UN will stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary, vows Ban Ki-moon

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today pledged the commitment of the United Nations to stay the course in Afghanistan to ensure peace, security and development in the strife-torn nation.“We shall not leave Afghanistan as long as we are needed by the Afghan people,” Mr. Ban told a high-level international meeting convened in Bucharest, Romania, as part of the summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

He noted the achievements of recent years such as economic growth, lower infant and maternal mortality rates and an increase in school enrolment. “But these welcome indicators of progress must not obscure the obstacles that we still face,” he added, citing the threat posed by the continuing violence and militancy in various parts of the country and the growing drug economy.

Mr. Ban acknowledged that the UN has not been as effective as it needs to be in coordinating the international community, adding that the new Security Council mandate will allow the world body to take a more assertive role in coordination. At a press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Mr. Ban reiterated the need for the international community to continue its efforts in Afghanistan until the Government can stand on its own, warning that “the cost of disengagement would be far greater than the cost of engagement.”

The Secretary-General began the day with a working breakfast with President Karzai, with whom he discussed the importance of today’s conference as a means of reaffirming the international community’s long-term support for Afghanistan. They also discussed the latest audio message from al-Qaida, and both noted, contrary to that message, the contributions that the UN has made to the Muslim world.

After visiting UN staff in Romania, Mr. Ban also held bilateral meetings with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Prime Ministers Romano Prodi of Italy, Helen Clark of New Zealand, Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden, Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands, and Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom. The Secretary-General also met with the Foreign Ministers of Canada and Germany, Maxime Bernier and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as well as European Union High Representative Javier Solana and the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso.

The meetings focused on ways that the international community can improve its assistance to the Afghan people. In addition, Mr. Ban thanked the Swedish Prime Minister for offering to host the 29 May meeting on the International Compact for Iraq. The Secretary-General was scheduled to meet with Romanian President Traian Basescu later in the day.

Next week Mr. Ban will embark on a three-day official visit to Russia, his first since taking office as Secretary-General, his spokesperson announced today. While there he is expected to meet with Russian Government leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as well as the Deputy Chairman of the State Duma and civil society leaders. He will also speak at Moscow State University and address the launch of the UN Global Compact’s Russia network.