KABUL, Afghanistan — The United Nations is sending about 600 foreign staff out of the country or into secure compounds because of a deadly Taliban attack on U.N. workers, warning the Afghan government Thursday that international support will wane unless it cracks down on corruption fueling the insurgency.
The decision follows a drawdown of U.N. operations in Pakistan, casting doubt on whether the world body can operate effectively in this region with war raging on both sides of the border. The moves come as the Obama administration nears a decision on whether to send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to try to curb the growth of the Taliban.
The U.N. insists the relocations — which affect more than half the organization's foreign staff in Afghanistan and a modest number in Pakistan — are temporary.
Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, told reporters, "We are not talking about evacuation" — language similar to that used by U.N. spokesmen in 2003 when the world body announced a "temporary relocation" from Iraq after bombings against U.N. facilities. The drawdown lasted for years.
Nevertheless, insurgents can claim a psychological victory. Hampering the international community's ability to carry out aid and development work makes it harder to win the hearts and minds of the people, a key ingredient for battlefield success.
Earlier this week, the U.N. announced it was pulling some expatriate staff from Pakistan after a deadly attack in the capital, Islamabad. It also suspended long-term development work in such fields as health, education, agriculture and the environment in key areas of the lawless border area with Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the U.N. mission is still reeling from the Oct. 28 assault on a guest house in Kabul where dozens of U.N. staffers lived. Gunmen wearing suicide vests killed five U.N. workers and three Afghans. The three assailants also died.
The Taliban said they attacked the guest house because the U.N. was working on the Afghan election, which they viewed as a Western plot.
About 600 of the 1,100 international staff will be moved to more secure locations while the U.N. works to find safer permanent housing, spokesman Aleem Siddique said.
Although Eide insisted the U.N. was not abandoning Afghanistan, he made clear that the U.N. is concerned about the deteriorating situation in the country and the failure of President Hamid Karzai's government to stamp out corruption.
"There is a belief among some that the international commitment to Afghanistan will continue whatever happens because of the strategic importance of Afghanistan," Eide told reporters. "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."