As the United States was attacking Taleban and terrorist targets in Afghanistan, it was also dropping food to help thousands of displaced Afghans facing cold and starvation. U.S. officials see nothing contradictory in doing both at the same time.
In what might be termed a "bombs and bread" strategy, the U.S. military began air dropping food and other supplies to starving refugees even as bombs were raining down elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Andrew Natsios, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, says the United States is only trying to help people in need. "Our major objective right now," he said, "is to lower the death rates in the famine and get as much food into the remote areas before the snows come."
But analysts say there is a more complex strategy at work as well. The United States, they say, is also trying to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan as part of the effort to sweep away the ruling Taleban.
Ken Allard, a retired U.S. Army colonel and a specialist on peacekeeping efforts, says humanitarian aid helps the United States undercut attempts to portray it as an enemy of the Islamic faith. Colonel Allard said, "The very thing you are trying to do is to bring down the Taleban. And as you know very well, a very, very important aspect of what we are trying to do is to undercut not only their claim to legitimacy, but also to try to counteract the idea that this is something that is the U.S. against Islam. And so you know, in some sense, you have to be doing both at the same time."
There was a time when the United States would only start helping a nation after the war was over, as in the U.S. Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.
Colonel Allard says times have changed. These days, he says, humanitarian assistance has diplomatic and military repercussions. "There's a very, very important aspect of operations in the information age," he said. "And there is a degree of moral authority. It leverages diplomatic capability, diplomatic leverage, and it ultimately affects military capability. And that's very, very much what you've got. And I think that moral authority is very, very important. In some sense that's old, in some sense that's new."
Even so, aid work has traditionally been left to civilian government agencies such as the Agency for International Development, working in concert with private humanitarian aid groups.
Teresita Schaffer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, says that while it is somewhat unusual for the military to be dropping humanitarian aid in what is in effect a war zone, there is no other way to get help to the people. She said, "They've after all got the assets that can deliver it. You know, you're not going to see the trucks with the big handclasp rumbling along those roads at a time when the military is dropping other stuff."
Ms. Schaffer says it really does not matter if the Taleban gets its hands on some of the aid. "I don't think we care and I frankly don't think we ought to care. We're not trying to starve them," she said.
However, U.S. officials say the aid will not benefit the Taleban as it is being dropped into remote areas where the Taleban have little control.