Page last updated at 23:54 GMT, Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Why British-Afghan ties have hit a low

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

British soldier in Musa Qala
Relations are strained despite Britain's military input
Relations between Britain and Afghanistan are at rock bottom despite the $3bn of aid money the UK has pumped into the country, the 87 servicemen who have died here and the 7,800 troops on active duty.

In October, President Hamid Karzai went on a "wonderful" walk with Prince Charles in Scotland.

But by Christmas Day the British ambassador to Kabul was called to the presidential palace to explain why a man working with the British was talking to the Taleban.

And by last week, President Karzai told journalists British troops had actually made things worse in Helmand, and then he blocked Lord Paddy Ashdown from taking up a role that was designed to give international efforts here a new direction.

Bloody history

So where did it all go wrong? Anglo-Afghan relations are always on a knife-edge, and perhaps history is the first place to look for the explanation.

The British have a long and bloody history in Afghanistan - both of killing and of being killed.

And it's not only the Taleban who invoke memories of the great British defeats of the 19th Century as propaganda.

Afghans know the stories of subterfuge and betrayal that accompanied this "Great Game" as British and Russian empires fought for influence in Afghanistan.

And the mistrust of the past is not lost on the present. This is a place where rumour, conspiracy theory and paranoia make a heady cocktail.

President Karzai and Gordon Brown (file)
Gordon Brown visited Kabul in December but arguments continue

Some mothers still tell their children "be good or the British will get you" in the same way the "bogey man" might, and Pashtuns often use the same word for "Satan" as they do for "Briton". Then there's a mistrust about Britain's dealings with Pakistan.

With the threat of "home-grown terror", the UK sees maintaining good links with the Pakistani intelligence services as vital - even if some suspect them of playing a double game by supporting the Taleban or at the least not doing enough to the stop cross-border insurgency.

But amid all the baggage is a president preparing for an election scheduled for next year, who does not want to be seen as a puppet of the west and who is under increasing pressure from both Pashtun and Northern Alliance politicians inside his government.

'Viceroy' fears

Afghanistan is a sovereign country, President Karzai was democratically elected, but he relies on 40,000 troops and billions of dollars of aid to survive.

It's not surprising then that he is so sensitive about public opinion and does read a lot of newspapers - particularly the British press.

Newspaper articles summarising how the president would have to accept Paddy Ashdown and commenting on the scale of his remit may well have been the tipping point.

President Karzai had met Lord Ashdown, the deal appeared to have been done - the fact he was a westerner, and British at that, can't have helped, and descriptions of him as a "viceroy" will have firmly hit all the historical buttons.

The Michael Semple affair was presumably a major blow to relations between Britain and Afghanistan.

He's Irish and was the acting head of the EU delegation in Kabul, but was working with the British, helping them to persuade mid-level Taleban commanders to switch sides.

Mullah Salaam
An ex-Taleb took over in Musa Qala after its recapture by the British

"We don't negotiate with the Taleban," is what Britain's Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said in a recent statement, but most here believe it's the only way to resolve issues in the long term.

The American ambassador here, Bull Wood, agrees, "as long as they are not connected to Al-Qaeda".

Mullah Salaam says he was one of Michael Semple's successes - the ex-Taleb is now district governor of Musa Qala in Helmand, which was won back by British, Afghan and coalition forces before Christmas, and he's saying all the right things.

At the heart of the problem though, was a $150,000 development project to create a camp to take young insurgents and re-educate them in things like human rights and the Afghan constitution.

Serious breakdown

Afghan sources say military training was an element of the project outlined on a recovered computer disk drive, which would fit in with British plans for community-based militia to boost the Afghan security forces.

The president insisted it was being done behind his back, even if British sources say it was known by a number of senior politicians present when Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador to Kabul, was grilled on his early return in the days after Christmas.

The old ideas of the British plotting returned - this time to back the Taleban and in the more paranoid minds to even perhaps help overthrow President Karzai.

There have been breakdowns in the relationship before over the last few years, but this appears to be the most serious yet, which doesn't mean to say it will be unassailable.

It's not an accident that the Afghan suggestion for the new "super-envoy" to come instead of Paddy Ashdown is General John McColl - the deputy supreme commander of Nato in Europe.

As he is a military man, the UN would never accept his appointment to lead the civilian mission, but he is remembered here as the first commander of Nato's International Security Assistance Force - when things were going well.

Now they're not, President Karzai feels he has been badly advised and that the big footprint of the west on Afghanistan is getting bigger rather than smaller, threatening Afghanistan's sovereignty.

And the British feel they have been let down by a man who is not decisive enough.

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