America has a two pronged strategy in Afghanistan - to wage military air strikes against the Taleban government and to drop food for Afghanistan's famished people, many of whom have become displaced as a result of recent events.
Military food missions for humanitarian purposes is not a new strategy for the United States. There was the famous Berlin Airlift after World War Two, where massive amounts of food were flown in and unloaded. More recently, during the 1990s, American military planes parachuted heavy crates of food to Kurds in northern Iraq and to Bosnia. But U.S. Air Force General David L. Johnson, who is overseeing the current food drop program over Afghanistan, says the new food packages - known as Triad -- are both less expensive and time consuming to prepare than the older packages. "It is in fact a cardboard box this nice yellow color that is easy to identify and retrieve - that has been cut on the [its] four corners and then we hold the box together using one or two straps," he said. "And as the packet departs the airplane, you merely cut the straps and allow the food packets and a couple pieces of cardboard to flutter down towards the earth."
American military planes drop the food packets from high altitudes to avoid Taleban anti-aircraft fire. Even so, a mere one percent of the packages burst open on impact with the earth and are wasted. "We have a precision navigation system and radar helps us define where the drop is and we have what is called a 'computer air release point' where we take into effect [into account]," he said. "The winds and the altitude, how fast the airplane is going and how much each packet weighs and combine all that together and define a three dimensional point in space where we want them to be precisely when they leave the airplane."
General Johnson says there is little danger that humans on the ground will be hurt by a falling food packet. "The maximum speed it attains on its fall down to the earth is about 100 kilometers per hour… This is a significant improvement because it doesn't weigh that much. And we tried to develop drops zones that are close to the needed population but not right on top of them," he says. "That is a significant improvement from the large bundles that we used to drop that were about one metric ton. We had to be very careful in selecting drop zones that were very far away to minimize the risk of injury and damage."
General Johnson says that deciding which foods to include in the packets required cultural sensitivity. "Because not everyone eats the same kinds of foods, it would be appropriate to have some foods that were vegetarian based, that had lentils and beans and protein because it was more universally acceptable," he says. "It has about 2000 calories and it's supposed to be very nourishing to folks because the target audience are people who are starving."
Even though the food was manufactured to stay edible in its packets for up to two and a half years, General Johnson says that was probably an unnecessary precaution in this case. "But remember we are dropping them to people who have a desperate, compelling and urgent need to eat right now. So we would envision that people would be eating them not storing them," he said. "There are actually two meals inside one of these rations. So it's a daily packet. It isn't just one meal. And we put almost five hundred [rations] into each box that we put on the airplane. And the airplanes that a re doing the drops into Afghanistan carry about forty boxes each. So it's about just short of forty thousand meals."
When asked about the America's long term plans for addressing Afghanistan's food deficit from abroad, General Johnson that the military is usually used in "critical early stages of a conflict." "We have nongovernmental agencies, the Red Cross and others that are better suited for the long haul and to establish those long term relationships. The military is very useful during the crisis part of the contingency in the humanitarian efforts," he said. "But we would be looking to hand it over to the NGO's - non- governmental agencies - for the long haul."