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Rice Assesses Damage, Offers Aid in Pakistan

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

In Pakistan, the earthquake relief effort is ramping up. Yesterday's bad weather has passed, allowing badly needed supplies to start getting to the cities and towns where they're needed. The US has sent planes and helicopters to help, and has started reconnaissance flights to assess the damage. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a visit to Islamabad today to lend support and assess the need for future aid. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with the secretary and sent this report.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

The secretary's plane touched down in Islamabad's airport, where international relief workers were bringing in and shipping out supplies. Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, who's the US commander in Afghanistan, has been helping the Pakistanis coordinate the aid effort. He gave a brief update to Secretary Rice as helicopters hovered overhead.

Lieutenant General KARL EIKENBERRY: We're doing pretty good in mustering resources now. We've got five of these Chinooks on the ground.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): Right.

Lt. Gen. EIKENBERRY: We've got three of our Black Hawks.

KELEMEN: Rice met some of the 200 or so Americans working with General Eikenberry, and shook hands and posed for photos with Afghan doctors and helicopter pilots on their way to the worst-affected areas. In just over two hours, the secretary squeezed in meetings with Pakistan's president, prime minister and foreign minister.

Sec. RICE: The United States has, as many parts of the world have, been through natural disasters. This is one of epic proportions, and I just want the people of Pakistan to know that our thoughts are with you, that we will be with you in your hour of need and that we will be with you not just today, but also tomorrow as you try to rebuild.

KELEMEN: It was a hastily arranged visit for Rice, who was in the region already. Earlier in the day, she met in Kabul with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai to reassure that country of the US commitment four years after American-led forces toppled the Taliban regime. Washington has been eager to see NATO expand its force and mandate in Afghanistan. One official, speaking on background, said the US wants to be able to bring 3 to 4,000 American troops home in the coming months now that Afghanistan has gone through parliamentary and presidential elections. Rice didn't talk about downsizing, but said the US is always reviewing its troop strength in Afghanistan.

Sec. RICE: There is a reshuffling that is going on within the country as political and military conditions dictate and permit. But the United States will remain the lead in the coalition that is fighting terrorism as we have been since we, together with the Afghan people, participated in the liberation of Afghanistan.

KELEMEN: She used meetings in Kabul to press Karzai's government on its counternarcotics strategy. A top Afghan official quit recently, accusing government officials of being involved in the drug trade. Karzai tried to reassure Rice he's taking the issue seriously. He said the country's future is at stake.

President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): If we fight drugs, corruption, we will be a state respected and standing on our own feet. If we fail, we will fail as a state eventually and will fall back in the hands of terrorism.

KELEMEN: Karzai's public appearance in the garden of the presidential palace in Kabul was short on details, however. And despite all the talk of progress on the political front in Afghanistan, there was a stark reminder of the insecurity. There were two rocket attacks on buildings in Kabul and fresh violence in the south just before Secretary Rice arrived. After a day of crisscrossing the mountains of South and Central Asia, Secretary Rice landed in the steppes of Kazakhstan, an oil-rich nation she says could be a leader in the nation. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, with the secretary in Astana, Kazakhstan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.