India's efforts highly appreciated: Afghanistan's Red Cross chief

India's efforts highly appreciated: Afghanistan's Red Cross chief

"It's extremely disturbing. Many civilians have been killed," said Stocker, who was in India recently. He left for Kabul on Thursday when a powerful car bomb exploded outside the Indian embassy, killing 17 Afghans and injuring over 80 people.

Stocker refused to speculate on the motives behind the attack, but he underlined that India's developmental activities have earned it enormous goodwill in Afghanistan. "India's development initiatives are highly appreciated by Afghans. Every Afghan welcomes an honest commitment to improve the life of the people of the country," said Stocker, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Afghanistan since 2005.

"I appreciate India's efforts to build a dam near Herat, the power station in Chimtala and roads that are improving the day-to-day life of the Afghans," he said. India has pledged $1.2 billion development assistance to Afghanistan and is involved in big infrastructure projects as well as 100-odd grassroots initiatives.

Stocker is concerned about the unfolding human catastrophe in Afghanistan triggered by spiralling incidents of violence since the ouster of the Taliban regime in that country in 2001. "Civilian casualties have gone up. The humanitarian needs have been growing. The insurgency is no longer confined to the south. Humanitarian agencies have not had a more challenging task than they have in Afghanistan," he stressed.

Stocker pointed out that it was becoming very difficult for the ICRC to maintain its impartiality and independence in a global environment that had become sharply polarised after the Iraq war in 2003.

But even so, the ICRC has stuck to its mandate by being in contact with all parties to the conflict - state and non-state, he said.

The ICRC has scaled up its involvement in Afghanistan over the last few years. Its budget for Afghanistan has doubled to $70 million in the last three years. The number of expatriates working for the ICRC in Afghanistan has tripled from 40 to 120 and local Afghan volunteers have gone up from 1,000 to 1,500.

But despite huge efforts by humanitarian agencies, the security situation in Afghanistan continues to be grim. "The single biggest concern of every Afghan is security. In many areas, it's a question of basic needs of the population, like health and education."

Health is one area where the ICRC's relentless efforts have made a tangible difference. The ICRC has been able to persuade the Taliban, which it calls armed opposition, to give up their hostility to the polio vaccination campaign.

"We approached the leadership of the armed opposition. They have agreed. As a result, polio vaccination efforts are succeeding." Stocker said the ICRC has always advocated a dialogue among all parties concerned so that civilian casualties are minimised despite the brutal murder of one of its expatriates in 2003 in Kandahar. He advocated the heart and mind strategy, rather than guns and rockets to smoothen Afghanistan's transition to peace and stability.

"There is a growing understanding by all parties that the strategy of winning hearts and minds will yield results," he said.  In Afghanistan, the ICRC's assistance work consists of a large medical programme in support of conflict victims, an orthopaedic programme catering to mine victims and other physically disabled and a relief programme assisting the population displaced as a result of the conflict.