New York- I’ve been rummaging through my archives from the terror wars era for the last week or two while working on an upcoming project on Syria and have opened a veritable Pandora’s Box in the process. The other day I found a couple of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) from the very beginning of the American-led intervention in the ongoing Afghan civil war in November 2001. These hideously bright yellow packets were being sold by traders in the smuggler’s bazaar of Khawja Bahauddin, the ramshackle town near the border with Tajikistan where Ahmad Shah Massoud had been assassinated on September 9, 2001. These preservative laden bags of glorified junk food were air dropped over ‘friendly’ (i.e. areas controlled by cash-for-allegiance warlords) parts of northern Afghanistan in what was much more a bungled PR campaign than an effective humanitarian effort.
Rural Afghans were puzzled by the squirt packs of peanut butter and stale pop tarts entirely alien to their diet. To put things in the effete terminology used by food nerds today, Afghanistan is a “farm-to-table” society where all food is de facto “organic” even though the whole country is devoid of a Whole Foods.
These plastic bags were carefully labeled in English, French, and Spanish for illiterate villagers that speak Dari, Uzbek, and Pashto, might as well have been artifacts from the Roswell crash. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that more Western journos and CIA types ended up eating these awful things than the Afghans themselves. They were manufactured by a military contractor eager to reap the early buildup of the immediate post-9/11 spending boomlet called The Wornick Company.
The Wornick Company apparently employed undocumented Mexican immigrants to pack these things. An investigation was launched after it was discovered an AQ operative had his sights set on the company’s HQ in south Texas after Wornick ingeniously labeled these packets with their company name and address. Like an AQ for dummies target.
A better holistic strategy would have been to contract an nearby Iranian company (who could have perhaps given honest work to Iran’s own resented Afghan refugees) to package pulao and freeze dried naan, you know, like, food Afghans actually eat not dissimilar to Iranian fare. Laughable as it sounds, something akin to this might have killed two birds with one stone-actually nourishing starving Afghans and engaging Iran economically.
Such a practical initiative could have opened the door to undermining both the clerical regime in Qom and Tehran during Mohammed Khatami’s “Dialogue of Civilizations” era and the still-not-going-away bomb Iran chicken hawks poisoning the present debate in DC. But the anti-Iran agitators active in Washington today are often one in the same as the men and women who wanted to pull away from Afghanistan in 2002 (and therefore an Iran that was cooperating at the time) to focus Pentagon efforts on Iraq thereby keeping the US pitted against Iran for the foreseeable future. The maintenance of this highly negative staus quo was far more important for those with a vested interest in keeping hostilities alive and well.
The air dropping of quintessential American foodstuffs into Afghanistan was an ill conceived plan at best and a poor use of tax payer funds. With no follow up measures to coordinate events on the ground, there was no methodology employed to ensure that the food was received by those that needed it most. Meanwhile, the few who happened upon these poorly planned c-17 borne drops would often hoard them and sell them to bazaaris who would then resell them to the strangers in their midst. There was no way to ensure appropriate and even distribution, the thing bona fide unarmed humanitarian NGOs are supposed to be most adept at.
Oh and another story going around at the time was that these clumsy airborne food drops had actually managed to kill a few unsuspecting villagers along the way. I never got to the bottom of weather that was actually true or not because to be honest I was too busy covering the war. But I was never all that comfortable with the idea of armed humanitarians. “Armed humanitarian” is a stark contradiction in terms.
The pacifist European NGOs were careening around with large decals on the side of their Landcruisers showing Kalashnikovs encircled in red with a line crossing them out while the Americans were landing armed helicopters, disgorging bulky helmeted men in camouflage, guns drawn, in the exact same political space. It all seemed like such a bad juxtaposition.