KABUL – The United Nations said Thursday that it will send more than half its international staff either out of Afghanistan or into more secure compounds following last week's deadly Taliban attack against U.N. workers — the most direct targeting of its employees during decades of work in the country.
About 600 nonessential staffers will be affected by the move, the U.N. said. The announcement came as the head of the U.N. mission issued a stern warning to newly re-elected President Hamid Karzai that he must crack down on corruption and initiate reform or risk losing international support.
The U.N. is still reeling from the pre-dawn assault on a guesthouse in the capital that left five of its staffers dead.
The world body insists it remains committed to Afghanistan, but its actions show how much security has degraded in the country and raise questions about the future of its work if attacks continue.
The relocations follow a U.N. decision on Monday to suspend much of its work in the volatile northwest of neighboring Pakistan because of increasingly targeted attacks.
The 600 U.N. employees will be moved for three to four weeks to more secure locations both within and outside of Afghanistan while the world body works to find safer permanent housing, spokesman Aleem Siddique said. He said they did not know how many would actually be leaving the country.
"We are not talking about pulling out," the head of the mission, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, told reporters. "We are not talking about evacuation."
He said a number of options were being considered for those who have to leave the country, including Dubai — a typical destination for international workers in Afghanistan on rest breaks.
Still, Eide made clear that the U.N. is concerned about the deteriorating situation in the country and the government's failure to stamp out corruption which helps fuel the insurgency.
"There is a belief among some that the international commitment to Afghanistan will continue whatever happens because of the strategic importance of Afghanistan," Eide said during a news conference in Kabul. "I would like to emphasize that that is not correct. It is the public opinion in donor countries and in troop-contributing countries that decides on the strength of that commitment."
The majority of the U.N.'s 1,100 international staff in Afghanistan lives in the capital, spread out in more than 90 guesthouses.
The plan is to consolidate those living arrangements to better protect staff, Siddique said. He stressed this was not a pullout or a scale-down in operations. About 80 percent of the U.N.'s staff in Afghanistan are Afghan citizens, and they will not be moved or halt their work, he said.
"We've been here for over half a century, and we're not about to go any time soon," Siddique said.
Much U.N. work in Afghanistan has been put on hold since the attack and employees have been given the option to take leave while officials consider how to better protect them.
Eide stressed that most of those who will be relocated are support staff, not those doing humanitarian work or leading urgent programs.
"We are doing everything we can do to minimize disruption of our work during this period," Eide said.
In the Oct. 28 attack, gunmen wearing suicide vests stormed a private guesthouse where dozens of U.N. staffers lived, killing five U.N. workers and three Afghans. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault, saying they intentionally targeted U.N. employees working on the recent presidential election.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon requested an additional $75 million to help with security improvements and crisis preparation in Afghanistan after the attack, spokesman Adrian Edwards said.
"There is no going back to the previous situation we were in. Our security clearly isn't up to the job of dealing with these kinds of attacks," Edwards said.
In Pakistan, the U.N. has suspended long-term development work — projects with a five-year or longer time frame — in the tribal areas and the North West Frontier Province, regions that border Afghanistan and have large areas under Taliban control.
The U.N. has lost 11 staffers in attacks in Pakistan this year, including last month's bombing of the World Food Program's office in Islamabad that killed five people.