- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

LONDON (LONDON DAILY TELEGRAPH) — Britain’s troubled relations with Afghanistan’s government have worsened with the disclosure that London had secretly planned to build training camps for former Taliban fighters.

The Afghan authorities denied any knowledge of the scheme to rehabilitate gunmen who have defected from the Taliban in Helmand province, a key opium-growing region. Officials said this was another example of Britain undermining President Hamid Karzai’s authority.

Two Western diplomats, one working for the United Nations and the other serving the European Union, were asked to leave Afghanistan in December after they reportedly held direct talks with Taliban commanders without Mr. Karzai’s official permission.

Afghan officials said the two men, Mervyn Patterson, a Briton, and Michael Semple, an Irishman, were found with documents laying out a British plan for dealing with ex-Taliban fighters.

A key element of this scheme was building a camp for perhaps 2,000 former members of the Islamist movement. There, they would have been given new skills to aid their rehabilitation.

The Afghan sources say this would have included military training — a risky step given that these men could return to fighting alongside the Taliban. Conspiracy theories have spread in Kabul suggesting that Britain was plotting to depose Mr. Karzai. British sources say Afghan officials have misrepresented many of the plan’s details.

British officials have classified the Taliban into three tiers. “Tier one” is the most senior commanders, many of whom are based in Pakistan. They are seen as irreconcilable.

But officials think it might be possible to persuade “tier two,” the Taliban’s midlevel commanders, and “tier three,” the rank and file, to lay down their arms. They say the aim is to split the Taliban, rather than negotiate over the movement’s political and religious agenda.

Facing re-election next year and vulnerable to accusations that he is a Western puppet, Mr. Karzai is taking every opportunity to show independence from his foreign allies.

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