BRUSSELS Paddy Ashdown has agreed to become the United Nations' envoy to Afghanistan, a source close to negotiations on the post said on Wednesday.
The role will put Ashdown at the heart of international efforts to combat a Taliban insurgency and guide reconstruction.
"Yes, he has accepted the job," the source said of an agreement between Ashdown, 66, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after talks about Ashdown's request for a strengthened mandate for the post.
A spokesman for Ashdown declined to comment on whether an agreement had been reached. The source said that the United Nations was expected to make an announcement confirming the appointment imminently.
Western sources have said Ashdown will have greater powers than his predecessor, U.N. special envoy Tom Koenigs, to coordinate with the government of President Hamid Karzai, and with bodies such as NATO and the European Union.
However they stress he will have no say in the chain of command in NATO, which is leading a 42,000-strong peacekeeping force in Afghanistan.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said he could not confirm Ashdown's appointment but told reporters in Brussels:
"I would very much appreciate and applaud the nomination of a strong coordinator by the secretary general of the United Nations. I would applaud it."
"He (Ashdown) is somebody with great experience of course for such a job," he added.
In an interview with Reuters in October, Ashdown -- former U.N. High Representative and EU special representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina -- called for "for a high-level coordinator" to lead the foreign mission in Afghanistan.
He said that if such a new position was not created, the West would lose the war in Afghanistan, risking a regional conflict that could match the magnitude of previous world wars.
But the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, who now heads the Brussels-based EU-Russia Centre think tank, at the time ruled himself out of the job.
He saw active service as a soldier with the Royal Marine commando units in the jungles of Borneo and on the streets of Belfast.
The source said a main focus of Ashdown's efforts will be to liaise between the 39-nation NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a smaller U.S.-led military coalition, a small EU police mission and the U.N. presence.
He will also be responsible for coordinating U.N. agencies and NGOs delivering humanitarian assistance in the country.
"There definitely seems to be an understanding on the U.N. side about the enhanced mandate needed for the job," the source said.
The Taliban have in past months increased the number of suicide attacks after suffering heavy casualties in conventional clashes with foreign forces and the Afghan army.
While Western forces, alongside the Afghan army, have claimed victories against Taliban rebels in the south, many remote areas and some towns remain under rebel control and insurgent attacks have hit regions once considered safe.
(Additional reporting by Mark John and Ingrid Melander, editing by Keith Weir)
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