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U.N. launches $678 million Afghan humanitarian appeal

KABUL (Reuters) - The United Nations on Saturday launched a $678 million humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan, where despite inflows of millions of foreign aid dollars, the world body said about a quarter of the population goes hungry.

U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg said some 7.4 million Afghans were living with hunger and fear of starvation, millions more rely on food help and one in five children die before the age of five.

“Despite progress in some areas, the toll of the ongoing conflict and endemic natural disasters on Afghanistan’s people remains immense, requiring continued life saving assistance,” Bragg, also the U.N. deputy emergency relief coordinator, said in a statement marking the 2011 appeal.

Western nations supporting President Hamid Karzai are pouring vast amounts of aid into Afghanistan, but much of the cash is spent in areas with the worst insurgency problems to show locals that they can reap gains from rejecting the Taliban.

A substantial portion also goes on security costs and the salaries of foreign experts.

Afghanistan does not grow enough food for its people, and the war between NATO-led forces and the Taliban -- now in its 10th year -- has pushed up costs of imports. The conflict has also made swathes of the country inaccessible for aid groups.

The International Committee of the Red Cross warned on Thursday that the dire humanitarian situation was likely to deteriorate further unless a political settlement was reached between the government and the Taliban.

Afghanistan ranks 155th out of 169 countries on the U.N. Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which measures health, knowledge, and income. Bragg said the conflict had cut the capacity and availability of basic services.

“We hope to recast the humanitarian agenda in Afghanistan based upon the core tenets of humanity, impartiality and neutrality and be better placed to reach more people,” she said.

But the pressure on 192 U.N. member states for aid is high with fundraising competing with other campaigns, including help for earthquake survivors in Haiti and flood victims in Pakistan.

The 2010 U.N. appeal for $775 million for Afghanistan has achieved two-thirds of its target and is the fourth most funded U.N. appeal this year behind Haiti, Pakistan and Sudan.

The ICRC also launched its appeal this week for $89 million for Afghanistan, its largest humanitarian operation for the second year in a row.

Despite the presence of 150,000 foreign troops, military and civilian casualties are at their worst levels since the 2001 removal of the Taliban.

U.S. and NATO leaders agreed last month to a schedule set by Afghan President Hamid Karzai for foreign forces to end combat operations in Afghanistan by 2014. U.S. President Barack Obama, who will review his Afghanistan war strategy next month, has said Washington will begin a gradual drawdown from July 2011.

Editing by Ron Popeski