Britain's special envoy to Afghanistan, known for his scepticism about the western war effort and his support for peace talks with the Taliban, has stepped down just a month before a critical international conference in Kabul.
Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles has taken "extended leave", a spokesman for the British high commission in Islamabad said today. He has been replaced on a temporary basis by Karen Pierce, the Foreign Office director for South Asia and Afghanistan.
News of his sudden departure comes as the Ministry of Defence confirmed the 300th British fatality in Afghanistan, a widely anticipated yet grim milestone in the nine-year war.
The dead soldier – a Royal Marine from 40 Commando – has not been named. He had been gravely injured in an explosion while on patrol in in Helmand's Sangin district on June 12.
Cowper-Coles, who also had Pakistan in his remit as special envoy, clashed in recent months with senior Nato and US officials over his insistence that the military-driven counter-insurgency effort was headed for failure, and that talks with the Taliban should be prioritised.
The position is being "reviewed" by the new foreign secretary, William Hague, an official said.
The change comes at a sensitive time. With the bloody summer fighting underway in Helmand, President Hamid Karzai appears to be losing faith in the Nato-led war as foreign troops numbers reach their highest level.
Meanwhile on 20 July, Karzai and the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, are due to host the first international conference in Kabul. Theoretically about co-ordinating international aid, the summit is expected to focus sharply on the controversial question of talks with the Taliban.
Cowper-Coles, a veteran diplomat who has served in Saudi Arabia and Israel, served as ambassador to Kabul between 2007 and 2009. He attracted controversy in 2008 when a leaked French diplomatic cable suggested he had been sharply critical of Karzai and US policy.
While insisting Britain should support the US, he was quoted as saying in the Canard Enchaîné: "We should tell them that we want to be part of a winning strategy, not a losing one." The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) said his remarks had been distorted.
Cowper-Coles was appointed regional envoy in February 2009, a job that involves shadowing the US special representative Richard Holbrooke. The Briton quickly took an aggressive line on the need to open peace talks with the Taliban, irking US officials who favoured a slower approach.
One western official said Holbrooke found Cowper-Coles's insistence on peace negotiations "troubling"; another said that US officials blamed him for "peddling the idea that Karzai should be removed".
There were also differences with Mark Sedwill, Nato's senior civilian representative in Kabul. Sedwill has become a close ally of the US general, Stanley McChrystal, Nato's commander in Afghanistan, with whom he regularly appears in public to bolster the counter-insurgency effort.
Sedwill, who replaced Cowper-Coles as ambassador in 2009 before taking up his current job last January, has argued for optimism, saying opinion polls showed that "most of the country has rejected insurgency".
A Nato official predicted that Sedwill would be "clicking his heels" at news of Cowper-Coles's departure.
Cowper-Coles has been more downbeat, warning that the current battle in Afghanistan was "a civil war" and that the international community had "backed the wrong side", according to one non-British diplomat.
He had increasingly come to believe that "sod-all can be done" about turning round the fortunes of the nine-year war, a top diplomat said, and is believed to have pushed strongly for the withdrawal of British troops as soon as possible.
He is thought to have influenced the thinking of former foreign secretary David Miliband, who in a speech last March called for rapid progress towards a political settlement that would include talks with the Taliban.
Source : guardian.co.uk