Afghanistan a UN priority: Chief

By Sardar Ahmad,ANTARA,

Kabul (ANTARA News/AFP) – UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday declared Afghanistan a priority for the United Nations and pledged to do the utmost to support key presidential elections this year.

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Ban made a surprise visit to Kabul as the embattled country prepares for its second-ever presidential vote in August while facing an insurgency at its highest point since a US-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime in 2001.

“For the United Nations, Afghanistan will be a priority in 2009,” Ban told reporters at a news conference with President Hamid Karzai.

“I am here to demonstrate and to convey my strong commitment and support for peace and stability, and development of Afghanistan`s people,” he said.

The August 20 elections would be a challenge, Ban said.

“But we will do our utmost to ensure that the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission, with the technical assistance from the United Nations, is adequately supported by donors,” he said.

The poll, expected to cost around 223 million dollars, has been delayed for three months to allow time for adequate security and logistics over fears that insurgent violence could compromise the ballot.

“The voter registration process has proceeded smoothly. We must ensure that the electoral process proceeds as smoothly as possible,” Ban said.

The UN chief also called for international military and political efforts to be “balanced” in Afghanistan.

The presence of international troops was important but so was “an Afghan-led political solution based on the constitution,” he said.

He was likely referring to Kabul`s efforts to persuade Taliban rebels to drop their fight against Karzai`s Western-backed government and accept the new system.

Ban, who was last in Afghanistan in 2007, also stressed the importance of improved coordination among the nation`s many international donors and “tangible changes” to people`s lives in the country.

The United Nations has boosted resources for Afghanistan — announcing in December it would double its budget in the country for 2009, allowing for more staff to be employed and more offices opened.

Besides holding talks with Karzai, Ban was also due to meet Afghan lawmakers and a range of international officials, including commanders of the NATO-led force of 55,000 troops and representatives of UN agencies, the UN said.

The United Nations has said security reached its lowest point in
Afghanistan last year since the Taliban was removed from government with a spike in attacks, including on aid workers.

“The situation in Afghanistan is serious and it`s getting worse,” the UN`s top relief official, John Holmes, said in Geneva on Tuesday.

The reasons were “escalating conflict and also because of the serious drought which has been raging there for two years in some parts of the country,” he said.

Violence has prevented UN and other aid workers from accessing large swathes of the country, and several World Food Programme aid convoys have been attacked and looted in recent years.

The United States, the main provider of international aid and troops to Afghanistan, is also planning to boost its assistance, including the deployment of additional soldiers, although no figure has yet been announced.

Military commanders have said they expect Washington might send
15,000-30,000 more soldiers for the south, a Taliban stronghold where several districts are out of government control.(*)