KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Kandahar is a city on the knife’s edge.
With rising violence and NATO’s unfolding offensive in the area has prompted the United Nations and other relief organizations to step out of the way.
The United Nations is in the process of cutting its foreign staff level in the southern city as part of a security review, said a spokeswoman for the UN mission in the capital Kabul.
“There has been a temporary reduction,” Susan Manuel said in a telephone interview Sunday. “We’re trying to determine the profile of the staff, or who needs to be there doing what.”
Last week, NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, declared the operation to root out insurgents in Kandahar was underway. But rather than opening with a D-Day-like assault as in Marjah, next door in Helmand province, he said the offensive in Kandahar would be rolled out in stages.
Manuel said the UN security review is not reaction to the military push as much as it’s a response to the overall situation in Kandahar, which is the spiritual home of the Taliban. A series of five co-ordinated bombings in the city on March 13-14 left 35 people dead and scores wounded.
She did not discuss numbers involved in the draw down, but other aid groups say it’s expected to be more than a dozen.
There are just over 100 staff working for the world body in the city, including 37 people from other countries. The reduction affects the international staff, not local Afghans.
At least one human rights group is alarmed and said the staff cut comes when an ill-prepared city faces a tide of people fleeing the fighting.
“There will be an inadequate response from the international community and the Afghanistan government doesn’t have the capacity to respond,” Ajmal Samadi, director of Afghanistan Rights Monitor in Kabul.
“The UN should alleviate the suffering, not retreat from it. It shouldn’t leave people behind.”
But Manuel said UN-sponsored programs will continue. Last month, Tooryalai Wesa, the Afghan-Canadian governor of Kandahar announced a stockpiling of tents, medicine and foodstuffs in advance of the NATO military drive.
But Samadi said there little in the way of logistics ready to deliver such humanitarian assistance. Other vital elements, such access to clean drinking water and plan on where to house displaced people, are missing.
“There’s no proper planning and just giving out blankets is not enough,” he said in a telephone interview from Kabul.
Last week, the mayor of Kandahar and some provincial councillors expressed fears that unlike the past, the city itself would become a battleground this summer as the offensive intensifies.
But a senior Canadian officer in charge of battle operations said he believed the concerns are misplaced and despite their spectacular nature, the recent Taliban assaults were failures.
“They didn’t achieve what they wanted to achieve,” said Lt.-Col. Roch Pelletier, referring specifically to the attack and attempted breakout at Sarpoza.
“All it’s done this time, according to me anyway, is that they killed their own people.”
He also challenged the overall perception that the city was besieged and other constant threat. That’s not the impression he gets from patrols, which until recently were greeted by rock or vegetable-throwing Afghans in some quarters.
“Generally speaking people are very friendly to us,” said Pelletier, who credited the expanding Afghan army for carrying the security load.
“They are welcoming us. They are talking to us, shaking hands with us. I have been going through patrols in Kandahar city and feeling very secure. The perception is security has improved because people come to us and look very relaxed. They do their own business. And everyone seems quite happy.”
It is startlingly contrast to the UN’s assessment and that of local Afghans, who say the Taliban routinely make their presence felt on the streets.
Working in pairs during daylight, insurgent enforcers let it be known who are they are and intimidate local shopkeepers. At night, they deliver threatening letters that promise to murder government officials and those working for foreign companies.
Pelletier conceded that if the Taliban bring the fight into the city from rural areas there will be challenges for NATO troops, who are under strict orders to prevent civilian casualties.
“It’s probably a bit harder to identify them and separate them from the local population, just because of the different people that there are in the city,” he said. “In the villages most of the people know each other. So it’s much easier when you know the people to know who belongs and who doesn’t belong there.”
The UN may be scaling back its presence, but the humanitarian community is not abandoning Kandahar. The International Committee of the Red Cross is said to beefing up its presence at the Mirwais hospital in anticipation of civilian casualties.