Leading article: The cost of the West's mixed signals to Kabul

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Few expressions are more indicative of sheer panic than a reassurance from officials that "diplomatic efforts are continuing". No need to worry, they are telling us. Contact has been made; bargaining is in progress; talks have not yet broken down. When the word "misunderstanding" is introduced as well, as it was by a UN spokesman yesterday, it is clear that the territory being negotiated is treacherous indeed.

As we went to press last night, this was the state of play with two senior international employees based in Kabul a Briton working for the UN, and the acting head of the European Union mission, who is Irish. The two are threatened with expulsion from Afghanistan, after being declared a threat to national security.

The men are reliably reported to have been holding talks with Taliban representatives in Helmand Province, where a concerted international military operation against the Taliban has been in progress. The deportation order is said to have come direct from the office of President Hamid Karzai.

There is much about this story that remains murky. But it is not necessary for every detail to be clarified to understand how much is at stake. The two officials are extremely high-ranking and so, it may be assumed, pivotal to whatever strategy the UN and EU are pursuing. They are also acknowledged experts in the region. If they are forced to leave Afghanistan indefinitely and the talks being conducted yesterday were apparently as much about allowing them back as about preventing their deportation irreplaceable experience and expertise goes with them.

But it is what the expulsion orders say about relations between the government in Kabul and its international backers that is the most disturbing aspect of all. Here we have two of the top men at the UN and EU missions in Kabul travelling to Helmand in the wake of the much-trumpeted Taliban defeat at Musa Qala, and, to put no finer point on it, treating with the enemy. Mr Karzai's response suggests they were acting without his authority, and possibly against his explicit instructions.

If this is so, it is hard to see how trust between the international diplomatic presence in Afghanistan and the government of Hamid Karzai can easily be rebuilt. The UN and the EU or at least senior representatives thereof have gone behind his back and been found out. The President's already limited authority has been undercut, perhaps fatally, by some of the very people he believed were supporting him.

Which is not to argue that talking to the Taliban, or sounding out some of its representatives, is not a sensible, even desirable, objective. The return of the Taliban in the past two years, most visibly in the unruly south of Afghanistan, has reversed many of the gains made since 2002. It has weakened the central government and turned an international military mission with a mandate for reconstruction into one increasingly engaged in combat.

For months a choice has been pressing: either talks would have to be broached with the Taliban, or much more military force would have to be exerted. For all the speculation about an Iraq-style "surge", however, the international appetite for more combat remains distinctly limited. And although the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, told the Commons after his recent trip to Kabul, "We don't negotiate with the Taliban", the fluidity of definitions who is "we", what is "negotiate", precisely who are the Taliban? might have left room for manoeuvre.

At this stage, however, talks are only useful so long as they remain below the radar. To have British troops suffering losses against the Taliban one day, and a British UN official found talking to the Taliban the next, sends signals that are, at best, confused. And the pity is that this botched overture, if that is what it is, means that the real talking is now that much further away.

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