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1 million Afghan children are at risk of starvation, warns UNICEF director

Afghan children, who are picking up recyclable items from the trash to earn a living, eat a meal with rice in Jalalabad on June 30, 2013.

Noorullah Shirzada | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – At least 1 million children in Afghanistan will suffer from severe acute malnutrition this year and could die without adequate treatment, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore warned on Monday.

"Almost 10 million girls and boys depend on humanitarian aid to survive," said Henrietta Fore at a United Nations ministerial meeting on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

Fore pleaded with the international community and wealthy nations to avert further suffering after the US-backed government collapsed virtually overnight last month and Taliban militants took control of the country.

"Please help us," she said. Fore's remarks come at a crucial time in the history of international aid to Afghanistan.

Since the Taliban came to power on August 15, most developed nations in the west have frozen direct aid to Afghanistan as they are wary of delivering money to a militant Islamist regime that ruled the country with brutal violence from 1996 to 2001.

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Western countries see the frozen aid funds for Afghanistan as an important lever to put pressure on the Taliban to form a government that respects the rights of individuals, especially the rights of women and girls.

Meanwhile, groups like UNICEF are getting a second look from Western governments looking for ways to provide aid to Afghanistan's most needy while bypassing the Taliban government.

On Monday, the United States announced an additional $ 64 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, to be provided by groups such as the World Health Organization and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Almost 600,000 people, more than half of whom are children, were displaced by conflict in Afghanistan this year," Fore said.

Fore also highlighted UNICEF's unique ability to operate in one of the poorest and most war-torn countries in the world.

"UNICEF has been on the ground in Afghanistan for more than 70 years," she said. "We know what needs to be done for children. And we can do it."

The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan and the US military withdrawal last month caused many international aid workers to leave the country fearing for their safety.

But UNICEF stayed and got things done, said Fore.

"Over the past two weeks we've provided safe drinking water to 170,000 drought-affected people and deployed mobile health teams in 14 provinces to continue providing basic health services to children and women," she said.

"In the last week of August, UNICEF provided life-saving therapeutic treatment to 4,000 severely malnourished children under the age of five, and street missions have begun."

It remains to be seen whether the newly formed Taliban government will allow international aid organizations such as UNICEF to operate safely in the country.

However, Fore insisted that life-saving aid, especially to children, must be seen outside the political boundaries that separate governments and nation-states.

“We need to make sure that aid is not politicized – prioritizing funding decisions should first be based on needs. We need to find ways to deliver timely and sustainable aid on a large scale, ”she said.

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