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Red Cross says Afghanistan sanctions behind 'infuriating' suffering

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Afghan men wait to receive cash at a money distribution point organised by the World Food Programme, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday. — AP/File

Economic sanctions are causing massive suffering in crisis-wracked Afghanistan, a top Red Cross official said on Monday, describing the situation as “infuriating”.

“I am livid,” Dominik Stillhart, operations director at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a statement at the end of a six-day visit to Afghanistan.

“Pictures viewed from afar of bone-thin children rightly elicit gasps of horror,” he said, adding though that “when you're standing in the paediatric ward in Kandahar's largest hospital, looking into the empty eyes of hungry children and the anguished faces of desperate parents, the situation is absolutely infuriating.”

“It's so infuriating because this suffering is man-made.”

The United Nations has warned that around 22 million Afghans or more than half the country will face an “acute” food shortage in the winter months due to the combined effects of drought caused by global warming and an economic crisis aggravated by the Taliban takeover in August.

The financial crunch was aggravated after Washington froze about $10 billion of assets held in its reserve for Kabul and deteriorated further after the World Bank and International Monetary Fund halted Afghanistan's access to funding.

Stillhardt warned that the economic sanctions “meant to punish those in power in Kabul are instead freezing millions of people across Afghanistan out of the basics they need to survive”.

“The international community is turning its back as the country teeters on the precipice of man-made catastrophe.”

He cautioned that “sanctions on banking services are sending the economy into free-fall and holding up bilateral aid.” Stillhardt pointed out that municipal workers, including teachers and health staff, had not been paid in months.

“They have no money to buy food; their children go hungry, get dangerously thin, and then die.”

The Taliban authorities said on Saturday they had begun paying government employees, but said it would take time.

But Stillhardt warned the situation was dire, amid surging levels of malnutrition.

“This is a serious food crisis even before the worst of winter sets in.”

Even as needs continue to soar, ICRC warned that desperately needed funding to humanitarian organisations has been jeopardised as a number of countries, suppliers and banks are fearful of running afoul of UN Security Council resolutions.

“The ICRC is calling for a clear carve-out for impartial humanitarian organisations engaged in exclusively humanitarian activities,” Stillhardt said.

“It is in everyone's interest to see humanitarian activities operating smoothly in Afghanistan.” The ICRC itself is stepping up its assistance to Afghanistan.

Among other things, Stillhardt said the organisation had on Monday begun supporting 18 regional and provincial hospitals and some 5,100 staff who work there.

It would cover all costs and medical supplies for the next six months, ensuring they can keep running and conducting around half a million medical consultations each month.