During a stop at Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace, left, had lunch with soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division of Fort Drum, N.Y.

During a stop at Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace, left, had lunch with soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division of Fort Drum, N.Y. (Anita Powell / S&S)

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan — Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Peter Pace made his first-ever visit to Pakistan this week to meet with top civilian and military leaders and to visit the site of October’s devastating earthquake.

Pace’s visit was a prelude to the withdrawal of all American military forces sent to Pakistan to participate in the earthquake relief effort. The final group of American airmen, Marines, sailors and soldiers are scheduled to complete operations at the end of this month.

“I wanted to visit for several reasons,” Pace said. “First, to listen and learn about how our U.S. partners can better help Pakistan … and secondly, to learn about the horrible disaster that affected this beautiful country.”

Five months later, the earthquake’s mark — and the extensive relief effort — was still evident on the mountains around Muzaffarabad.

Blue-misted mountains glittered with metal-roofed homes built by survivors with donated supplies. Bright blue tents dotted valleys and mountainsides. Barren hillsides, covered with red earth the color of a raw wound, bore testament to the numerous landslides that happened during and after the earthquake.

Pace said the decision to launch what became the U.S. military’s largest-ever relief mission was spurred by both humanitarian and diplomatic reasons.

“I think it’s very important for us to recognize that there are things all men agree need to be handled and need to be handled in a compassionate way,” he said. “After 9/11, when my country was struck by terrorists, Pakistan came to our assistance and our aid. And your leaders made some very courageous decisions, some very difficult decisions.”

During his two-day visit, Pace also took an aerial tour of the affected area; met privately with Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and with Pakistani Army Maj. Gen. Farooq Ahmed Khan, head of the post-earthquake Federal Relief Commission, as well as a slew of other top military officials; met informally with Marines and 10th Mountain Division soldiers at Muzaffarabad; and held a lively question-and-answer session with upcoming Pakistani military officers at the National Defence College in Islamabad.

Pakistani officials offered effusive praise for the U.S. military’s effort to aid quake victims.

“We needed every bit of it,” Farooq said. “It made a lot of difference.”

Pakistani Army 12th Heavy Mountain Division commander Brig. Gen. Khalid Nawaz said American servicemembers worked tirelessly to deliver aid to earthquake victims around Muzaffarabad, the area worst affected by the quake.

“It was incredible,” he said. “They gave no thought to Thanksgiving or Christmas or Eid or anything. They were working around the clock.”

Pace also held a joint press conference Tuesday with Farooq, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Ryan Crocker and Combined Disaster Assistance Center commander Navy Rear Adm. Michael LeFever, where local media expressed concern that the United States would withdraw its post- quake support — most notably, its fleet of Chinooks, which several Pakistani officials said locals had come to call “angels of mercy.”

Crocker said that the American government would continue to work toward reconstruction of affected areas.

“We are not terminating by any means our involvement in this earthquake area,” Crocker said. “Now we are beginning reconstruction. We are committed to providing $200 million to this reconstruction effort over the next few years.”

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