UN warns six million Afghans at risk of famine as crises grow

More than half the country's population needs assistance and about 19 million people face acute levels of food insecurity, Martin Griffiths says

FILE - Martin Griffiths, the United Nations humanitarian chief, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Sept.  28, 2021, at U. N.  headquarters.  Griffiths told the U. N.  Security Council on Monday, Aug.  30, 2022, that Afghanistan faces deepening poverty with 6 million people at risk of famine as he urged donors to immediately provide $770 million to help Afghans get through the winter.  (AP Photo / Mary Altaffer, File)
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The UN's humanitarian chief called on donors to restore funding for economic development and immediately provide $770 million to help Afghans pull through the winter as the US argued with Russia and China over who should pay.

Martin Griffiths told the UN Security Council on Monday that Afghanistan faced deepening poverty, with six million people at risk of famine, due to humanitarian, economic, climate and financial crises.

Conflict, poverty, climate shocks and food insecurity “have long been a sad reality” in Afghanistan, but he said what made the current situation “so critical” was the halt to large-scale development aid since the Taliban took over a year ago.

More than half the country's population — about 24 million people — need assistance and close to 19 million are facing acute levels of food insecurity, Mr Griffiths said.

He said there were concerns that the figures would soon become worse due to winter, which is expected to drive up already high fuel and food prices.

A malnourished boy at the Indira Gandhi hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan. AP

Despite the challenges, he said UN agencies and their NGO partners had mounted “an unprecedented response” over the past year, reaching about 23 million people.

But he said $614 million was urgently required to prepare for winter, including money to repair and upgrade shelters, as well as provide warm clothes and blankets.

An additional $154 million is needed to secure food and other supplies before the weather cuts access to certain areas.

However, Mr Griffiths said humanitarian aid would “never be able to replace the provision of system-wide services to 40 million people across the country”.

The Taliban “have no budget to invest in their own future,” he said, and “it’s clear that some development support needs to be started”.

With more than 70 per cent of Afghan’s living in rural areas, Mr Griffiths said millions of lives and livelihoods would be at risk and the country’s capacity to produce food imperilled if agriculture and livestock production are not protected.

The country’s banking and liquidity crisis, and the extreme difficulty of international financial transactions must also be tackled, he said.

“The consequences of inaction on both the humanitarian and development fronts will be catastrophic and difficult to reverse,” Mr Griffiths warned.

Russia called the UN Security Council meeting on the eve of the first anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, sharply criticised the “ignominious 20-year campaign” by the US and its Nato allies.

He claimed they did nothing to build up the Afghan economy and said their presence only strengthened the country’s status “as a hotbed of terrorism” and narcotics production and distribution.

Mr Nebenzia also accused the US and its allies of abandoning Afghans to face “ruin, poverty, terrorism, hunger and other challenges”.

“Instead of acknowledging their own mistakes and supporting the reconstruction of the destroyed country,” he said, they blocked Afghan financial resources and disconnected its central bank from Swift, the dominant system for global financial transactions.

China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun also accused the US and its allies of “evading responsibility and abandoning the Afghan people” by cutting off development aid, freezing Afghan assets and imposing “political isolation and blockade”.

US ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused the Taliban of imposing policies that “repress and starve the Afghan people, instead of protecting them”, and of increasing taxes on critically needed assistance.

She asked how the Taliban — which has not be recognised by a single country — expect to build a relationship with the rest of the world when they provided a safe haven for Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri, in Kabul's city centre.

Al Zawahiri was killed in a US drone strike on July 31.

Nonetheless, Ms Thomas-Greenfield said the US was the world’s leading donor in Afghanistan, providing more than $775 million in humanitarian aid to Afghans in the country and the region over the past year.

As for Afghanistan's frozen assets, US President Joe Biden announced in February that the $7 billion in the US was being divided — with $3.5 billion allocated to a UN trust fund to provide aid to Afghans and the remaining half set aside for families of American victims of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US.

“No country that is serious about containing terrorism in Afghanistan would advocate to give the Taliban instantaneous, unconditional access to billions in assets that belong to the Afghan people,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield said.

To Russia’s claims that Afghanistan’s problems are the fault of the West and not the Taliban, Ms Thomas-Greenfield asked, “What are you doing to help other than rehash the past and criticise others?”

She said Russia had contributed only $2 million to the UN humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan and China’s contributions “have been similarly underwhelming”.

“If you want to talk about how Afghanistan needs help, that’s fine. But we humbly suggest you put your money where your mouth is,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield said.

Russia’s Mr Nebenzia took the floor again, calling the suggestion “stunning”.

“We are being asked to pay for the reconstruction of a country whose economy was essentially destroyed by 20 years of US and Nato occupation? You are the ones who need to pay for your mistakes,” he said.

“But first of all, you need to return to the Afghan people the money that has been stolen from them.”

Ms Thomas-Greenfield had the last word.

“If the Russian Federation believes that there was an economy in Afghanistan to be destroyed, it has been destroyed by the Taliban,” she said.

Updated: August 30, 2022, 7:59 AM