United Nations, 23 May 2002 (RFE/RL) - A senior UN official today again urged the United Nations Security Council to strengthen security throughout Afghanistan to safeguard the political reform process taking place. The United Nations' Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs Kieran Prendergast expressed concern about the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where rival warlords have battled for control, and in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
Prendergast said the fragile security situation could undermine the process to build a representative, multiethnic government, including next month's Loya Jirga: "We cannot expect a sustained reconstruction process to be launched in Afghanistan without real improvements in security outside Kabul and its environs."
The council is due to approve today a six-month extension of the International Security Assistance Force for the Kabul region, with Turkey replacing Britain as leader of the force. There has been a lack of support from member states for committing peacekeeping troops to other parts of Afghanistan.
A U.S. representative, Richard Williamson, told the council today that the U.S.-led international coalition of forces operating against Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan will make sure that the Loya Jirga takes place in a secure environment. The Loya Jirga is set to begin on 10 June.
Williamson said coalition forces have provided a stabilizing element in areas outside of Kabul and would continue to monitor the security situation throughout the country: "We believe that United States and coalition efforts to address the security imperatives beyond Kabul have been successful to date. We continue to envision potential security concerns outside of Kabul being addressed as necessary by a coalition in operation 'Enduring Freedom' forces."
Williamson and other council members stressed the importance of training and equipping Afghan forces to provide their own security. He said about 180 U.S. Special Forces personnel arrived recently to begin training Afghan national army members.
In addition, France's deputy UN ambassador, Yves Doutriaux, told the council that 55 French military instructors will train two Afghan army battalions starting next week.
Despite security concerns, UN officials say they are encouraged by the participation of Afghans in the Loya Jirga process. Prendergast, the UN undersecretary-general, said there are ongoing concerns about intimidation by local military or political leaders of Afghans involved in the preparatory process for the Loya Jirga.
But he said there has been impressive turnout by Afghans in the process of holding district assemblies throughout the country. The assemblies will select "electoral colleges" of between 20 and 60 members that will elect by secret ballot the representatives to the Loya Jirga.
Prendergast said UN officials believe the political process so far has shown the capacity for reconciliation and compromise among Afghans: "There is a general understanding that the Loya Jirga is an important event for Afghanistan's future, above all that it is too important to be discarded for its imperfections."
Also encouraging, Prendergast says, has been the progress on refugee returns. He told the council that the number of refugees assisted by the United Nations in their return is about 625,000 and a number of others have returned on their own.