A Million Afghan Children Could Die in ‘Most Perilous Hour,’ U.N. Warns

The plight of the Afghan people came into stark relief on Monday when top United Nations officials warned that millions of people could run out of food before the arrival of winter and one million children could die if their immediate needs are not met.

Secretary General António Guterres, speaking at a high-level U.N. conference in Geneva convened to address the crisis, said that since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the nation’s poverty rate is soaring, basic public services are close to collapse and, in the past year, hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless after being forced to flee fighting.

“After decades of war, suffering and insecurity, they face perhaps their most perilous hour,” Mr. Guterres said, adding that one in three Afghans do not know where they will get their next meal.

Speaking to the news media on Monday afternoon, Mr. Guterres said more than $1 billion in aid pledges had been made at the meeting by the international community. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, promised $64 million in new funding for food and medical aid.

With the prospect of humanitarian catastrophe long looming over the nation like the sword of Damocles, it now poses an immediate threat to the nation’s children.

“Nearly 10 million girls and boys depend on humanitarian assistance just to survive,” Henrietta H. Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, said at the conference. “At least one million children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year and could die without treatment.”

Even before the Taliban swept across the country and took control of the government, Afghanistan was confronting a dire food crisis as drought enveloped the nation.

The World Food Program estimates that 40 percent of crops are lost. The price of wheat has gone up by 25 percent, and the aid agency’s own food stock is expected to run out by the end of September.

The suffering wrought by conflict and made worse by climate change has been compounded by the uncertainty that has accompanied the Taliban’s ascent, with many international aid workers having fled the country out of safety concerns. Those who remain are unsure if they will be able to continue their work.

During the conference, the U.N. said it needed $606 million in emergency funding to address the immediate crisis, while acknowledging that money alone will not be enough. The organization has pressed the Taliban to provide assurances that aid workers can go about their business safely. By the end of the gathering, international pledges had surpassed the amount requested.

But even as the Taliban sought to make that pledge, the U.N.’s human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, also speaking in Geneva, said Afghanistan was in a “new and perilous phase” since the militant Islamist group seized power.

“In contradiction to assurances that the Taliban would uphold women’s rights, over the past three weeks, women have instead been progressively excluded from the public sphere,” she told the Human Rights Council in Geneva, a warning that the Taliban would need to use more than words to demonstrate their commitment to aid workers’ safety.

Monday’s conference was also intended to drive home the enormity of the crisis and offer some reassurance to Western governments hesitant to provide assistance that could legitimize the authority of a Taliban government that includes leaders identified by the U.N. as international terrorists with links to Al Qaeda.

Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s director of humanitarian and emergency relief operations, visited Kabul last week and said Taliban authorities had promised to facilitate the delivery of aid.

“We assure you that we will remove previous and current impediments in front of your assistance and all related projects working under supervision of U.N and other international organizations in Afghanistan,” the Taliban said in verbal and later written commitments that Mr. Griffiths read out to the conference. The Taliban also promised to protect the life and property of humanitarian workers and safeguard their compounds. On Sunday, Taliban authorities sent assurances that they would facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries by road, he added.

Despite the risks, U.N. relief organizations are still working in the country and are perhaps one of the last international lifelines for hundreds of thousands in need.

“In the last two weeks, we have provided 170,000 people affected by drought with safe drinking water and deployed mobile health teams in 14 provinces to continue delivering basic health services for children and women,” Ms. Fore said. “During the last week of August, UNICEF provided 4,000 severely malnourished children under 5 with lifesaving therapeutic treatment, and road missions have begun.”

Since coming to power, the Taliban have been largely isolated — both politically and economically — from the rest of the world.

The World Bank halted funding for new projects, the International Monetary Fund suspended payments to Afghanistan and the Biden administration has frozen the assets of Afghanistan’s central bank that are held in the United States.

While China has made friendly overtures to the Taliban and offered some $30 million in assistance, that is a fraction of the aid the country was slated to receive before the Taliban takeover.

At a gathering in November 2020, donor nations committed some $12 billion in assistance to Afghanistan over four years.

The Taliban did not have a representative in Geneva for the meeting.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s deputy information and culture minister, said the government welcomed all humanitarian efforts by any nation, including the United States.

He also acknowledged that not even the Taliban expected to be in control of the country so quickly.

“It was a surprise for us how the former administration abandoned the government,” he said. “We were not fully prepared for that and are still trying to figure things out to manage the crisis and try to help people in any way possible.”

Most banks in the country remain closed and Mr. Mujahid said there were no immediate plans to reopen them, citing the risk that people would storm them.

He called on the United States to unfreeze Afghanistan’s funds.

For hundreds of thousands displaced by fighting, their needs are immediate and growing more acute by the day.

More than half a million Afghans were driven from their homes by fighting and insecurity this year, bringing the total number of people displaced within the country to 3.5 million, Filippo Grandi, the U.N. refugee chief said.

The danger of economic collapse raised the possibility of stoking an outflow of refugees to neighboring countries.

Said Rahman, 33, lived in Kunduz before fleeing to Kabul, where he now lives in a tent inside a park.

He has been there with his wife and three children for a month.

“It’s cold here, we have no food, no shelter, and we can’t find a job in this city,” he said. “We all have children and they need food and shelter, and it’s not easy to live here.”

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