NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and 28 members of the NATO council today made an unannounced visit to Kabul to underscore the military alliance's commitment to supporting Afghanistan after its fighting forces complete their withdrawal in 2014.
"Our visit today is a clear demonstration of our commitment," Rasmussen said at a joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that was held to detail NATO plans to maintain a "non-combat" role beyond 2014. "All fifty nations that are part of our coalition remain committed to Afghanistan, now and for the long term."
The high profile tour comes just weeks after the U.N. Security Council cancelled an Afghanistan visit -- planned for next week -- because it was considered too dangerous.
The risk to foreign powers in Afghanistan is undeniable. On Wednesday, a suicide bombed rammed a truck filled with explosives into a joint NATO-Afghan army outpost in eastern Afghanistan, injuring at least 10 Afghan and coalition troops, according to an Associated Press report. And allied forces have come under increasing attack from troops within the Afghan security agencies.
But today's visit raised the question: Why is it safe enough for NATO ambassadors, including U.S. Ambassador Ivo Daalder, to travel there and not for the U.N. Security Council, which planned to travel with a far smaller delegation with nearly half the number of senior ambassadors?
Earlier this month, I reported that the U.N. Security Council had indefinitely postponed its plans to pay a visit to Afghanistan over October 21-25, as well as a side trip to Yemen.
The decision followed an October 2 closed-door briefing to the U.N. Security Council by Gregory Starr -- a former U.S. State Department security chief who currently oversees security matters for the Unite d Nations -- who claimed he had received specific threats, but that maybe the trip could be rescheduled for mid November.
The briefing caught U.N. envoys by surprise, as Starr had informed them just the day before that the trip to Afghanistan was "doable." The U.N. Special Representative Jan Kubis, meanwhile, is said to have agreed, and had hoped the council's visit would underscore the international community's commitment to Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO combat forces.
"He said there was new intelligence that wasn't available the day before," according to a U.N.-based diplomat.
The cancellation of the visit, which was being organized by Germany, has infuriated some delegations, particularly Berlin, which privately complained that the Security Council was squandering an opportunity to underscore U.N. support for the mission, according to council diplomats. Diplomats said that the United States, which had expressed concern about security conditions, was behind the decision to postpone the trip, at least until November.
"These are crucial times for Afghanistan: not only are preparations for transition in full swing -- but there are also elections coming up. Both need a strong and active UN presence on the ground with the full backing of the U.N. Security Council," said a U.N. based diplomat. "So if NATO can send this much-needed message, why not the U.N.?
"The very fact that the secretary general of NATO and 28 ambassadors of NATO countries deemed security sufficient for their mission sends an important message of confidence in the Afghani people," the diplomat said.
The United States declined to comment on the dispute.
But a Security Council diplomat defended the decision to postpone the trip, saying that while the U.S. and other council members were prepared to go to Afghanistan, there had been broad agreement in the council to put off the trip following Starr's security warning. "It's unfortunate that some members [of the Security Council] have misrepresented the facts given the broad consensus in the council to postpone the trip," the diplomat said.
This morning, the United Nations defended its decision to hold off the trip. "All we really have to say about it is that we made a recommendation based on the best information available," said Farhan Haq, the spokesman for the United Nations secretary general. "We stand by that recommendation, but will not comment further."
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.