UN seeks $600 million in Afghanistan’s ‘most perilous hour’

GENEVA: The United Nations exhorted the world on Monday to raise $606 million for Afghanistan, where poverty and hunger are spiralling since the Taliban took power and billions in foreign aid have dried up amid Western distrust of the Taliban.

After decades of war, suffering and insecurity, Afghans are facing “perhaps their most perilous hour”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in his opening remarks to a conference in Geneva seeking aid for Afghanistan.

“The people of Afghanistan are facing the collapse of an entire country – all at once.”

He said food supplies could run out by the end of the month.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan between 1996-2001, barring women from work and teenage girls from school, and were toppled in an invasion led by the United States, which accused them of sheltering Talibans behind the September 11 attacks.

They swept back to power last month in a lightning advance as the last US-led NATO troops pulled out and the forces of the Western-backed government melted away.

With aid flows abruptly ending, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said international donors had a “moral obligation” to continue helping Afghans after their 20-year engagement.

But as if to underline Western misgivings, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, also in Geneva on Monday, accused the Taliban of breaking promises by once more ordering women to stay at home, preventing teenage girls attending school and searching house-to-house for former enemies.

Neighbours China and Pakistan have already offered help.

Beijing announced last week it would send $31 million worth of food and health supplies to Afghanistan. Pakistan sent supplies such as cooking oil and medicine to authorities in Kabul, and called for the unfreezing of Afghanistan’s assets.

“Past mistakes must not be repeated. The Afghan people must not be abandoned,” said Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, whose country would most likely bear the brunt of any exodus of refugees.

“Sustained engagement with Afghanistan in meeting its humanitarian needs is essential.”

Us Pledges $64 million

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told the conference Washington was providing nearly $64 million in new humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan.

“Let us commit today to meeting this urgent appeal for financial support, commit to standing by humanitarian workers as they do their all-important work, and to stepping up humanitarian action in Afghanistan so we can save the lives of Afghans in need,” she said.

Even before the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul last month, half the population – or 18 million people – were dependent on aid. That figure looks set to increase due to drought and shortages of cash and food, UN officials and aid groups warn.

About a third of the $606 million being sought would be used by the UN World Food Programme, which found that 93% of the 1,600 Afghans it surveyed in August and September were not consuming sufficient food, mostly because they could not get access to cash to pay for it.

“It’s now a race against time and the snow to deliver life-saving assistance to the Afghan people who need it most,” said WFP deputy regional director Anthea Webb.

“We are quite literally begging and borrowing to avoid food stocks running out.”

The World Health Organization, another UN agency that is part of the appeal, is seeking to shore up hundreds of health facilities at risk of closure after donors backed out.

UN refugee agency head Filippo Grandi warned that there could be far greater displacement soon than the estimated half a million who have already sought refuge elsewhere in Afghanistan this year.