UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Afghanistan is "on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe" and its collapsing economy is heightening the risk of extremism, the U.N.'s special representative for the country warned Wednesday.
Deborah Lyons said the United Nations predicts that 60% of Afghanistan's 38 million people face crisis levels of hunger in a food emergency that will likely worsen over the winter. She said the country's GDP is estimated to have contracted by 40%.
But she told the U.N. Security Council that a humanitarian catastrophe "is preventable," saying the main cause is financial sanctions on the Taliban, who took over the country Aug. 15. Sanctions "have paralyzed the banking system, affecting every aspect of the economy," Lyons said.
The Afghanistan central bank's $9 billion in reserves, most of which is held in the United States, were frozen after the collapse of the former government. Afghanistan was also slated to access about $450 million on Aug. 23 from the International Monetary Fund, but the IMF blocked the release because of a "lack of clarity" about a new government.
Lyons said the "paralysis of the banking sector will push more of the financial system into unaccountable and unregulated informal money exchanges." That, she said, "can only help facilitate terrorism, trafficking and further drug smuggling" that will first affect Afghanistan and then "infect the region."
She said a "major negative development" has been the Taliban's inability to stem the expansion of the Islamic State extremist group, which now seems to be present in nearly all provinces and is increasingly active. The number of attacks attributed to IS has increased significantly from 60 last year to 334 this year, she said.
Lyons urged the international community to find ways to provide financial support to the Afghan people, who she said "feel abandoned, forgotten and indeed punished by circumstances that are not their fault." Abandoning them "would be a historic mistake," she said.
"We must focus for the next three or four months on helping the most vulnerable Afghans during the winter," Lyons said.
"The international community needs urgently to find a way to provide financial support to health care workers in state hospitals, staff in food security programs, and, yes, eventually to teachers provided that girls right to education is emphatically met," she added.
She assured council members that the U.N. will make every effort to ensure that funds will not be diverted to the Taliban -- or by the Taliban.
China and Russia urged the unfreezing of Afghanistan's reserves, but U.S. deputy ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis made no mention of sanctions.
He criticized the Taliban for ignoring calls by the Security Council and the international community to peacefully pursue a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan and instead choosing a battlefield victory. "And we are now seeing the terrible consequences of this choice unfold before our eyes," he said.
"But the Afghan people should not have to pay twice for the Taliban decision," DeLaurentis said, saying the United States is the largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan, with $474 million in aid provided in 2021, and urging other countries to step up their support.
Lyons said the only way to avoid losing much of the progress of the last 20 year is for the Taliban to avoid its past isolation and engage in a policy dialogue with other Afghan parties, the wider region and the international community. She said the goal should be to spell out a roadmap with concrete steps to establish "constructive relations between Afghanistan and the world at large."
Lyons said she continues to raise difficult issues with the Taliban, including calling for the restoration of rights for women and girls and ethnic minorities and for a more inclusive administration.
The composition of Afghanistan's Cabinet "remains entirely male, essentially Pashtun and almost all Taliban, at both the capital and provincial levels," she said, and recent appointments continue "to appear designed more to rewarding fighters than promoting governance and inclusion."
The Taliban government has not been recognized by any country or the United Nations. Afghanistan's U.N. seat is still held by the representative of the previous government, Ambassador Ghulam Isaczai.
Isaczai told the council that Afghanistan is facing "a crisis of historic proportions."
"The life and dignity of millions of Afghans are threatened by a failing economy, severe food insecurity and absence of security, basic rights and freedom," he said. "If the current trends continue, Afghanistan will experience near universal poverty."