U.N. to scale back in Kabul as it ponders better security

KABUL, Afghanistan — A week after pre-dawn attack killed five members of its Kabul staff, the United Nations on Thursday announced plans to scale back its operations in the city temporarily while it re-evaluates dangers in the country.

Although the U.N. said the decision to relocate about half of its international staff shouldn't be seen as a diplomatic retreat, the move comes amid concerns that the deadly attack has emboldened Taliban fighters, who may try to strike again.

"They realize that if they hit the United Nations again, there's a serious risk of the United Nations leaving the country," said one diplomat in Kabul, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity so that he could speak candidly about the U.N. plans.

One of the biggest worries is that insurgents in Afghanistan are trying to duplicate the strategy of Iraqi extremists who forced the United Nations to shutter its Iraqi operations in 2003 after a truck bomb hit the U.N. headquarters and killed 22 people, including the top U.N. official in the country.

If the U.N. were to pull out of Afghanistan, it would force all other international aid groups to rethink their work in the country and would undermine President Hamid Karzai's shaky government.

"That's the name of the game: Get the U.N. out," the diplomat said. "If they can get the United Nations out, then they think they can take out the Karzai government."

Kai Eide, the Norwegian diplomat who heads the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said there were no plans to abandon the country.

"We are not talking about pulling out," Eide said at a news conference in Kabul. Instead, he said, the U.N. is going to relocate hundreds of international workers while it figures out how to protect the staff better.

The United Nations has about 1,200 international staff members in Afghanistan. About 600 nonessential staff will be relocated temporarily to other parts of Afghanistan or to nearby regional offices, said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. operation in Afghanistan.

Currently, much of the staff lives in a well-known network of small, lightly guarded guesthouses, spread across Kabul.

Last week, three militants wearing Afghan police uniforms exploited the vulnerability of the guesthouses by scaling the walls of one compound and staging an attack that killed five United Nations workers, two Afghan security guards and the relative of an Afghan politician.

Afghan officials said six men had been arrested and accused of planning the attack.

Over the next four to six weeks, Siddique said, the U.N. will search for ways to consolidate its housing to reduce the dangers.

"We are not going to be deterred by the threats of terrorist and extremists," Siddique said. "We have no intention of leaving anytime soon."

Along with its international staff, the U.N. has about 4,000 Afghan employees who'll continue their work, Siddique said.

The United Nations is facing increasing dangers in the region, which make it more difficult for its staff to work in the area.

Last week, the United Nations decided to pull its international staff out of northwestern Pakistan. A suicide bomber struck a U.N. office last month in Islamabad, killing five people who worked for the World Food Program.

The U.N. decision in Kabul came on the same day that a NATO strike in southern Afghanistan reportedly killed as many as 11 civilians and sparked local protests.

In a statement released Thursday, NATO said its forces had fired a rocket at a group of nine people who were thought to be concealing an improvised bomb in a village in Helmand province and that the troops didn't know of any civilians in the area.

NATO said it was looking into the allegations. "If any civilians were injured through our actions we deeply regret it," it said in the statement.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, put tougher restrictions on air attacks this summer in an effort to cut down on civilian casualties, which have angered the Afghan government and undermined efforts to win over the civilian population.

(Jay Price of The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed to this report from Kabul).


U.S. officials fear Karzai can't keep anti-corruption pledge

Notorious Afghan warlord returns to help Karzai

As possible Afghan war-crimes evidence removed, U.S. silent

For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington