Global Policy Forum

UN Warns of Complete Withdrawal from Afghanistan After Deadly Attack


By John Boone & Matthew Weaver

November 5, 2009


The UN is to evacuate more than half its staff in Afghanistan for safety reasons after the killing of five workers last week, and has warned that a complete withdrawal could follow.

In the latest blow to the US-led war against the Taliban, the UN said 600 of its 1,100 staff in Afghanistan would be moved to secure locations outside the country for at least three weeks.

The move followed the death of five UN workers in a pre-dawn attack on a guesthouse in Kabul on 28 October - the most direct attack on its employees in decades of work in the country.

It comes at a time of growing doubt about the international strategy in Afghanistan, which is partly based on civilian support as well as extra troops. Concerns about that approach were underlined yesterday by the announcement that an Afghan policeman killed five British soldiers in Helmand province.

The UN insists it remains committed to Afghanistan. But announcing the temporary pullout, Kai Eide, the head of the UN mission, said the international community was now at a "critical juncture" in its relationship with Afghanistan.

"The perception that we will stay in this country no matter what, is incorrect," he said. "The debate over the last few weeks has demonstrated that there are more question marks and more doubt with regard to the strength of the international commitment to Afghanistan."

He added: "We can't afford any longer, a situation where warlords and power-brokers play their own games."

The UN's actions show how much security has worsened and raises questions about the future of its work if attacks continue.

The relocations follow a UN decision on Monday to suspend much of its work in the volatile north-west of neighbouring Pakistan because of increasingly targeted attacks.

Staff involved will be non-essential employees currently spread out in 90 guesthouses, mainly in Kabul.

Eide added: "We are not talking about pulling out. We are not talking about evacuation.

"We are simply doing what we have to, following the tragic events of last week. We are doing this to ensure our work can continue while taking care of the security and safety of our personnel."

UN officials privately admit that the attack on the Bekhtar guesthouse came perilously close to meeting the organisation's threshold for a general evacuation of the country.

"Frankly, if we have just one more attack or a few of our staff killed, then we will all have to pack up our bags and leave," a UN worker said.

Such a retreat would transform forever the way the international intervention in Afghanistan has been handled. Until now, UN workers have been far freer to operate in the country, allowing UN aid agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance and the political mission to collect high-grade information about the country that is greatly valued by international embassies, whose onerous security rules prevent diplomats from leaving their compounds.

With the UN gone, most NGOs would follow suit, leaving the foreign presence in the country largely in the hands of Nato and a few key embassies in Kabul.

The UN said that while some of its staff would be moved to Dubai, where the organisation already has facilities, others would be relocated within the country.

When the ruling Taliban regime ordered the UN out of the country in 1998, operations continued from Islamabad in neighbouring Pakistan.

Dubai, which is serviced by several flights a day to Kabul, is now seen as preferable, particularly as the Pakistani capital has been hit by several major attacks in recent years. Eide said that Dubai was "defined as being inside the mission area," and had UN facilities "so it is a natural place for relocation of UN staff".

It was not immediately clear where the staff could be moved to in a country where security has deteriorated almost everywhere, but UN officials said likely areas included the eastern city of Herat or Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, which still enjoy relatively good security.

In last week's attack, gunmen wearing suicide vests stormed the private guesthouse where dozens of UN employees lived, killing five workers and three Afghans. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault, saying they intentionally targeted UN employees working on the fraud-tainted presidential election.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, requested an additional $75m (£45m) to help with security improvements and crisis preparation in Afghanistan after the attack, a spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said.

"There is no going back to the previous situation we were in," he said. "Our security clearly isn't up to the job of dealing with these kinds of attacks."

In Pakistan, the UN has suspended long-term development projects with a five-year or longer time frame in the tribal areas and the North-West Frontier province that border Afghanistan and have large areas under Taliban control.

The UN has lost 11 staff in attacks in Pakistan this year, including last month's bombing of the World Food Programme's office in Islamabad that killed five people.

The US president, Barack Obama, is still considering a plan to send tens of thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan.

A runoff of the presidential election was due to be held on Saturday, but was cancelled after President Hamid Karzai's opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew over concerns about fraud.


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