Two senior diplomats are to fly out of Afghanistan today after being accused of talking to the Taliban, despite international pressure to let them stay.
The expulsion of Michael Semple, an Irishman who is acting head of the EU mission, and Mervin Patterson, a Briton who is the third-ranking UN official in Kabul, has shed light on the murky world they inhabit in the search to bring peace to a trroubled land.
For spies, diplomats and soldiers in Afghanistan are playing the Great Game today as much as their forefathers ever did.
Six years ago some military commanders believed they could beat the Taliban and stamp harmony on Helmand by force but not any more. Titanium-plated Apache gunships, designed to fight the might and military sophistication of Soviet Russia, can still annihilate ragtag gunmen hired to fight for a few dollars a day. Heat-seeking javelin rockets designed to hit T72 tanks tearing across Europe are very good at finding insurgents cowering in compounds. Marines call it "throwing a Porsche at them", because the missiles cost 65,000 a pop. But there is a profound realisation in Afghanistan that victory will never be achieved by fighting alone. "We are going to have to sit down and do business with people who we don't like, and who don't like us," said one diplomat.
Gordon Brown's announcement that tribal engagement is the way forward was an admission of what is already happening, rather than the start of something new. It is what Mr Semple and Mr Patterson, who were given 48 hours to leave Afghanistan on Christmas Day, were doing in Musa Qala last Monday. It is what Britain's ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper Coles has championed since his arrival, and what the commander of British forces in Helmand, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, ordered all of his men to do, back in October.
"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."
Winning hearts and minds is a challenge given that dozens of Nato bases still have separate lavatories for their own troops and the Afghans.
Nonetheless, diplomats have been travelling to far- flung corners of the country to meet influential tribal characters for months, if not years. A few days before going to Helmand, Mr Semple was meeting former mujahedin fighters on the Pakistan border. The intelligence that officers glean from the talks lets allied power-brokers decide which warlords to smash and which ones to engage. The recent British-led battle for Musa Qala the Taliban's last major stronghold in Helmand began after a leading commander switched sides. Mullah Abdul Salaam, who controls thousands of men in the area, met President Hamid Karzai ahead of the battle with British help.
Mr Semple and Mr Patterson, who travelled to Musa Qala to meet local digitaries, were given notice to quit after Afghan officals accused them of "endangering national security". The UN insists they weren't talking to the Taliban, but admitted they were talking to people who have nothing nice to say about Helmand's governor, Assadullah Wafa, or President Karzai. A UN spokesman said: "We need the support of the local community and that means we need to talk to people on the ground, and that means people who are supportive of the government and people who are less supportive. Those are the people they have to win over."
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'.
"There's a division in the Afghan government on the extent of peace talks, who to talk peace with and when to talk. There's no cohesive view on the part of the Afghan government or among the international community."
Mr Semple and Mr Patterson have worked in or around Afghanistan for more than a decade. They speak the languages and have forged friendships with dozens of key players. Mr Semple is also a confidant of the British ambassador. "This is a country where personalities count and these people had long-standing relationships. We'll notice their loss," said the UN spokesman.
But they were working for different masters the EU and the UN just two among dozens of diplomatic missions supporting a government made up of ministries which act like "fiefdoms" and governors who behave like feudal lords.
If co-ordination is the problem in this round of the Great Game, then perhaps the answer rests with Paddy Ashdown, who is due to arrive in Kabul in March to make the international community work together more closely. If the international lobbying works, Mr Semple and Mr Patterson should be back by then.
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