By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 14 -- The top U.N. representative for Afghanistan warned Tuesday that Taliban insurgents in the country are likely to step up attacks in coming weeks, before the onset of winter, but he also praised the government's progress in curtailing opium cultivation and said the country is not doomed to failure.
Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat, told the U.N. Security Council that the Taliban has made significant strides in recent months, expanding its operations from southern and eastern Afghanistan to positions around the capital, Kabul. Insurgent attacks in July and August were up 40 percent over last year, making it the most violent two-month period since the United States toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.
"We must expect that this number of incidents will continue over the next weeks," Eide said, noting that the insurgents' target list had grown to include humanitarian aid workers. He said he anticipated that the insurgents would conduct operations throughout Afghanistan's winter months -- a period in which Taliban fighters have reduced their activities in the past.
Eide voiced frustration at the Security Council for assigning the United Nations ambitious new responsibilities in Afghanistan but failing to provide adequate financial resources. He said it can take as long as a year to secure finances to employ additional staff members at the U.N. mission in Kabul.
Despite the setbacks, Eide said he would "caution against the kind of gloom-and-doom statements we've seen recently" about Afghanistan. He said that many of the critics who say international efforts to support democracy in Afghanistan have failed are "people who scarcely put their feet on the ground" in the country.
Eide cited three areas of progress in Afghanistan that he said had been overlooked: an improvement in relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan after the election of Asif Ali Zardari as Pakistan's president; the decision by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reshuffle his cabinet after international criticism of government corruption; and a sharp reduction in the number of Afghan provinces cultivating opium poppies.
Eide's mixed account echoed recent assessments by top U.S civilian and military officials, who are conducting a major strategy review for Afghanistan. Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters Friday that violence would probably escalate next year unless the U.S.-led coalition altered its political, economic and military strategy.
"The challenging security situation highlights the need for more forces and better civil-military coordination," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the council Tuesday. "The United States and its partners will send more forces to Afghanistan."
Khalilzad addressed an ongoing dispute between the United States and the United Nations over civilian deaths in a U.S. airstrike in August. The United Nations says at least 90 civilians -- two-thirds of them children -- were killed in the attack. The United States initially said that five to seven civilians were killed but later acknowledged that more than 30 civilians may have died.
"The United States deeply regrets the accidental loss of life," Khalilzad said. "We will do everything in our power to ensure that [the U.S.-led coalition] take every precaution to prevent civilian casualties."
Eide said there "are still discrepancies between our investigation and what came out of Washington." But he said he was reassured by the U.S. commitment "that whatever can be done will be done" to avoid a recurrence.
"I would like to put that particular incident behind us," he said.