This food is a gift from America

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The Independent Online

In the autumn of 1965 Chuck Boyd flew a series of missions over northern Vietnam with a strange metal capsule attached to his F105 Thunderchief bomber.

It was not a new or secret weapon, at least not in the usual sense, but rather a container for tens of thousands of leaflets especially prepared by the Pentagon for the North Vietnamese civilians, explaining the American view of the war in the south. In short, it was propaganda.

"I'm not sure it really did any good. It was not an effective tool as I think the population was too rigidly controlled," said General Boyd, who served with the US Air Force for 36 years before retiring as a four-star general.

Thirty-six years later, the missions of Boyd and others were echoed last week when US crews dropped thousands of leaflets over Afghanistan, again trying to persuade a sceptical, uneducated population that the US was not their enemy, that the US was not at war with them. The leaflets were again written in the local language, checked for cultural errors and included simple symbols for those who cannot read. Once again the propaganda war was under way.

The US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, confirmed last week that such leaflets were being dropped – leaflets the size of dollar bills exhorting them to reject the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. The choice of paper size is deliberate – and cynical. Afghanistan is just about the poorest nation on earth so, the theory goes, the more the notices can be made to look like money, the more chance there is of locals rushing to pick them up when they fall from the sky.

Mr Rumsfeld suggested that he might make available one of the leaflets, though he has not yet done so. For the time being, the message that the Western allies are dropping on to the people of Afghanistan is considered classified for non-Afghans.

But experts say the general message is known. It will try to convince Afghans that the Taliban – and not the US and Britain whose bombs are raining down – are their enemy. It may also urge people to support the allied forces or the Northern Alliance. They might also direct citizens towards food or shelter, or try to undermine Osama bin Laden.

"For the people supporting the Taliban or the terrorists, it will be a real clear message. 'You're on the wrong side and you'd better get on the right side or there's the devil to pay'," said Chad Spawr, a former psychological operations soldier, also involved in Vietnam. "You pour the leaflets out a chute so what you have is a trail of paper coming out of the back end of an aircraft. Generally, they're a little bigger than a dollar bill. Usually they're black and white with varying messages."

The operation to win over the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan is being led by the so-called information soldiers of the 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, a division of the US Air Force's Special Operations Command.

The psy-ops soldiers have planes to scatter leaflets, mobile print shops that can be dropped by parachute, and loudspeaker systems to blare out messages. The soldiers use local languages to reach people on the ground. Their motto is: "Persuade, Change and Influence.''

It is believed that these psy-ops soldiers may also have dropped radios, tuned to receive Voice of America broadcasts that have been expanded to include the languages that are spoken in Afghanistan. At the same time members of the 193rd Special Operations Wing, who are flying EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft, filling the airwaves with pro-American messages.

The VOA says it provides unbiased news, even though the board of governors includes a representative from the State Department. Last week the Taliban's information minister, Qatradullah Jamal, accused the VOA and other Western broadcasters, including the BBC, of waging a propaganda war. "Every night in their Pashto and Dari service broadcasts, they are talking about different options to the Taliban,'' he said.

The psychological war is also being fought with food. Along with the daily drops of bombs, the US has been dropping 37,500 packets of humanitarian rations. The vegetarian meal packs, which include prepared meals such as lentils and tomatoes and Western delights such as peanut butter, have been scattered across the most remote parts of Afghanistan.

In addition to the food, the packages include a picture of a US flag along with a message that reads, "This food is a gift from the United States of America". Critics say that the food drops are of little value to the Afghan people and that they are being carried out for political reasons. Jean-Hervé Bradol, president of the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, said: "This is totally uncoordinated, with no preparation, 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.''

Lt Col George Rhynedance, a Pentagon spokesman, admitted that the food was designed to carry a message as well to provide hungry people with food. "We are saying this is a gift from the free world," he said. "We are glad of our position to be able to provide this."

So does any of this have any effect? Psy-ops has a long – and sometimes less than honourable – history and claims a number of successes. During the Gulf War there were many instances of Iraqi soldiers surrendering themselves to soldiers armed with bullhorns and loudspeakers.

General Boyd, now a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations think-tank, also believes the leaflets being dropped over Afghanistan might be more successful than those he dropped over Vietnam all those years ago, because, as he explains, "there are an awful lot of Afghans who are deeply unhappy and resent the Taliban".