UK's top Afghanistan diplomat steps down

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, pictured in 2004
Image caption Sir Sherard has been critical of Nato and US policy in Afghanistan

The UK's most senior diplomat in Afghanistan has stepped down with immediate effect, the Foreign Office (FCO) has said.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles was appointed special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan in March 2009 but has been on extended leave since June.

The FCO said a separate representative was no longer required and his role would be handled by a policy chief.

The government insisted Afghanistan and Pakistan remained its top priority.

Karen Pierce, FCO director for South Asia and Afghanistan, will take on the role.

'Dedication and expertise'

Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "Sherard has made an invaluable contribution to UK policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"He showed great commitment, dedication and expertise during an important phase in international efforts in the region.

"He has a very able successor in Karen Pierce. Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to be this government's top priority in foreign affairs."

In June, Mr Hague said Sir Sherard was taking "some hard-won leave".

The diplomat has been critical of Nato and US policy, and said talks with the Taliban should have greater priority.

The BBC's Orla Guerin said in June that some believed his departure was down to his straight-talking and he had undermined himself by getting involved in too many disputes.

He himself was reported as saying he was taking leave because his job was done.

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