As bombs fall, so does food aid

U.S. airdrops rations to help stem hunger and promote good will

War On Terrorism

Military Response

October 09, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Pop-Tart is now a tool in the U.S. military arsenal: The Air Force is flying sorties over Afghanistan and dropping the breakfast treat, along with other high-calorie foods, in a campaign to stem hunger and send a message of good will from America.

Since Sunday, when bombs rained on one part of Afghanistan, Humanitarian Daily Rations fell on another. The skies filled with ready-to-eat meals loaded with 2,200 calories each, sealed in thick yellow plastic to sustain a high-altitude drop and emblazoned with American flags to make their origin known.

In a country where relief organizations estimate that 6 million people are threatened by hunger, the delivery of a single day's meal helps only a tiny fraction of the population - 37,000 people, if all the meals reach their targets. But the government hopes the rations might stem anti-American anger as the bombs begin to fall.

"The first day's effort is either a small step toward serious relief or symbolism that this is not a war on the Muslim people, depending on how you want to look at it," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I wouldn't be surprised if it was first time in military history that an attacker delivered humanitarian relief on the very first day of going to war."

As U.S. bombing halts the regular delivery of food aid into Afghanistan - a country ravaged by drought over the past four years - the military meals also offer a small bit of sustenance for the needy.

"It's quite true that 37,000 rations in a day do not feed millions of human beings," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday. "On the other hand, if you were one of the starving people who got one of the rations, you'd be appreciative."

In addition to the food drops, the United States has authorized $320 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The United States already delivered more food aid to Afghanistan than any other country, according to relief workers, who say for this reason Afghans are likely to trust food from the U.S. government.

But some humanitarian aid groups denounced the daily food drops as self-serving propaganda. The French-based Doctors Without Borders said in a statement: "Dropping a few cases of drugs and food in the middle of the night during air raids, without knowing who is going to collect them, is virtually useless and may even be dangerous. What sense is there in shooting with one hand and distributing medicines with the other?"

Air Force pilots have dropped the meals from the rear of C-17 cargo planes over remote mountain areas - far from the targets of the bombs - in the southern and eastern areas of Afghanistan. The military said about 74,000 such meals have been dispersed over the region over the past two days.

Because the recipients are Muslim, the meals do not include any pork products, adhering to Islamic religious and cultural custom. They are a kind of "vegetarian delight platter" of rice, beans, peanut butter and jelly and - what the military has dubbed the "icebreaker" to help introduce Afghans to American food - the Pop-Tart, said Air Force Col. Kip Self, director of mobility forces at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where the food-aid flights to Afghanistan originate.

The military carefully studied areas where the food would be dropped, in part for the safety of the civilians in a country ravaged by decades of war. Afghanistan leads the world in its number of minefields, humanitarian groups say, and to drop the food into the wrong area could prove fatal. The military also worries about supporters of the Taliban regime, against whom the U.S. attacks are being aimed, getting to the food first.

"We've got to be careful," said Self. "There are minefields and bad guy terrorists, and we don't want to divert friendly civilians into those areas."

The Afghan people are in desperate need of food, medicine and shelter, according to relief agencies. The death rate among children younger than 5 is nearly six times that of stable, developing countries, according to the international charity Save the Children. Relief workers have been shuttling humanitarian relief into the region for years, using trucks and even donkeys on narrow mountain passes.

As winter approaches, relief agencies are coordinating the delivery of blankets, plastic sheeting and tents to meet the tide of Afghan refugees. Aid workers estimate that as many as 1.5 million Afghans could flee their homes in the coming months.

"We don't have enough cash at the moment to respond to all the needs we anticipate," said Denis McClean, the Geneva spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, which serve Muslim countries.

"We need cash for the region - for instance, we want to buy 5,000 tents in Iran to use in Pakistan," he said. "We're trying to meet the needs of internally displaced persons and help destitute populations through the harsh winter we're expecting from next month on."

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