A top-level United Nations mission to Afghanistan says security and the total disarmament of militia forces are critical to economic development and free elections. Despite rampant security problems, the U.N. delegates think national elections will probably take place next year, as scheduled.

Germany's U.N. ambassador, Gunter Pleuger, says Afghanistan's future depends almost entirely on its security situation.

"The core problem we met in all the discussions, whether it was politicians, whether it was local leaders, whether it was NGO's [non-governmental organizations], the key question appeared to us to be security," he said.

Ambassador Pleuger, who led an unprecedented mission of U.N. Security Council representatives to Afghanistan, says the delegates aimed to show that the international community remains dedicated to ending the fighting in Afghanistan. He was speaking to reporters in the Afghan capital, Kabul, at the end of the five-day mission.

Since the 2001 war that ousted the hard-line Taleban rulers, Afghanistan has been plagued by fighting among rival militia commanders and warlords, as well as by an insurgency from remnants of the old regime.

The German diplomat spoke out against the profusion of private militias, including sizable units still deployed within Kabul, where international peacekeepers are supposed to be in charge of security.

"All military units have to be withdrawn from Kabul and its environs," said Ambassador Pleuger. "This has not yet been achieved, and I think it is urgent to do this, before we get into the hot phase of the preparation for the election."

The U.N. ambassador says, only when the Kabul militia and other private forces are demobilized will the country be able to stage fair, peaceful elections. The Kabul militia is led by Afghan Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, who has previously promised to disband his forces.

An internationally endorsed agreement signed two years ago in Germany set a deadline of June 2004 for national elections.

Despite the security challenges, Ambassador Pleuger says the Afghan officials who met with the delegation feel there is a good possibility that a presidential election can be held by deadline.

He says legislative elections may be longer in coming, as they involve more complicated planning.

But the ambassador also noted that any elections will hinge on the adoption of the new Afghan draft constitution by a national council that is to meet next month.