UNITED NATIONS | The United Nations announced Thursday that it would begin moving hundreds of international staff members in Afghanistan to safer locations after a suicide bombing demonstrated that the blue U.N. flag increasingly has become a bull's-eye for terrorists instead of a security blanket for local populations.
The exodus will take place in the coming weeks and affect about 600 U.N. workers, more than half of the world body's foreign staff in Afghanistan, U.N. officials said Thursday.
"After last weeks attacks, were forced to take additional security measures for our staff here," U.N. spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters in Kabul. "Were providing additional security and moving people to more secure places, and we are in the process of reviewing all our locations."
The move could complicate a decision by President Obama on whether to deploy additional troops to augment the nearly 68,000 U.S. forces now in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama has stressed that success in Afghanistan depends on civilian aid as much as it does on defeating the Taliban insurgency.
The U.N. decision drew criticism from a senior NATO commander.
Gen. Egon Ramms told journalists at the Innich command bunker on the Netherlands-Germany border that civilian and military cooperation is crucial to the Afghan mission.
"By withdrawing personnel from Afghanistan, [the United Nations] will not be able to reach the progress and success we need," he said, according to Agence France-Presse.
In addition to the U.S. deployment, other members of NATO have sent more than 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.
The U.N. evacuation followed a pre-dawn attack by gunmen wearing suicide vests on a guesthouse in Kabul a week ago. Five U.N. employees were among eight people killed.
Before the assault, international staff of about 1,100 lived in 93 guesthouses, which required 93 separate security details.
The scramble comes in addition to the departure of U.N. election advisers, which began after a decision by Afghan authorities earlier this week to cancel a presidential run-off election.
The United Nations has suffered multiple attacks in recent years, forcing it to balance its humanitarian mission with the safety of its staff members in the field.
Five U.N. staffers were killed in neighboring Pakistan last month when a militant in a police uniform entered the World Food Program office in Islamabad asking to use the restroom and blew himself up.
That and other attacks prompted the United Nations to curtail long-term relief projects in Pakistan's northwest region near the border with Afghanistan.
The chief of U.N. security operations, Gregory Starr, arrived in Afghanistan this week, in part to oversee an evaluation of U.N. offices and accommodations.
In recent years, the United Nations has also suffered deadly attacks in Iraq and Algeria. Its offices in the Gaza Strip were hit during an Israeli offensive last winter.
"Increasingly, the U.N. is being targeted, in this case precisely because of our support for the Afghan elections," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters during a surprise visit to Kabul earlier this week.
The Taliban took responsibility for the pre-dawn assault in Kabul.
U.N. officials said they are not leaving Afghanistan, merely regrouping.
Mr. Ban also said he would ask the General Assembly to create an emergency fund for the U.N. Department of Safety and Security. The money would supplement existing reserves to "meet the new [security] demands in an increasingly dangerous world," he said.
Other recent assaults on U.N. staffers include:
- Twin bombings in Algiers killed at least 34 people, including 17 U.N. staff members, in December 2007. An al Qaeda-affiliated group claimed responsibility.
- At least 23 people, including chief U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, died in an August 2003 suicide attack on a building used by the United Nations in Baghdad.
- U.N. workers have also been killed this year in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar, as well as in Sudan and Somalia.