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Afghan humanitarian plight a "second thought" - U.N.

KABUL (Reuters) - The plight of the Afghan people has become a “second thought” for government and foreign nations working in the country, with the focus on politics and a planned troop withdrawal instead, a senior U.N. official said on Sunday.

During her second visit to Afghanistan this year, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Catherine Bragg said she wanted to make sure the Afghan people -- about a quarter of whom do not have enough to eat -- were not forgotten.

“I feel recently the emphasis seems to be on the political process, the drawdown of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) countries. The humanitarian situation seems to be a second thought,” Bragg told Reuters in an interview.

U.S. and NATO leaders have agreed 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 has said Washington will begin a gradual drawdown from July 2011.

The Afghan government and the foreign nations that back it have also been preoccupied with sorting through results for a September parliamentary election tainted by widespread allegations of fraud, and feeling out the possibility of talks with the Taliban to try to end the insurgency.

Bragg, who is also the U.N. deputy emergency relief coordinator, said she wanted to make sure the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people were “always at the forefront of minds.”

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.

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

NATURAL DISASTERS

A 2011 U.N. appeal is asking for $678 million in humanitarian aid for Afghanistan. The International Committee of the Red Cross has also launched an appeal for $89 million for Afghanistan, its largest humanitarian operation for the second year in a row.

The 2010 U.N. appeal for $775 million for Afghanistan has been two-thirds funded.

Bragg said that along with responding to conflict-induced humanitarian needs, the United Nations also need to be prepared to respond to natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes.

Afghanistan ranks 155 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.

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

Still, Bragg said that since visiting Afghanistan in March she had noticed “more of a willingness to talk about the issue of access for humanitarian operations and access not just in terms of ISAF, but also in terms of all of the belligerents.”

“That is for the better because ultimately we will have to have access regardless of who has control of which part of the territory or what shape or form of government will take,” she said. “I am seeing more of a willingness to talk about that.”

Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Daniel Magnowski

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