Afghans stare at hunger crisis on dwindling UN food stockpiles, sharp price rise


The United Nations' stockpiles of food in Afghanistan could run out this month, a senior official warned Wednesday, threatening to add a hunger crisis to the challenges facing the country's new Taliban rulers as they try to restore stability after decades of war.

About one-third of the country's population of 38 million doesn't know if they will have a meal every day, according to Ramiz Alakbarov, the UN's humanitarian chief in Afghanistan.

He noted with concern that most of those vulnerable are children and more than half of the children in the country under the age of five are suffering from extreme malnutrition and "those children will not get food.

The UN's World Food Programme has brought in food and distributed it to tens of thousands of people in recent weeks, but with winter approaching and a drought ongoing, at least $200 million is needed urgently to be able to continue to feed the most vulnerable Afghans, he said.

"By the end of September, the stocks which the World Food Program has in the country will be out," Alakbarov told reporters at a virtual news conference. "We will not be able to provide those essential food items because we'll be out of stocks."

Earlier, UN officials said that of the $1.3 billion needed for overall aid efforts, only 39 percent has been received.

As the last US troops left Afghanistan by the 31 August deadline, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had expressed grave concern" at the deepening humanitarian and economic crisis in the country and the threat of basic services collapsing completely on the day Afghanistan enters a new phase.

Warning that a humanitarian catastrophe looms, Guterres said almost half of the population of Afghanistan  18 million people  need humanitarian assistance to survive.

"One in three Afghans do not know where their next meal will come from. More than half of all children under five are expected to become acutely malnourished in the next year. People are losing access to basic goods and services every day.

The UN chief urged all member states to dig deep "for the people of Afghanistan in their darkest hour" of need.

"I urge them to provide timely, flexible and comprehensive funding. I urge them to help ensure humanitarian workers have the funding, access, and legal safeguards they need to stay and deliver", the UN chief said.

Guterres said now more than ever, Afghan children, women and men need the support and solidarity of the international community and emphasized that the humanitarian system's commitment to stay and deliver will not waver.

The UN chief noted that amid a severe drought and with harsh winter conditions on the horizon, extra food, shelter and health supplies must be urgently fast-tracked into the country.

"I call on all parties to facilitate safe and unimpeded humanitarian access for life-saving and life-sustaining supplies, as well as for all humanitarian workers men and women, he said."

Economic crisis

The Taliban, who seized control of the country ahead of the withdrawal of American forces, now must govern a nation that relies heavily on international aid and is in the midst of a worsening economic crisis. In addition to the concerns about food supplies, civil servants haven't been paid in months and the local currency is losing value. Most of Afghanistan's foreign reserves are held abroad and are currently frozen.

Khalid Payenda, Afghanistan's former acting finance minister, on Wednesday detailed a country existing in a dangerously fragile state.

Speaking at Georgetown University in Washington, Payenda said the Afghan currency had yet to crash because money exchanges had been shuttered. But its value could plunge by more than 100 percent, said Payenda, who described former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani as withdrawn and paranoid ahead of the Taliban takeover.

"I think the war had a toll on his psyche and he saw everything with suspicion," Payenda said.

Part of the chaos reflects the speed at which the Taliban took control of the country, with Payenda saying he thought the prior government could have been sustained for two or three more years because of commitments by international donors.

"I did not expect it to be this quickly," Payenda said. "Nobody actually did."

Mohammad Sharif, a shopkeeper in the capital of Kabul, said shops and markets there have supplies, but a major concern is rising food prices.

"If the situation continues like this and there is no government to control the prices, that will cause so many problems for local people," he said.

New era

In the wake of the US pullout, many Afghans are anxiously waiting to see how the Taliban will rule. When they were last in power, before being driven out by the US-led invasion in 2001, they imposed draconian restrictions, refusing to allow girls to go to school, largely confining women to their homes and banning television, music and even photography.

But more recently, their leaders have sought to project a more moderate image. Schools have reopened to boys and girls, though Taliban officials have said they will study separately. Women are out on the streets wearing Islamic headscarves — as they always have — rather than the all-encompassing burqa the Taliban required in the past.

The president of the United Nations Security Council said Wednesday that "the real litmus test" for the new Taliban government will be how it treats women and girls. Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason of Ireland, which holds the council's rotating presidency, said the protection and promotion of human rights for women "must be at the very heart of our collective response to the crisis."

The challenges the Taliban face in reviving the economy could give Western nations leverage as they push the group to fulfill a pledge to form an inclusive government and guarantee women's rights. The Taliban say they want to have good relations with other countries, including the United States.

Many Afghans fear the Taliban won't make good on those pledges and are concerned that the nation's economic situation holds little opportunity. Tens of thousands sought to flee the country as a result in a harrowing airlift.

But thousands who had worked with the US and its allies, as well as up to 200 Americans, remained in the country after the efforts ended with the last US troops flying out of Kabul international airport just before midnight Monday.

President Joe Biden later defended his handling of the chaotic withdrawal and evacuation efforts, which saw spasms of violence, including a suicide bombing last week that killed 13 American service members and 169 Afghans. He said it was inevitable that the final departure from two decades of war would be difficult.

He said he remains committed to getting the Americans left behind out if they want. The Taliban have said they will allow people with legal documents to travel freely, but it remains to be seen whether any commercial airlines will be willing to offer service.

Bilal Karimi, an official member in the Taliban spokesman's office, said Wednesday that a team of Turkish and Qatari technicians arrived in Kabul to help get the airport up and running again. Alakbarov, the UN humanitarian official, said the United Nations is asking for access to the airport so it can deliver food and other supplies directly to the capital.

Islamic State threat

The Taliban also have to contend with the threat from the Islamic State group, which is far more radical and claimed responsibility for the bombing at the airport.

The Taliban have pledged they won't allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacks on other countries — a key US demand since the militants once harbored the al-Qaida leaders who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.

In the wake of last week's bombing, American officials said drone strikes targeted the Islamic State group's affiliate in Afghanistan, and Biden vowed to keep up airstrikes.

Army Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday it was "possible" that the US will have to coordinate with the Taliban on any counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan in the future.

With inputs from agencies

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Afghans stare at hunger crisis on dwindling UN food stockpiles, sharp price rise
Afghans stare at hunger crisis on dwindling UN food stockpiles, sharp price rise
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