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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 December 2007, 09:03 GMT
Murky world of Afghan negotiations
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

British soldier in Helmand
Knowing who's who in places like Helmand is difficult

Two diplomats accused of dealing with the Taleban have flown out of Afghanistan after talks failed to stop them being expelled.

Michael Semple, the acting head of the European Union mission, and Mervyn Patterson, who is British and is the UN's political affairs officer, were in Helmand province talking to tribal elders.

But despite one arm of the Afghan government knowing about their trip, another arm appeared not to, and they were accused by a provincial official to talking to the Taleban.

I say accused, but there is an Afghan reconciliation programme that actively sets out to persuade insurgents to switch sides.

The US has been cold on any kind of talks with insurgents in the past but that attitude is thought to be thawing

And it also raises the question of who the Taleban actually are.

It is a shorthand phrase for anything from extremists like Mullah Mohammed Omar, their spiritual leader, who is thought to be in Pakistan, to the farmer paid to fight against the international troops.

The latter group are considered by many to be "persuadable".

Of course, there is also every shade of grey in between, and going along to a tribal shura, or meeting of elders, it is impossible to know as an outsider who is allied with the more extreme elements.

Local governance

Such are the complexities of the feudal tribal structure, overlaid by crime, drug trafficking and religious extremism, that a Taleban leader today could be a government supporter tomorrow.

There is a common understanding that the insurgency here will not be beaten by military means alone, and the strategy in Helmand province is to make contacts, provide help in the form of reconstruction and development to try to win the people over.

Hamid Karzai
The affair will strain Mr Karzai's ties with the international community

At the heart of that is strengthening local governance so people feel they get more out of supporting the democratically elected government than they do from backing the Taleban.

Despite what British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said to the House of Commons, this means people talking to "the Taleban".

Indeed those in the know might have squirmed to hear Mr Brown saying we "don't negotiate with the Taleban," given the difficulties over their definition and the open secret of the kind of work officials do in places like Helmand.

The UK foreign office strategy in the south is to roll out Afghan experts and Pashtu speakers, of which there are very few, to learn a who's who of Helmand - who the tribal leaders are and who might be persuaded to support the new government and turn their backs on the Taleban.

The US has been cold on any kind of talks with insurgents in the past but that attitude is thought to be thawing.

So why has the Afghan government decided to expel two of the most well known and experienced international Afghan experts, here to help the government with peace and stability?

They are both men who have spent many years living in and travelling to Afghanistan and have more knowledge about tribal structures and culture than most.

From the international side of things this seems to be at best a miscommunication between Afghan government departments, at worst some kind of political shenanigans.

There is no doubt expelling two such influential figures will put strain on relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the international community.

Negotiations will now focus on when and how they might be allowed back into the country and calming down a situation which has become a multi-national issue.

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