- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

President Bush yesterday announced $320 million in humanitarian aid for the "poor souls" of Afghanistan, who might find food and medicine parachuted to them from U.S. planes guarded by fighter jets.
"This is our way of saying that while we firmly and strongly oppose the Taliban regime, we are friends of the Afghan people," Mr. Bush said during a visit to the State Department. "In our anger, we must never forget we're a compassionate people."
Meanwhile yesterday, the first planes flew out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, the reopening of which Mr. Bush approved earlier this week.
A half-full US Airways Shuttle Airbus 320 took off at 7 a.m. for New York's La Guardia Airport after its passengers went through stringent security precautions at the airport. It was the first of 100 flights scheduled yesterday, a far cry from the airport's normal capacity of 900 daily flights.
From the Pentagon yesterday, officials warned the Taliban not to interfere with food drops by trying to shoot down relief planes. The Taliban is believed to possess surface-to-air missiles left over from Afghanistan's fight against Soviet invaders in the 1980s.
"That is what makes this a particularly dangerous undertaking," said Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman. "We know the Taliban have anti-air capabilities."
He added that if the Taliban tried to shoot American relief planes out of the sky "we would take appropriate action."
Even if the aid is dropped into Afghanistan without incident, there is no guarantee it will end up in the right hands.
"Unfortunately, there is a history of working to give food to people who live in repressive regimes," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told The Washington Times. "There's always a concern to make certain that the food is kept out of the hands of the Taliban, who will deny it to their people, while getting it to the people who are suffering."
Although the administration has not made a decision yet on whether to air-drop the humanitarian supplies, its consideration of such a plan signals a reversal of sorts. Last month, the State Department dismissed parachutes as an ineffective method of delivering food and medicine to Afghanistan.
Yesterday, the administration seemed resigned to the notion that at least some of the aid would be seized by the Taliban. But officials downplayed the possibility that U.S. troops, if and when they enter Afghanistan, would face Taliban fighters who have been nourished by American food.
"People with guns always eat, whether there's aid or not," said Andrew Natsios, administrator of the Agency for International Development, which is overseeing the humanitarian relief effort. "So the Taliban is going to eat one way or the other, whether we're there or whether we're not there.
"Two, their army is not very big, and the amount of tonnage required to feed an army of the size that I've seen in the newspapers is very small," he added. "It is tiny in comparison to how much need there is in the country to feed the entire population. So I really think that is a bogus sort of a charge and argument."
The administration hopes the massive infusion of humanitarian aid will help win over the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans, turning them against the Taliban rulers.
The Taliban has made no effort to provide food to the population, which is suffering from famine just as winter is about to make the nation's rugged terrain even less hospitable.
"The purpose of this is to stop the death rate, is to stop the famine," Mr. Natsios said. "It has the side effect of sending a message to the Afghan people, which is one reason why the Taliban does not have much support."
Not wishing to offend Afghanistan's Muslim population, which does not eat pork, the United States has specially prepared more than 2 million rations without meat.
"We crafted the rations to be culturally neutral," Mr. Quigley said. "I mean, you don't want to try to be helpful and then end up providing food to people who it is against their religion or their cultural beliefs to eat it. So that's one of those things, I think, that we've learned over the last years."
There have been other lessons learned about parachuting food to populations under siege, such as the Kurds in northern Iraq in the early 1990s.
"A lot of people did receive food assistance from that program," Mr. Quigley said. "But if you look back on it now from the perspective of 2001, there's some things that we could have done much more efficiently and been more effective."
Still, the administration is considering an alternative plan that involves shipping the food to other nations and then transporting it overland into Afghanistan. A caravan of donkeys is already moving humanitarian supplies into Afghanistan's mountains.
Mr. Bush emphasized that the humanitarian aid should not be taken as a softening of the administration's hard line against the Taliban, which controls most of Afghanistan.
"We have no compassion for terrorists in this country," the president said during his speech to State Department employees. "We have great compassion, however, for the millions around the world who are victims of hate, of victims of oppressive government, including the people who live in Afghanistan.
"In order to overcome evil, the great goodness of America must come forth and shine forth. And one way to do so is to help the poor souls in Afghanistan."
The aid package, which includes $25 million of previously announced relief, will be distributed with the help of the World Food Program and various agencies of the United Nations.
In addition to announcing the humanitarian-aid package, Mr. Bush spent much of yesterday working on his coalition against terrorism.
He met at the White House with Mexican President Vicente Fox, and the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Thani. He also spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the emir of Bahrain and the president of Poland.
Also yesterday, Mr. Bush said authorities have arrested 150 terrorism suspects linked to the network of Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the terrorist attacks on America.
Justice Department officials last night said the figure covered "arrests and detentions of terrorists and suspected supporters of terrorism in over 25 countries."
Although Attorney General John Ashcroft said he was "not in a position to inventory either specific cases or numeric totals," he said in an afternoon news briefing that he was "grateful for the cooperation,a which has been substantial and improving" from several foreign countries in the search for the terrorists who attacked America.
Meanwhile, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday approved legislation that would lift sanctions against Pakistan that were imposed after the nation conducted underground nuclear tests in 1998.
The move, requested by Mr. Bush, was aimed at rewarding recent anti-terrorism steps by Pakistan, which yesterday said it accepted the evidence of bin Laden's involvement in the attack and had removed its diplomatic and official presence from Afghanistan. Pakistan, however, remains the only nation to retain formal diplomatic ties with the Taliban.
Ben Barber, Jerry Seper and Tom Ramstack contributed to this report.

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