some support, my guess is it's because they were already there. They haven't had any better luck with access than anybody else. But if they were already in those communities, then that's probably why they were able to act fairly quickly.
NORTHAM: Naval Postgraduate School Professor Johnson says the Islamist groups will likely use the opportunity to feed flood victims' anger against the government.
Prof. JOHNSON: If you had hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people that have been displaced, and whenever there are internally displaced people, the Taliban and other Islamists have been able to take advantage of this in trying to influence their behavior and their world outlook.
NORTHAM: Christine Parthemore, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, says the devastating floods in Pakistan represent more than just a humanitarian problem.
Ms. CHRISTINE PARTHEMORE (Fellow, Center for a New American Security): It's inherently a security concern just based on our troops in the region, our goals in the region, our work with allies like India in the region. Anything that destabilizes Pakistan or affects its government's ability to keep control of the country has enormous stakes for the United States on the security side.
NORTHAM: The international relief effort for Pakistan is picking up. More countries are donating money and resources as the rains there continue.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.