Two trucks rumble through the scrub of South Sudan. Each carries food. One is destined for a hungry village; the other is going to a military encampment of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the rebel force that has battled the northern-based government of Sudan for much of the past 30 years.

The trucks look the same from the air. Yet one is--in the eyes of the government of Sudan--a legitimate military target, as it transports food to sustain its enemies. The other is a "neutral" humanitarian shipment of food to suffering people. But how to tell the difference?

The answer is, you can't. And so government bombs will target both trucks, jeopardizing the massive food relief system run by humanitarian groups, as well as the Sudanese who depend on this food.

President Clinton, in effect, authorized this terrible scenario when he signed the foreign operations bill two weeks ago, endorsing the delivery of food to Sudan's rebel army. The legislation is the latest in a series of efforts by the U.S. government to confront the horrible reality of Sudan. But the bill--and the broader strategy behind it--is misguided. Aiding the rebel armies will not end Sudan's agony. Only peace will.

Both the Sudanese government and the SPLA acknowledge that the war is unwinnable; yet the two sides continue fighting in order to jockey for stronger negotiating positions in anticipation of current and future peace talks. President Clinton's decision to strengthen the rebels will delay, not hasten, these talks.

The legislation is apparently part of a wider U.S. effort to isolate, weaken and eventually bring down the current regime in Khartoum. The U.S. government cites the Sudanese government's poor human rights record and its complicity in global terrorism--issues worthy of concern. But the policy ignores the dirty reality of this war; the truth is that both sides have committed serious human-rights violations. And despite years of conflict, both sides, for better or worse, cling to power.

The larger issue is this: Does the United States really believe that providing food directly to one side will help the people of Sudan? Isn't it more likely that it will, in fact, fuel the conflict; that such a policy will make all food assistance--even to starving children--suspect in the eyes of combatants; that aid agencies, always under pressure from conflicting interests, will become fair game in an all-out war to control resources?

There is little evidence that the U.S. government's current determination to isolate Sudan's government has contributed to the alleviation of suffering and the ending of conflict. Many observers believe the policy has bolstered the most radical elements on both sides of the war, increasing the credibility of their invective.

On a recent trip to Sudan, I visited a poor community at the base of the Nuba Mountains and a vast camp for displaced people on the outskirts of Khartoum. I saw firsthand the suffering of a country in which 2 million people have perished and 4 million more have been uprooted in pursuit of an unwinnable war.

Moreover, in meetings with government and rebel leaders in Nairobi, I sensed the increasing consciousness of the futility of the war. There are moderates and pragmatists on both sides who yearn for peace and development in Sudan. Isolating them or empowering their military-minded colleagues is no way to encourage peace.

What is instead needed is a unified and engaged U.S. policy in pursuit of a "just peace"--a plan that encompasses the views of all parties within Sudan and that is also broadly supported by the international community.

Former President Jimmy Carter helped to show the way last week in successfully mediating a peace settlement between the governments of Sudan and Uganda. That agreement could ease tensions in the region and contribute to a just peace within Sudan. U.S. policymakers should emulate Carter's example by turning away from strategies that reward warriors and toward policies that support peacemakers.

Providing food to armies and strengthening the hard-liners won't end the war. But it may end the ability of humanitarian trucks and planes to deliver food to hundreds of thousands of civilians at risk from starvation. And it will prolong a brutal war that has terrorized the people of Sudan for far too long.

The writer is president and CEO of CARE USA, the international relief and development organization based in Atlanta. It is one of 10 organizations around the world that form CARE International.