A senior United Nations official and the acting head of the European Union's mission in Afghanistan were expelled from the country Thursday after the government accused them of holding talks with the Taliban and giving the group cash. UN officials have denied the allegations. Analysts say the incident reflects divisions over growing efforts to neutralize the Taliban by negotiating with their tribal alliances.
The two men, whose expulsion was announced Tuesday, left Kabul Thursday morning, reports Reuters.
UN spokesman Aleem Siddique said the UN staffer had left on Thursday morning on a regular chartered flight to neighbouring Pakistan. Diplomats in Kabul confirmed the EU official, the mission's acting head, had been on the same flight.
While neither organization has formally named the pair, it is common knowledge in the capital that they are Michael Semple [with the EU] and Mervin Patterson, who have lived and worked in Afghanistan for more than a decade – even during the rule of the Taliban that was toppled by the US-led invasion in 2001.
Mr. Semple is British and Mr. Patterson Irish.
The UN, insisting that the men's expulsion is the result of a "misunderstanding," is working to bring them back to Afghanistan, reports Agence France-Presse.
"Our discussions and negotiations are ongoing with the government of Afghanistan so we can see the return of these vital members of staff," UN spokesman Aleem Siddique told AFP after the men flew out on a UN plane.
President Hamid Karzai's office has said only that the men "posed threats to the national security of Afghanistan."
But officials have said on condition of anonymity that the men are alleged to have been talking to Taliban, and perhaps even supplying them with cash and weapons.
... The Taliban reportedly denied it had links with the men.
This is the first time Mr. Karzai's government has expelled senior Western officials, and it is a "sign of the growing frustrations felt by the Afghan government and representatives of various contributing nations in Afghanistan at the lack of tangible progress in the country," reports The New York Times.
Karzai has in some ways advocated contacts with the Taliban, but he appears to want to control them. His government offers a right to return home to members of the Taliban who renounce violence and formally recognize the government. Several thousand low-level members have gone through the reconciliation process.
The Daily Telegraph in Britain had reported Wednesday that agents from MI6, the British intelligence agency, had entered secret talks with Taliban leaders, or jirgas, over the summer, despite Prime Minister Gordon Brown's avowal not to hold talks with terrorists.
While the paper did not link Semple and Patterson's expulsion Thursday to its report the day before, it insisted in Thursday's issue that there is "a growing conviction within the diplomatic community in Kabul that negotiation to split less ideologically driven elements from the Taliban represents the key to neutralizing its potency," the paper said.
The Guardian suggests that the expulsion highlights the "growing tensions over Kabul's great burning issue: can the Taliban be brought to the negotiating table?"
Britain is quietly spearheading efforts to engage militants who are ready to quit the Taliban, although Downing Street vehemently denies reports that MI6 opened talks with some Taliban commanders last summer, trying to convince them to stop shooting by appealing to their better feelings - or through large cash payments.
The enthusiasm for deal-making has echoes of the Raj, when British officers roamed the wild Pashtun lands. But it is most firmly rooted in Britain's struggle to tame Helmand, where more than 7,000 troops are trapped in a bloody fight against an obdurate enemy.
The policy has been resisted by the US military, which is suspicious of attempts to negotiate with "terrorists" and which instead relies heavily on military force.
Ordinary Afghans are also desperate for the violence to end but fear a return to the Taliban government, the Guardian says, adding that the UN also believes "it is possible to separate the hardcore leadership linked to Al Qaeda from less ideological commanders."
Spies and soldiers are playing the Great Game "as much as their forefathers did," says The Independent in Britain, adding that lack of coordination between the various agencies may be the problem.
"Great Britain's long association with Afghanistan has shown that we got ourselves into this country by forming tribal alliances. Equally we will get ourselves out, over time, by forming tribal alliances that support the government of Afghanistan," said Brigadier Mackay in a classified briefing document issued to top officers across Helmand on 30 October. "Everything we do will have as its singular focus our ability to influence the population of Helmand in order that we can retain, gain and win their consent."
... The great gamesmen of today believe the Musa Qala pair were declared personae non gratae because of a rift within the Afghan government about who to talk to in the Taliban and when to start talking to them. A Kabul expert explained: "On the one hand Karzai is telling the Taliban to come and talk and offering the ministerial jobs. But this is an opportunity for him to kick the international community and say who's 'the daddy round here.' "