BRUSSELS/LONDON, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Paddy Ashdown's move to pull out of the running to be the United Nations' "super envoy" for Afghanistan blasts a hole in efforts to revamp the international presence there, diplomats and analysts said.
The naming of the British politician and ex-soldier to a job custom-built for his skills in post-war reconstruction was central to an international drive to better coordinate civilian operations with the NATO-led military campaign.
President Hamid Karzai's move to veto Ashdown -- ostensibly for fear the former Bosnian international representative would wield too much power -- has sent Western officials back to the drawing board with no obvious alternative candidate.
"Ashdown was the name. The requirement for coordination is undiminished and yet the whole issue has become politicised. We still have this gaping hole," said one Western diplomat in Brussels who works on Afghanistan.
A British government source feared further fall-out unless an appointment was made soon.
"The essential thing is that this is done quickly and the right replacement found soon. That's not going to be easy and the delay will be damaging, for Afghanistan and for all those trying to help it."
Overshadowed by world concern over the conflict in Iraq, the Afghan reconstruction effort has suffered underfunding, turf battles between rival agencies, corruption among officials and a resurgence of Taliban-led violence.
Internationally drafted plans to stem its huge narcotics trade and stamp out police corruption have been hobbled by divisions over policy and tactics.
Aid experts complain that assistance frequently does not go to the most needy, alienating impoverished Afghans and pushing many of them into the arms of the Taliban.
Ashdown's name began circulating as the U.S.-backed "fixer" for such problems at a NATO summit in late 2006, months before any serious discussion of what his mandate could be.
After saying he was not interested in the job, Ashdown this month agreed to terms offered by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that gave him unprecedented powers to coordinate with Karzai and bodies such as NATO and the European Union.
While Karzai's government said its last-minute objection to Ashdown was about his "authorities and responsibilities" rather than his person or nationality, no clear alternative exists.
Kabul's choice, British NATO commander General John McColl, will struggle to get backing either from Ban or U.N. power Russia because of his background in the Western military alliance, diplomats predict.
Other candidates include Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat and highly-respected Balkans expert, and Turkey's Hekmat Cetin, a former NATO civil envoy in Kabul who enjoys Afghan support.
"It's not clear if (other candidates) would have the same stature internationally as Ashdown," said Colonel Christopher Langton of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The idea of such a post retains strong support, however.
A NATO spokesman said the alliance regretted that Ashdown would not take the job and added: "There is certainly need for a strong U.N. coordinator with weight."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said this week Ashdown would have done a "superb job" and reaffirmed U.S. backing for a central coordinator in Afghanistan.
For some, the episode shows how the international community misjudged Afghan sensitivities, and particularly Karzai's need to demonstrate strength before elections next year.
The veto came weeks after Kabul expelled an EU and U.N. official working in the country, accusing them of threatening state security by meeting Taliban insurgents -- a row which Western diplomats put down to a misunderstanding.
"You can say there was a public relations failing. This was being was portrayed in public as Ashdown going there to get tough with the Afghans -- which wasn't the case at all," said one NATO diplomat.
Rice pledged the quest for better international coordination in Afghanistan would continue, without giving specifics. But the gossip about who could take on the U.N. job has gone quiet.
"We are entering a more complicated situation," said the Western diplomat of the search for an alternative. (Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul; editing by Keith Weir)
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