'We Eat It'

Life hasn't been easy for Ahmed Khan lately. One year ago, invading Taliban troops drove him and his family out of their home village near Kunduz in northern Afghanistan. "They burned our homes, burned our lands," he says, shaking his head. Since then Khan and his relatives have been living in a refugee camp just outside the city of Khoja Bawaudin, near the border with neighboring Tajikistan.

Last Friday night, their lives took a small but singular turn for the better. In the early hours of the morning, Khan was jerked out of his sleep by the drone of jet engines in the sky--a sound that usually inspires foreboding in this war-torn part of the world. "At first I thought they were enemy planes," he says. "But as time passed, I realized that it wasn't the enemy at all."

As it happened, the planes weren't from Afghanistan. They were from the United States, and they had come to airdrop tons of food to a population impoverished by nearly a quarter-century of continuous warfare. Soon Khan, 24, was joining hundreds of other locals scouring a vast and dusty plain for small yellow plastic packages bearing the inscription "Humanitarian Daily Ration." A typical package, about the size of a donut box, contains plastic cutlery and some 2,200 calories worth of peanut butter, beans with rice, jam and a fruit bar. "I was full for the first time in three years," says refugee Rajaballi (like many Afghans, he only goes by one name). He especially liked the small packets of salt and pepper, he adds.

That's exactly the kind of response that U.S. military planners want to hear. They're betting that humanitarian aid delivered by U.S. planes could become a key weapon in the fight against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies. "This is our way of saying that while we firmly and strongly oppose the Taliban regime, we are friends of the Afghan people," President George W. Bush told State Department employees when he announced a $320 million humanitarian aid package for Afghanistan earlier this month. The struggle for Afghan hearts and minds is a crucial component in the anti-terrorist campaign. And now that U.S. strikes have apparently neutralized the Taliban's air force and rudimentary air defense system, U.S. cargo planes should be able to roam the skies at will. That should enable airdrops to target both sides of the lines in Afghanistan's long-running civil war.

Some aid organizations are dismissing the U.S. military operation as a meaningless public relations exercise. They argue that professional aid providers would do the job better than military dilettantes, and point out that most Afghans would be better served by overland mass deliveries of staples like rice and wheat, rather than the elaborately packaged peanut butter and jam. "This is totally uncoordinated with no preparation," Herve Bradol, president of the relief organization Doctors Without Borders said last week. "It's expensive, the most needy won't necessarily get any, much will be wasted, and worse, food dropped like that in the middle of the night may well end up in minefields."

Another problem: separating recipient zones that are in dire need from relatively privileged ones. Khoja Bawaudin, for example, is one of the main entry points for humanitarian aid--meaning that the Afghans who enjoyed the fruits of this particular drop were already comparatively well-fed. Other critics wonder whether the aid dropped behind Taliban lines might end up supplying America's foes as well as its friends.

Those on the receiving end of this drop don't have much time for such scruples. No sooner had the U.S. planes passed over than local people began to swarm into the drop zone. "There were packages here, packages there," says 16-year-old Ramazan. "So I picked them up and put them in my blanket." Others hauled off their loot on donkeys or motorcycles. Small children carted away piles of empty yellow bags that had already been emptied of their contents. Mahabulla, 18, a store owner in the Khoja Bawaudin bazaar, displays a foil biscuit package manufactured in Texas. "We heard the airplanes. At first we thought they were dropping bombs." When he realized what was going on, he mounted a donkey and set off for the 1.2 mile ride to the drop site. He says he enjoyed the food, but offers a caveat: "What we'd really like to have are dollars, shoes and overcoats."

The political effects of the aid might not be as straightforward as U.S. planners would hope. Mahabulla says that he approves of U.S. strikes against the Taliban, but worries about collateral damage. "We're sorry that poor people have been killed [in the strikes]. But we agree with removing the Taliban." Fellow aid recipient Rajaballi is more straightforward: "Osama bin Laden is a terrorist and we don't want terrorists here. We don't want the Taliban to be here in the government." For his part, Ahmed Khan has no worries about politics and he certainly isn't complaining otherwise. "It's very good," he says of the U.S. aid rations. "We eat it."