PM appoints envoy to forge bonds with northern Afghanistan

War on terrorism: Diplomacy
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Indy Politics

Tony Blair moved to strengthen the UK's relations with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance when he appointed a personal envoy to northern Afghanistan.

Downing Street announced that Paul Bergne, the former UK ambassador to Tashkent, will be sent to the region as soon as possible.

Mr Bergne, who speaks fluent Tajik, Russian and Uzbek, will allow Britain to "co-ordinate better" with the Northern Alliance, who are fighting the Taliban, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said. The envoy had "personal experience and contacts in the region", he added.

"We see the Northern Alliance as key players in the current crisis and we must improve our understanding of them and their leaders," the spokesman said.

"We have always made clear that they alone couldn't form a post-Taliban administration in Afghanistan, but nevertheless they have a part to play."

The decision to appoint Mr Bergne follows concern in the UK and US at hints from the Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would prefer to see the Northern Alliance take over most of the country. The Alliance, which calls itself the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, is dominated by Uzbeks and Tajiks and is seen as an unacceptable replacement for the Taliban by Pakistan. In return for Pakistan's crucial support for the military action, Washington and London have been at pains to stress that the Pashtun tribe will have a key role in a new administration.

One indication of potential problems between the West and the Northern Alliance emerged this week when alliance commanders complained that American bombers were not targeting the Taliban front line enough.

While keen to help the rebels, the US does not want the alliance to march into Kabul unaccompanied before a clearly multi-ethnic administration has been prepared for the Taliban's fall.

The appointment of Mr Bergne also underlined the imminent prospect of British ground forces being deployed in the region, with the need for coordination with the alliance a key factor to military success.

Mr Blair met the former diplomat on Monday at Downing Street, when he handed over intelligence about the alliance's positions and its progress. The rebels now hold about 20 per cent of Afghanistan, double the territory they held before the Western military strikes began, and are poised to take the key city of Mazar-i-Sharif.