Page last updated at 19:23 GMT, Wednesday, 28 October 2009

UN rattled by fatal Kabul attack

By Matthew Price
BBC News, New York

No senior diplomat worth their salt says what he or she is really thinking.

So hours after the attack in Afghanistan which killed five United Nations staff members, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said what he was expected to say, that the UN "remains committed to continue its work in the country as the Afghan people strive for a better future".

The commitment may be there, but is the ability?

Guesthouse on fire in Kabul, 28 October
The Bekhtar guesthouse was gutted by fire following the assault

Wednesday's attack came as a jolt to the UN. The organisation had feared that the Taliban would target its staff members working on the ground in the first round of the presidential election.

When that didn't happen there was a sigh of relief. Security wasn't relaxed, but there was a hope they could concentrate on the politics of an increasingly difficult electoral process.

That has all changed with this attack. The Taliban has directly targeted the UN and its staff, and said it will continue to try to kill those working on Afghanistan's election.

With that in mind, the UN has restricted staff movement in the country. That will be for the coming days at least.

The UN argues that that will not affect the political aspect of the mission, but it must surely have an effect on the ability of the hundreds of staff sent in to help with the elections to do their jobs properly.

It is also hard to see what a long-term security solution might look like. The UN does not have enough room in its (more) secure compounds to house all these staff. They have to live in private guesthouses like the one that was attacked.

We are told the Special Representative of the Secretary General has asked the Afghan authorities to increase security measures for United Nations staff and premises in Kabul. The UN also tells us that "security measures are urgently being reviewed, as well as exposure and operational movements in light of this morning's attack".

Risk assessment

The fact remains that the Afghan interior ministry clearly failed to stop that attack. Afghan guards should have been outside the guesthouse, protecting the UN staff inside. Were they? Did they attempt to do their job? If not, why not? All pressing questions for the UN.

And if the guards cannot stop attacks, will individual UN staff decide that the risks outweigh the benefits? These are brave and committed people, but many now privately believe that the election will not produce the stable democracy Ban Ki-moon and others would like to see. Is that worth risking their lives for?

The UN as an organisation has little choice. It must stay the course. Without the UN presence, the election would have even less credibility than it already has.

Mr Ban made it clear that there was no discussion (for now) of the UN pulling out of Afghanistan when these points were put to him.

"It is an unfortunate fact of life that we can not provide 100% security. We must take all necessary precautionary measures in terms of our security, but we will never be deterred," he said.

Still, at headquarters this attack has rattled them. It makes a tough job for the UN even tougher. It makes the chance of a credible outcome to Afghanistan's elections less likely.

And that in turn makes it harder for those governments that have troops in Afghanistan to persuade their citizens that it is worth staying the course.

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