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."
Humanitarian Daily Rations (HDRs) are an immediate and visible sign of U.S. participation in that relief effort. The government meals are labeled in English, French and Spanish (but not Farsi): "This is a food gift from the people of the United States of America."
Military officials describe the drop of the individual meals as a high-risk maneuver. The planes fly high to avoid anti-aircraft fire but run into a different set of obstacles, including the potential for its crew members to suffer altitude sickness.
Teams of 10 - including two medical technicians - load into transport planes at Ramstein and make the 24-hour round trip to Afghanistan, refueling in the air at least three times during the voyage.
Once over the targets, pilots open the rear hatch, which causes the interior of the plane to depressurize. As the plane lifts its nose, refrigerator-sized boxes begin to fall, their thin sides breaking open in mid-air and scattering the meals over a three-mile area on the ground.
The planes change altitude slowly during their trip so crew members don't suffer hypoxia - the disorientation and dysfunction suffered by mountain climbers breathing thin air with little oxygen on high peaks. The temperature inside the plane drops to 15 degrees, according to a crew member returning from the first round of flights.
The military began issuing HDRs after the Persian Gulf war, when Kurds receiving U.S. government assistance would not eat the pork in their U.S. government-issued meals.
The United Nations has favored the food drops, but the system is not foolproof. During one such United Nations mission in East Timor in 1999, at least three refugees were shot to death by local militia when they ran into an open field to collect the supplies. Also in that episode, a boy's leg had to be amputated after it was crushed by the rations that fell during the airdrop.
A day's rations
Each yellow plastic container of Humanitarian Daily Rations is about the size of a hardcover book. The pouches, airdropped by the U.S. military to assist Afghan civilians, each contain a day's worth of food for one person.
The rations are vegetarian and conform to Muslim dietary laws.
A typical 2,200-calorie package may contain the following items:
Rice with beans
Apple fruit bar
Utensils package- Associated Press