Britain's Afghan envoy takes extended leave 'amid tensions'
Britain's special envoy to Afghanistan has taken extended leave, the government announced, amid reports that he clashed with NATO and US officials over strategy to tackle the Taliban insurgency.
Sherard Cowper-Coles has temporarily stepped down just a month before a crucial international conference in the Afghan capital Kabul, which will be attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN chief Ban Ki-moon.
"He's on extended leave and he is returning in the autumn," said a Foreign Office spokeswoman in London on Monday, without making clear what role he would be coming back to later in the year.
New Foreign Secretary William Hague is to review the post of special envoy to Afghanistan, the BBC reported, citing a Foreign Office source, but added the minister had not sacked the envoy and had wanted him to remain in the job.
Cowper-Coles was appointed to the role, which also covers Pakistan, in February 2009 by the previous Labour government after serving as ambassador to Kabul.
The Guardian newspaper reported on Monday that there were serious disagreements in recent months between Cowper-Coles and officials from military alliance NATO, which is leading international troops in the country, and the United States.
He was convinced the military-focused counter-insurgency effort was headed for failure and wanted talks with Taliban insurgents to be a priority, said the paper.
The special representative role will be filled on a temporary basis by Karen Pierce, Foreign Office director for Afghanistan and South Asia, reports said.
News that the British diplomat was taking leave came ahead of a major conference on July 20 in Kabul, where a host of senior foreign officials will join Clinton and the UN secretary general.
The event follows a London meeting on Afghanistan in January that pledged international support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's plans to reintegrate moderate Taliban fighters who renounce violence.
Cowper-Coles's decision also became public on the same day Britain announced its 300th death in Afghanistan since operations began there in 2001, amid growing public anger here over the nine-year campaign.
The latest victim, from 40 Commando Royal Marines, died in hospital in Birmingham, central England, Sunday after being seriously wounded in an explosion in Sangin, Helmand Province, on June 12, the Ministry of Defence said.
Britain has around 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, making it the second largest contributor after the United States to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
The grim milestone prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to pledge to withdraw troops as soon as Afghanistan can handle its own security.
"As soon as they are able to take care and take security for their own country, that is when we can leave," he said.
Cameron's Conservatives came into power in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats last month and the new administration has made Afghanistan its top foreign policy priority.
Despite this commitment, the government has begun to talk of eventual troop withdrawals, without giving any timetable.
© 2010 AFP