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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 January 2008, 07:33 GMT
'Great Game' or just misunderstanding?
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

Taleban in Helmand province, file photo 6 Nov 2007
Taleban fighters in Helmand were recently forced out of Musa Qala town

On Christmas Day the Afghan government said it was expelling two high level diplomats, one a British UN political affairs expert, the other, an Irishman and the acting head of the European Union mission.

It is very unusual for a country to expel those working for friendly nations and the charge was talking to and supporting the Taleban, something both organisations call a "misunderstanding".

But it seems there may have been some echoes of the 19th century 'Great Game' when British and Russian intelligence officers vied for supremacy in Central Asia.

Questions still remain as to what exactly Mervyn Patterson and Michael Semple were doing in Helmand.

The Irish national, Michael Semple, works for the EU. He has the appearance of a man who could have stepped out of 19th century colonial Afghanistan.

He is a bearded, Dari speaker, known for wearing traditional local clothes. His 18 years of living and working in Afghanistan brought him many friends, and no doubt many enemies.

The British national, Mervyn Patterson, is from Northern Ireland and works for the UN. He is an expert in northern Afghan - particularly Uzbek - affairs, who would bring together spies and warlords, westerners and Afghans.

Hugely respected

Both men were expelled on 27 December and with them, as one of their colleagues said, went "half the international community's combined knowledge on Afghanistan".

They are hugely respected, but according to President Karzai's spokesman Hamayun Hamidzada, they were up to no good.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, British ambassador in Afghanistan
The British ambassador held two meetings with President Karzai

"The government of Afghanistan had received reports that the two individuals were involved in activities that were not consistent with their original jobs and they were engaged in unauthorised activities," he told a news conference.

"As a result the Afghan government expelled the two from Afghanistan and this sends a message that the Afghan government is watching everyone and any unauthorised activity, no matter it comes from wherever, will be stopped."

"Unauthorised activity" hints at what Afghan secret service agents are saying privately.

They point the finger squarely at Michael Semple for running an extensive network of Taleban contacts: "For arrogantly behaving like a Great Game era political officer", they say.

One intelligence officer asked me: "What is the EU deputy head of mission acting like a field commander and who is he working for?"

Francesc Vendrell is the EU's Special Representative in Kabul and I asked him what Michael Semple was doing?

"Quite honestly I am not sure. I had authorised Michael to go to Helmand, I knew he was vaguely going to do some work on reconciliation with the Taleban, but beyond that I had absolutely no idea what he was going to do."

But as his deputy, should he have known what Michael was doing?


"I should and I shouldn't. I didn't feel that someone with the background of Michael could be kept on a short leash."

So Michael was, it appears, talking to the Taleban, but was he "paying" them with development projects or cash as the Afghan secret service insists?

"I found the allegations and the charge preposterous," Francesc Vendrell added.

"And I am quite sure Michael would not have been involved in any training or assistance of any kind to Taleban who had not already crossed over."

British troops in Afghanistan
British troops are fighting the Taleban in Helmand

"This office, unlike perhaps an embassy or the [European Commission], has no money to undertake, participate or contribute to any project."

But was Michael working for someone else?

"I think Michael was a person who had a tremendous amount of initiative and I can't go beyond that," Mr Vendrell says.

The British Ambassador, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, came back early from his holidays and had at least two meetings with President Karzai to try and resolve this issue which has raised questions about talking to the Taleban.


British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons on 12 December: "We are isolating and eliminating the leadership of the Taleban, we are not negotiating with them."

But talks are going on in Helmand to persuade those classed as "persuadable" to switch sides.

Francesc Vendrell is the EU's Special Representative in Kabul
Mr Vendrell says he authorised Michael Semple to go to Helmand

That means at the very least talking to Taleban supporters if not mid or high-level commanders.

This was something the United States was not keen on but now seems to have signed up to, according to its ambassador Bill Wood.

"The United States is in favour of a serious reconciliation programme with those elements of the Taleban who are prepared to accept the constitution and the authority of the elected government of President Karzai, who wish to reconcile, to return to a peaceful and legitimate life," he said.

The mantra now is - fighting alone will not bring peace and stability.

The UK Foreign Office is sending more political officers and training them in Pashtun to work in Helmand with some parallels to the Great Game.

"In the 19th century, British political officers in the North West Frontier Province spent 16 years between home leaves on the ground," said the British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles in October.


"They all spoke Pashtun, and we are a long way from that, and we also need to remember it is for the Afghan government overall to understand the country it is running, to be front and centre.

"But if we are to provide intelligent support then we need political intelligence in the broader sense of the term about the environment in which we are operating."

There was no comment from the British embassy on the issue of Michael Semple.

Afghan intelligence sources say they still don't know what he was doing or who he was working for - at the very least, he was clashing with their own reconciliation efforts.

But in the Afghan world of conspiracy theories, dealing with the Taleban independently could be seen as supporting them against President Karzai.

Diplomatic efforts are continuing, but it seems unlikely that Michael Semple, one of the west's most respected experts on Afghanistan, will be allowed back in any time soon.

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