Pool Report: U.S. Delivers Aid for Children

This is a dispatch from the Afghanistan reporters' "pool," a Pentagon-authorized system that allows a single journalist to file for all accredited news organizations.

ASHGABAD, Turkmenistan — A U.S. Air Force cargo jet filled with parcels of winter clothes, toys and candy landed in Turkmenistan on Monday, the first shipment of aid purchased by American children for boys and girls in Afghanistan.

Millions of Afghans are facing the threat of famine and disease because of years of drought and civil war, and the packages are designed to help them through the winter and give them hope.

"I've got four kids of my own at home and I couldn't imagine them going through this kind of upheaval," the Air Force pilot said as the C-17 jet passed over the Caucasus mountains.

"I think this is one of the most important missions we can do, where we help people who get lost in the middle - what's better than that?" said Tony, a major who the Air Force said cannot be fully identified for security reasons.

Ten thousand gift parcels were purchased with $1.5 million donated by American children after President Bush appealed to the country's youth to give what they could.

The packages are made up of practical supplies like winter tents, woolen caps and jackets, food, toothbrushes and soap, and also crayons, lollipops and teddy bears.

Each is marked: "A gift to Afghan children from American children."

Landing on the cold and wind-swept runway amid Soviet-era buildings, the cargo jet carrying half the packages was greeted by dignitaries including U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan Laura E. Kennedy, and Francois de la Roche, the European director of the American Red Cross.

"The situation is truly horrific," said Kennedy of the plight of Afghan children. "One in three is an orphan, half suffer from malnutrition and one-quarter are not expected to live past 5 years old."

The packages, which were flown in from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, are being trucked to northern Afghanistan by the relief agency International Organization for Migration.

They were put together by the Red Cross with advice from Afghan emigres in the United States.

"This is a smart package that is going through," de la Roche said. "It's more than just good intentions."

The packages - a total of 140,000 pounds of goods - are only a part of the aid being brought into Afghanistan, which includes other land deliveries and daily ration packages dropped by air.

In Washington, the U.S. Agency for International Development, said its relief effort is providing the people of Afghanistan with 1,800 tons of food a day.

"We're racing against time to get food in," said Andrew S. Natsios, USAID administrator. "Winter is upon us."

Natsios, speaking at a State Department news conference, estimated 1.5 million of the more than 20 million Afghans are on the brink of starvation.

The only bridge connecting Afghanistan with Uzbekistan, to the north, reopened Sunday for the first time since 1997, and the first train carrying much-needed humanitarian aid for Afghanistan crossed over.

The United States is committed to providing $320 million in food aid. About $140 million has been spent.

Desperate people in Afghanistan have sold their animals, destroyed their homes for timber and sold their land, Natsios said. "They have reached the end of their tether."

On Monday, the aid agency announced it had approved a $3.5 million grant to CARE for water, sanitation, agriculture and shelter. Farming facilities for 100,000 people in Ghazni and Wardak provinces will be rebuilt.

Nearly 5,000 homes in Kabul will be rebuilt and more than 42,000 people in the capital will get safe drinking water. The shelter program is designed to provide food and short-term jobs for about 75,000 people in Kabul, Kandahar, Farah, Nangahar and Laghman.