KABUL The United Nations said on Thursday it would evacuate hundreds of its international staff from Afghanistan for several weeks due to deteriorating security, a sharp blow for Western efforts to stabilize the country.
Spokesman Aleem Siddique said the United Nations would relocate about 600 of its roughly 1,100 international staff, with some being moved to safer sites within Afghanistan and the rest withdrawn from the country temporarily.
The move, a week after five U.N. foreign staff were killed by militants in Kabul, complicates U.S. President Barack Obama's counter-insurgency war strategy, which foresees an influx of civilian assistance alongside extra troops.
Obama is due to decide within weeks whether to approve a request from his commander in Afghanistan for tens of thousands of additional troops. U.S. forces in Afghanistan have already doubled in the nine months since Obama took office.
The United Nations said the evacuations would not disrupt its operations in the country.
"We're doing everything we can to minimize disruption of our work during this period," U.N. special envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide told reporters at a news conference in Kabul.
"We are simply doing what we have to do following the tragic events of last week to look after our workers in a difficult moment while ensuring that our operations in Afghanistan can continue."
Eide said some staff would relocate to Dubai where the United Nations has a facility and where it is "inside the mission area."
Siddique said the U.N. staff would return in three to four weeks after its security measures were changed.
"At the moment we have 93 guest-houses across Kabul and there will be a consolidation of those guest-houses so that we can provide better security in fewer places," he said.
The United Nations mission played a critical role in organizing elections in the country this year, and its agencies such as UNICEF run health, education and other programs.
In last week's attack, Taliban suicide bombers hiding explosive vests under police uniforms entered a guest-house used by U.N. staff, killing five foreigners and prompting a security review by many of the international agencies in the country.
Two other international aid organizations have evacuated some of their non-essential staff since the attack last week, said Hashim Mayar of ACBAR, an umbrella organization for local and international NGOs operating in Afghanistan.
A second round of the presidential election, which was to be held on November 7, was canceled after President Hamid Karzai's only opponent withdrew, citing insufficient safeguards against fraud.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah's decision not to stand meant Karzai was declared the winner, even though more than a quarter of his votes from the August 20 first round were thrown out after a fraud investigation.
The tainted election has hurt Karzai's standing among Western nations with troops fighting in Afghanistan, making Obama's decision about whether to send more troops even more difficult.
"WARLORDS AND POWER-BROKERS"
Adding to the complexity of Obama's decision, is rising anger at civilian casualties caused by Western forces, which the commander of all foreign forces, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, says undermines the Western mission.
Thursday Afghan villagers protested against what they said was the killing of 11 civilians in an air strike by foreign troops, but local authorities said only fighters were killed.
The NATO-led force said it had fired a rocket from the ground at a group it believed to be planting a roadside bomb in Babaji, in Helmand province. It said it was not aware of any civilians in the area and was investigating the incident.
Western nations have pressured Karzai to revamp his cabinet, removing cronies and distancing himself from warlords to gain some credibility.
"We can't afford any longer, a situation where warlords and power-brokers play their own games. We have to have a political landscape that draws the country in the same direction which is the direction of significant reform," Eide said.
"I believe we are now at a critical juncture in the relationship between Afghanistan and the international community. 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."
(Writing by Peter Graff and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alex Richardson)