Thursday, November 5, 2009

UN pulls out half its Afghanistan staff and threatens total withdrawal

The United Nations today temporarily pulled half its international staff out of Afghanistan and threatened that a complete and permanent withdrawal could follow.

Amid an atmosphere of increasing gloom in Afghanistan, the UN Special Representative in Kabul, Kai Eide delivered a pointed warning to the government of Hamid Karzai.

“There is a belief among some, that the international community (presence) will continue whatever happens because of the strategic importance of Afghanistan,” he told a press conference this morning. “I would like to emphasise that that’s not true.”

He added that the Afghan government must demonstrate a willingness to reform and address corruption and the power of warlords.

Of the 1,100 foreign UN workers, 600 will now leave until the situation improves. The remaining UN workers are to be relocated inside Kabul from the current network of 93 different UN guesthouses, many of them privately run civilian houses, to a one large compound which is currently used for the European Union police training mission. The new arrangement will echo the ‘Green Zone’ found in Baghdad.

The move follows last week’s attack on a UN guesthouse in the heart of the Afghan capital, Kabul, in which five UN international staff were killed by gunmen and suicide bombers who were disguised in police uniform.

Other aid agencies in Afghanistan have monitored the UN response to the latest attack but most appear to be maintaining their staffing levels in the country for now.

“It will not have major impact on the operations of international NGOs. Those with staff out of country will keep them there but most staff are still on the ground,” said Lex Kassenberg, the head of CARE International in Afghanistan.

Aid agencies said that tighter security restrictions imposed during the election period would remain in place but several said they would resist moves to put armed guards outside their offices, instead strengthening external defences and fitting cameras.

Aid workers told The Times that the UN move was not widely supported within the wider aid community. “We are really concerned about how the UN will provide services while their staff are outside the country and who will pick up the slack,” said one aid worker, who asked not to be named. “There is a perception that this seems like an overreaction which sends a bad message.”

The head of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon Moon, was critical of the response of both Afghan and Nato security forces following the Kabul attack last week.

Two UN security guards armed with pistols held off the Taleban attack for over an hour before being killed. Another armed UN worker continued resistance from the guesthouse laundry room. Some 20 UN workers were able to escape as a result.

However, Afghan security forces took more than an hour to arrive on the scene.

“For at least an hour, and perhaps more, those two security officers held off the attackers. They fought through the corridors of the building and from the rooftop," Ban told the UN General Assembly. "They held off the attackers long enough for their colleagues to escape, armed only with pistols against assailants carrying automatic weapons and grenades and wearing suicide vests."

Mr Ban said that "the UN security team repeatedly called for help from both Afghanistan government forces and other international partners". He added: "Initial reports suggest that it was approximately an hour, if not longer, before Afghan police or others arrived on the scene."

Both the Afghan government and Nato denied that they had failed to respond effectively to the attack on UN staff.

The UN has 6,700 staff working in Afghanistan, of whom 5,600 are Afghan nationals.

Designers shrug off militant violence for Pakistan's fashion week

KARACHI: Pakistan's fashion week started with an opulent opening ceremony, against a backdrop of militant violence and security fears that delayed the event and kept away foreign glitterati.

Models will sashay down catwalks, flaunting the latest creations by local designers in a country where most women cover up and observe varying degrees of Islamic dress.

The event's chief organiser, Ayesha Tammy Haq, said: ''We, the members of Fashion Pakistan, feel great to host this colourful event at difficult times of our history when the entire nation is waging a battle against militancy.''

A spokeswoman for Fashion Pakistan, Tehmina Khaled, said it would continue until Saturday.

''The situation was so painful in the country that we postponed it for three weeks,'' she said, referring to a spate of deadly attacks blamed on Taliban militants in which more than 340 people died.

''We have 32 designers from across the country who will participate in the event.''

Sonya Battla, the first designer to show, presented a collection that she said celebrated strong women.

She dismissed the fact that, in more conservative parts of the country, her designs might get women driven out of town or stoned to death.

''I'm a very brave woman,'' the 38-year-old designer said.

''I'm not going to be scared and no one's going to judge me.''

Clinton encouraged by ‘overwhelmingly positive’ Pakistani response

Describing the response to her candid engagement with the Pakistani civil society as “overwhelmingly positive,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the U.S. is building a strong base for ties between the two nations. She also made a subtle contrast of her frank discussions on mutual security concerns in Pakistan with the one-sided tone of the former U.S. Administration, that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks sought to pursue relations on “with us or against us” basis. “The reaction that I got in Pakistan was overwhelmingly positive and I’ve been reading a lot of the blogging and the reaction on the press in part because they’re not used to anyone from the United States Government coming and opening herself to their concerns,” Clinton told National Public Radio traveling in Cairo.
“They (the Pakistanis)’re just used to saying to having somebody say, take it or leave it, with us or against us, go forward or not. And so I think we’re building a stronger base for our relationship,” she noted recounting her talks in Pakistan, which was the first stop of her ambitious nine-day trip to the broader Middle Eastern region. Hillary Clinton also argued that her remarks on Pakistanis not being able to know about al-Qaeda leaders whereabouts were not meant to cast a doubt on the Pakistani government’s anti-terror commitment but were part of an open conversation she was trying to have with the Pakistani people about each other’s concerns.