Blankets and food parcels to rain from the sky

War on Terrorism: Humanitarian Aid
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The Independent Online

The war against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors is a campaign in the familiar sense, of long-range bombers, missiles and secret infiltration on the ground. But it is also war for hearts and minds, and no weapon will be more important in the anti-terror campaign than the humanitarian aid which, with the missiles, is starting to rain down from the sky.

This conflict, US officials repeat like a mantra, is unlike any other in history. And certainly there can never have been one in which an attacker delivers to enemy territory not only cruise missiles and high-performance bombs but emergency food rations, virtually simultaneously.

Even as he confirmed the bombing missions against suspected terrorist strongholds, Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, said that food drops had started – an estimated 37,000 individual rations, containing foodstuffs culturally and religiously acceptable to the civilian Afghan population, as well as medicines, blankets and other needed items.

It may be wondered quite how useful such small deliveries will have been in remote terrain, in pitch darkness. After all, the number of people displaced by civil war, drought and fear of impending US retaliation inside Afghanistan probably now runs into millions, not to mention the three million or more who have already fled to Pakistan and Iran.

But their psychological importance is hard to overstress. One of the reasons for the early focus on air defence installations is to allow the C-17 cargo planes safely to fly low enough to make accurate drops – thus justifying the insistence of President George Bush that this is a war not against the long-suffering civilian Afghan population, still less the Islamic world, but against the alleged organiser of the 11 September attacks and the Taliban regime that protects him.

As Mr Rumsfeld said at his Pentagon news conference, the air-drops "were in the beginning stages and this is a first day. The first day was something like 37,000 rations, but whether or not that will all get delivered is something we won't know for a few hours". In the days and weeks ahead, if the US is to make good on Mr Bush's promises, the aid flow will have to increase sharply. The first deliveries, US officials said, were ferried in on two C-17s from Ramstein air force base in Germany, the largest US airforce base in Europe and home of its biggest airlift facilities.

Once access routes have been secured, however, Washington will be able to operate from much closer. About 1,000 American troops are now in Uzbekistan, which borders Afghanistan to the north, to help with humanitarian relief and search-and-rescue operations inside the country.

Already donors have provided the $600m (£400m) in emergency relief requested last month by Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, to cope with what he termed "the world's worst humanitarian disaster". Japan and the EU stepped up preparations yesterday.

Romano Prodi, the president of the EU Commission, said: "Our assistance is already being mobilised to provide help to innocent victims of this situation and refugees escaping from the military action." Japan dispatched six C-130 Hercules military transporters to Pakistan yesterday, carrying blankets and tents, as well as 150 military personnel.