UNITED NATIONS – The Security Council voted unanimously Thursday to extend U.N. authorization for NATO's 70,000-strong force in Afghanistan for a year, underlining the importance of protecting civilians at a time when the U.S. and international commitment to the war is under review.
Britain's U.N. Ambassador John Sawers said the resolution's adoption by all 15 council members "underlines the extent of international support for the international effort there."
The resolution calls for more personnel, equipment and other resources for NATO's International Security Assistance Force. But it makes no mention of the debate taking place in some NATO capitals on whether to increase or reduce the force.
The Security Council also did not address the debate in Washington on whether to add up to 40,000 additional U.S. troops. President Barack Obama is weighing recommendations and is expected to make a decision within weeks.
The United States has 65,000 troops in Afghanistan — approximately 31,000 serving with NATO and 34,000 under U.S. command.
"I think there is an important debate going on in Washington, and indeed there is an important debate going on in a number of capitals as to exactly how best to achieve our collective goal in Afghanistan — which is to ensure that Afghanistan can no longer be used as a base of terrorists," Sawers said. "And that requires some form of sustained and accountable and stable government across Afghanistan."
The resolution does stress the importance of stepping up efforts "to train, mentor and empower" Afghanistan's security forces so they become self-sufficient and assume responsibility for protecting the country.
The allied strategy in Afghanistan hinges on increasing the number of Afghan soldiers and police so U.S. and NATO forces can one day withdraw. Some 134,000 Afghan troops are to be trained by late 2011, but U.S. officials say that number will need to be greatly increased, an expansion that the U.S. will finance.
The Security Council expressed "strong concern" at the increasing violence and terrorist activity by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, illegally armed groups, criminals and those involved in the narcotics trade — and at the "harmful consequences" on the government's ability to guarantee to rule of law and provide security and basic services to the Afghan people.
The council also voiced concern at "the increasingly strong links between terrorism activities and illicit drugs, resulting in threats to the local population, including children, national security forces and international military and civilian personnel."
It stressed that "the responsibility for providing security and law and order throughout the country resides with the Afghan authorities" — but it also underlined "the need for sustained international efforts" by NATO and the United States to assist the government.
U.S. and NATO authorities have been strongly criticized for an increase in civilian casualties, which has alienated many Afghans.
Soon after assuming command of NATO and U.S. forces in June, Gen. Stanley McChrystal ordered troops to limit the use of airstrikes to prevent civilian casualties. He also ordered that international troops must be accompanied by Afghan forces before entering homes.
The Security Council expressed "serious concern with the high number of civilian casualties." It called for "compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law and for all appropriate measures to be taken to ensure the protection of civilians."
The resolution recognized the additional efforts taken by NATO and other international forces to minimize the risk of civilian casualties and welcomed their increased focus on making the protection of civilians "a central element" in their mission. It urged continuing cooperation with Afghan authorities in cases where civilians are killed.
Britain's Sawers said the resolution, which extends authorization for the NATO mission until Oct. 13, 2010, "goes out of its way to emphasize the importance of protecting the Afghan civilian population, which is one of the centerpieces of general McChrystal's approach."
It urged the Afghan government to make greater efforts to end impunity, strengthen judicial institutions, improve the rule of law and respect for human rights, promote development and "engage constructively in peaceful political dialogue."
The Security Council also issued a press statement condemning Thursday's "reprehensible" attack targeting the Indian Embassy in Kabul that killed 17 people and demanding that those responsible be brought to justice.