December 6, 2007 / 2:48 PM / 10 years ago

Afghan "super envoy" idea faces obstacles

By Mark John

BRUSSELS, Dec 6 (Reuters) - Plans by the United States and Britain to create a "super-envoy" coordinating international efforts in Afghanistan face wrangling over the exact scope of the job, diplomats said on Thursday.

Washington and London want to replace departing U.N. special envoy Tom Koenigs next month with a new high-level coordinator to forge links between U.N., NATO and European Union efforts to restore peace and put the country back on its feet.

Favourite for the post is British liberal politician Paddy Ashdown, an ex-soldier who performed a similar task as the former U.N. envoy to Bosnia. Rival German, Turkish and Norwegian candidates are also reported to be lining up for the job.

But while few deny that international efforts in Afghanistan often appear unfocused and need better coordination, there are concerns that a high-powered post could rile sensitive Afghans and add to tension among international bodies on the ground.

"The issues relate to the mandate of the role, the relationship it would establish between the civilian and military effort and its ties with (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai," said one Western diplomat.

"If it were Paddy Ashdown, I don’t know how the Afghans would feel about a Brit with a "lord" in front of his name in that position. The Afghans have very long memories," said the diplomat, referring to Britain’s 19th century battle for ascendancy over the country.

Ashdown has commented frequently on Afghanistan in recent weeks. In a Reuters interview in October, he said there was a "desperate need" for better international coordination but added he was not interested in the task.

However Ashdown, 66, who has no full-time job but heads the Brussels-based EU-Russia Centre think-tank, said by telephone this week he had no comment to make on the matter.

Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide and Turkey’s Hikmet Cetin, NATO’s former senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, have been cited in Afghan media reports as possible candidates.

Any future super-envoy would need to join the dots between NATO’s 40,000-strong peace force, a smaller U.S.-led military coalition, an EU police mission and the U.N. presence.

Some diplomats said it would be a poisoned chalice.

"The post would have to add value. There is a plethora of coordination forums out there already," said one European diplomat of the complex ties among foreign agencies.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer backs the idea of stronger coordination but would want to see the details of the mandate of any high-level coordinator before backing the creation of such a post, said an alliance official.

"What is clear is that NATO will make its own decisions about who heads up NATO’s effort," the official said, stressing there was no question of the post having any say in command over NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there.

NATO foreign ministers may broach the subject at a meeting in Brussels on Friday, but only as a side issue to the main business of checking contingency plans for dealing with possible violence in the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo.

Nor will is it draw much attention at an EU foreign ministers’ meeting on Monday, also dominated by Kosovo.

"Our focus is on trying to relaunch our police mission, which had a few teething problems," an EU official said of an EU mission to reform Afghanistan’s corruption-ridden police force. (Additional reporting by Darren Ennis; editing by Sophie Walker) ((mark.john@reuters.com; +32 2 287 6841; Reuters Messaging: mark.john.reuters.com@reuters.net))

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