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Analysis: Taleban Attack is Bid to Force UN Out of Afghanistan

by Jeremy Page in Kabul

The Taleban attack on an international guesthouse in Kabul today is its bloodiest assault yet on the United Nations in Afghanistan - and represents a major escalation of its campaign to disrupt next week's presidential election run-off.

The attack, which killed 12 people including six UN staff, appears to be designed to force the UN to pull out of Afghanistan altogether - just as it did from Iraq after a truck bomb at its headquarters there killed 22 people in 2003.

A complete UN withdrawal from Afghanistan would almost certainly force the cancellation, or postponement, of the November 7 vote, which the UN is funding and has hundreds of staff helping to organize.

Some of those staying in the Bekhtar guesthouse were from UNDP Elect - the part of the UN directly involved in the poll.

But even if the UN does not withdraw, today's attack will seriously complicate and delay international efforts to organise a more credible run-off following the fraud-ridden first round in August.

Among other efforts, UN officials are trying to persuade the Independent Election Commission to close polling stations where the worst fraud occurred, and to sack the election officials responsible.

Kai Eide, the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, pledged today that the attack would not deter the UN from its commitment to Afghanistan.

In practice, however, the entire UN operation in Kabul will be paralysed for several days - if not weeks - as its security consultants review the safety of staff accommodation.

The UN has already imposed a "white city" lockdown, which forbids staff from moving around Kabul, and instructed all foreign staff to pack their bags in case of evacuation. Staff due to fly in from Dubai have been told to wait.

Many other aid agencies and non-governmental organisations have taken similar steps.

Even when the UN lifts its lockdown, it is unclear where will be deemed safe for its estimated 2,000 staff in Kabul to stay.

Other guesthouses and small hotels have similar security arrangements to the Bekhtar, and there is not enough room in the more secure UN office compounds.

The few large hotels have almost all been attacked at least once and have boosted their security accordingly, but are still considered high profile targets.

The Taleban also fired two rockets today at the Serena - the only five star hotel in Kabul - forcing guests to be evacuated into an underground bunker.

The Serena has stepped up security since a militant attack killed seven people in January last year, but is still vulnerable as it is right next to the presidential palace and a busy road.

That is why the Bekhtar guesthouse was such a good target for the Taleban: it was both poorly guarded, and high impact.

By hitting such a soft target, the Taleban's strategy appears to mirror that of its Pakistani counterparts, who have also targeted the UN in the last few weeks.

The UN has shut down most of its operations in the northwest, following a series of attacks, including a suicide bombing at the World Food Programme offices in Islamabad this month.

Militants in Afghanistan are also using similar tactics to their Pakistani counterparts, apparently disguising today's attackers with police uniforms, and using a combination of gunmen and suicide bombers.

That either suggests that the same group is responsible, most likely the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network, or that the Afghan and the Pakistani Taleban are coordinating their efforts to a greater degree.

Either way, militants on both side of the border have made it clear that they see the UN as a legitimate, and easy, target.

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