Outspoken diplomat made British Representative for Afghanistan, Pakistan (Lead)

February 10th, 2009 - 7:05 pm ICT by IANS  

TalibanLondon, Feb 10 (IANS) A senior diplomat whose tendency to speak his mind has ruffled feathers from Hong Kong to Washington has been appointed Britain’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Sherard Cowper-Coles, currently the British Ambassador to Afghanistan, is to take up his new job in March and will focus on cross-cutting issues facing both countries, the British Foreign Office announced Monday.

“Sherard Cowper-Coles has made a major contribution to the UK effort in Afghanistan during his time as Ambassador in Kabul. I want to continue to make use of his expertise as we take forward our work with both countries which is so critical to the UK’s own strategic interests,” Foreign Secretary David Miliband said.

The Oxford-educated Arabist hit the headlines in October last year after a French newspaper quoted a French diplomat as saying Cowper-Coles thought the Afghan war was “doomed to fail” and that Afghanistan might best be “governed by an acceptable dictator.”

Miliband later described the report as “garbled,” and said the comments attributed to Cowper-Coles did not reflect British policy.

After Cowper-Coles’ reported comments, the senior British commander in Afghanistan, Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith suggested that the international community start negotiating with Taliban militants, prompting then US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to criticise “defeatist” assessments of the war against the Taliban.

Within a month of taking charge as Ambassador in Afghanistan, Cowper-Coles had warned in June 2007 that Britain should prepare for a long haul in the fight against the Taliban.

At the time, The Guardian newspaper wrote: “His warning this week that the UK presence was a marathon that could last three decades, not a short sprint, has confirmed his reputation for shrewd and undiplomatic plain speaking - with a dash of self-advertisement.”

The 52-year-old diplomat who has a double first in classics from Oxford, is said to have attracted attention and controversy throughout his career in the government.

In the early 1990s he clashed with Chris Patten, then Britain’s governor of Hong Kong, over moves to democratise the colony before the handover to China.

In 2001 he became the first Arabist to be posted as British Ambassador to Tel Aviv and is said to have played a major role in winning the trust of Israel, even taking Hebrew lessons in London.

In his next posting, as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Cowper-Coles famously recommended that Britain end its criminal investigation into alleged bribery by the British arms firm BAE or see grave damage to British interests - a recommendation that was later implemented by then prime minister Tony Blair.

“He is known for holding outspoken views, which he is not embarrassed to share with his superiors and on some memorable occasions with the press and the public (in an effort to bolster morale in Saudi Arabia he once told local residents that Nottingham was more dangerous than Riyadh),” The Times said last year.

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