Reeling from a Taliban suicide bombing that left three of its workers dead, the U.N. refugee agency plans to intensify cooperation with local aid groups to get out the message that its mission in Afghanistan is purely humanitarian, the agency's head said Wednesday.
The agency is also pressing the international community and the Afghan government to work harder on the reintegration of more than 5 million Afghans who have come home, Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees told The Associated Press.
The move to more reliance on local non-governmental organizations comes after an Oct. 31 suicide bombing and simultaneous attack by Taliban insurgents in the restive southern province of Kandahar on a compound housing the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.
The attack, which killed five people including three UNHCR guards, underscored the precarious security situation in Afghanistan 10 years after the start of the U.S.-led campaign that ousted the Taliban from power.
"It's ... very important to emphasize the capacity to reach out to the population the capacity to show that we are fully committed to humanitarian principles," Guterres said. He arrived Wednesday and immediately flew to Kandahar to pay his respects to the families of those killed in the attack.
"Afghanistan lives in a very complex situation, both in relation to the internal political situation and global security problems it faces," he said, "but our agenda is limited to the needs of the people we care for, and it is also very important that the population understands that."
Guterres said given the security concerns, "one of the very important instruments is cooperation with the local actors, and ... that cooperation with the local actors will be intensified in the near future" to ensure that those needing the UNHCR's help do not suffer from decreased services.
Guterres said despite having helped about 4.6 million Afghans return home, 50 percent of those who have resettled in the country have not been fully reintegrated.
The refugee question is one of the most difficult confronting the government of President Hamid Karzai as it struggles to rebuild after a ruinous war further compounded decades of neglect. More than 8 million Afghans live at or below poverty levels, according to the U.N., and job creation has been negligible even for those who have remained in country, let alone those who have returned from abroad.
Decades of war drove millions of Afghans from the country, and the continued fighting around the country has left hundreds of thousands more displaced from their homes.
Guterres said the issue of reintegrating the refugees represented the one of the biggest hurdles with which the agency and the international community must grapple.
But inroads are being made, he said.
Iran and Pakistan _ who together host the majority of the Afghan refugees _ have agreed with Afghanistan and the UNHCR to hold a conference early next year to appeal to the international community to support a comprehensive framework for dealing with the refugee crisis and reintegration efforts.
"I think this capacity to bring together these three countries is something new, and represents also potentially an example of other areas of cooperation that could be essential to bring more stability to the region," he said.
Such broader international cooperation is key because the Afghan government lacks the resources to tackle the issue alone.
Guterres said one element that Afghan officials can focus greater attention on is land ownership and resolving land disputes _ a move that would afford returnees a chance to build homes and set down roots in their country.
The land ownership issue is key in Afghanistan, where titles are often missing or land is simply expropriated by warlords or others.
A U.S. State Department report in July said that an Afghan government program to allocate land to returnees "has been mismanaged and has not met its goal of providing land to support basic livelihood for returnees."
Without access to land ownership and the crafting of a comprehensive rural development program, the scenario likely to emerge is that people will shift to the slums in the cities _ especially Kabul _ further exacerbating economic and social problems in those areas.