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To Speak or Not with Taliban, Behind Karzai's UN Expulsion, Its Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy

Byline: Matthew Russell Lee of Inner City Press at the UN: News Analysis

UNITED NATIONS, December 27 -- Afghan president Hamid Karzai has ordered the expulsion of Mervyn Patterson, described as the third-highest UN official in the country, and Michael Semple, said to be with the European Union, for allegedly talking with the Taliban. Wednesday the UN denied that Patterson spoke with the Taliban. But Tom Koenigs the highest UN official in Kabul ten weeks ago told Inner City Press that the UN does not ask who is Taliban and who is not. Video here, from Minute 4:28. Press accounts link this with reports of Britain's MI6 also speaking with the Taliban, contrary to UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown's statements two weeks ago. In Afghanistan, the issue seems to be that President Karzai does not want it perceived that foreigners, including the UN, are working around him and speaking to the Taliban.

            Mervyn Patterson is included in the UN's official "List of Staff," a document the UN considers confidential -- but of June 30, 2006 (and 2005 and 2003) Patterson is designated as "on special leave without pay." In 2002 he was quoted by wire services as mediating between warlords in northern Afghanistan, for example between Abdel Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad of Jamiat-e-Islami party, and between Abdul Saboor and Ahmed Khan. A UN insider who worked with Patterson in 2002 describes him as a consummate negotiator, and also says that Michael Semple worked with the UN. (Semple is not listed at all in the UN's List of Staff.)  As of 5 p.m. Wednesday at UN Headquarters in New York, the spokesperson's office said Mr. Patterson had not yet left Afghanistan, but that more would be known by morning. The following day, the office confirmed that Patterson had left. Inner City Press asked this office a series of questions, and the response was that

"We can confirm that a UN official had been asked to leave the country on the grounds that their presence is detrimental to national security. This followed a visit to Helmand province to discuss stabilization efforts with local authorities and community representatives in the province. We believe that there is no basis for such a decision and that this is a result of a misunderstanding with the Afghan authorities. Discussions are currently ongoing with the Afghan authorities to rectify this situation so that we can continue with the vital efforts to secure peace, stability and progress for the people of Helmand province.... Was he talking to the Taliban? No. We have been talking to the local authorities and community representatives, we are not talking to the Taliban."

            First, if the UN's Tom Koenigs has said that the UN "keeps contact with everybody without asking him or her if they are Taliban," how would the UN so quickly know? Second and more fundamentally, how can one make "efforts to secure peace" without talking to the insurgency?  

Hamid Karzai and Ban Ki-moon: who can talk with Taliban?

One week ago, upon his return to New York from visiting survivors of the bombing of the UN building in Algiers, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said:

"We must do even better in explaining to the public and the media the role of the United Nations, wherever we operate -- why we are there, what we do, what we stand for and what we don't. We must make clear we are not there to represent the interests of any one group of nations over another."

            While currently this public explaining is lacking, for example here and in Sri Lanka where the UN has remained silent as the government accuses UNICEF of supporting the Tamil Tigers, back on October 15 the UN's outgoing Special Representative to Afghanistan Tom Koenigs said that the UN "keeps contact with everyone, without asking him or her if they are Taliban or not." He also specified, as is relevant here, that ultimate authority for negotiation must rest with the government of Afghanistan. Video here, from Minute 4:28. (Inner City Press had asked, at the televised stakeout in front of the Security Council chamber, about Iran's chiding of the UK and others reaching out to the Taliban.")

News analysis: If, as Mr. Koenigs said in October, the UN does not ask who is Taliban and who is not, this would be the time to explain what the UN is doing, and why. That the UK would desire secrecy, particularly after Gordon Brown's categorical statement two weeks ago, is understandable. But the UN, as called for by Ban Ki-moon, should do "better in explaining." Watch this site.

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Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

  Because a number of Inner City Press' UN sources go out of their way to express commitment to serving the poor, and while it should be unnecessary, Inner City Press is compelled to conclude this installment in a necessarily-ongoing series by saluting the stated goals of the UN agencies and many of their staff. Keep those cards, letters and emails coming, and phone calls too, we apologize for any phone tag, but please continue trying, and keep the information flowing.

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UN Office: S-453A, UN, NY 10017 USA Tel: 212-963-1439

Reporter's mobile (and weekends): 718-716-3540