/ 27 December 2007

UN push to stop Afghan expulsions in Taliban row

United Nations officials were on Wednesday night working to prevent the expulsion from Afghanistan of two senior Western diplomats who have been accused of holding illegal talks with Taliban leaders in the British theatre of operations in the southern province of Helmand.

The intervention on behalf of a Briton working for the United Nations and an Irishman working as the EU’s acting mission — both due to be deported on Thursday — comes amid renewed questioning of military tactics in the region.

Both organisations insisted on Wednesday that the row was the result of a ”misunderstanding”, but there was pressure on the UK government from opposition parties to answer separate claims that talks had been held with Taliban leaders on a number of occasions in the summer.

President Hamid Karzai and the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, have publicly insisted that there can be no negotiations with the Taliban, while at the same time offering reconciliation to fighters who turn away from the Islamist militants.

The diplomats were ordered to leave by the Afghan president’s office, which said they had engaged in activities ”that were not their jobs”. One Western official told the Guardian that the initial complaint had come from the governor of Helmand province, Asadullah Wafa.

The men’s trip to the Musa Qala district last Monday, retaken from the Taliban two weeks ago by Nato and Afghan forces after fierce fighting, was ”detrimental to national security”, an Afghan official said. ”Not only did they hold talks with the Taliban, but also had given them money. They are persona non grata.” Helmand is the heart of country’s drug-producing poppy industry and the EU and UN have a key role in the British-led eradication programme.

The men were named on Wednesday as Mervyn Patterson, from Northern Ireland, who works for the UN, and the EU’s acting mission head, Michael Semple, an Irishman. He was formerly the human rights adviser to the British High Commission in Pakistan. Both men have years of experience in Afghanistan.

Semple was an expert on the country’s complex tribal politics. Five years ago, after the Taliban regime was overthrown, Patterson was instrumental in negotiating with powerful tribal leaders — often allied to hard-line Taliban elements — in the north.

The Karzai government has rarely taken such strong measures against Western officials. The move may have been a product of growing strains over how best to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

The diplomatic wrangle coincided with claims on Wednesday that MI6 officers had held a series of meeting with senior Taliban leaders. British government sources categorically denied the reports. They admit MI6 is active in Afghanistan, but deny direct talks with the Taliban, saying intermediaries are used, and only in pursuit of Karzai’s own efforts to promote reconciliation.

The sources see the threatened expulsion as an attempt by Karzai and Wafa to assert their authority, especially over how the political space provided by the retaking of Musa Qala is used.

Wafa only took over Helmand at the beginning of the year, vowing to take a hard line with the Taliban and promising no repeat of the peace deal struck by the British with local elders that ended in the town being seized by the Taliban in February 2007. British sources believe Karzai’s decision to back Wafa so openly also indicates nervousness in Kabul at the role Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, might play in the near future as a UN-EU envoy in the country.

The British Foreign Office would not comment on intelligence matters. But officials in London are acutely aware of the past role members of the secret intelligence service have played in talking to terrorists.

”We support the Afghan government’s efforts at political reconciliation by engaging with those who are prepared to leave or who have left the Taliban,” one said. But public policy is unequivocal. Brown told the Commons two weeks ago: ”We are isolating and eliminating the leadership of the Taliban; we are not negotiating with them.”

Setting out government strategy to maintain the present force of 7 800 troops, he went on: ”Our objective is to defeat the insurgency … I make it clear that we will not enter into any negotiations with these people.”

The shadow British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said on Wednesday that if the intelligence contacts were true, ”the prime minister will have some explaining to do to the British public. We cannot negotiate with people who are killing our troops. If there are former Taliban fighters or commanders who want a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan naturally this is welcome, but we can cut no compromise with those who are currently killing our troops and civilians.”

First details of the intended expulsions broke on Christmas Day. Humayun Hamidzada, a spokesperson the president, initially announced that two foreigners had been arrested. But because the pair had diplomatic immunity they were not technically arrested, officials said later.

Aleem Siddique, a spokesperson for the UN mission in Afghanistan, said the two officials had been talking to people on the ground, but strongly denied that this included Taliban commanders.

”We see this as a misunderstanding of what people were doing in Helmand. There is a miscommunication between the authorities in Helmand province and the central government, and that’s what we’re trying to clear up. We don’t talk to Taliban, full stop.

”We have always said we support talks with those people who can be persuaded to lay down their weapons. But that does not mean we are talking to terrorists or anyone who is on a sanctions list.” A spokesperson for the EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, whose office employs Semple, said on Wednesday night that talks aimed at resolving the dispute were ongoing ”Our impressions is that this is a misunderstanding and we expect to have everything cleared up soon.” – Guardian Unlimited Â