Senior Taliban leader was a fake, officials say
If it sounded too good to be true, that’s because it apparently was. Afghan officials and Western diplomats acknowledged Tuesday that a man claiming to be a senior Taliban leader, who was flown to the Afghan capital in a NATO aircraft for talks this year, was almost certainly an impostor.
The incident was an embarrassment for Western military intelligence and for the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, both of whom were at least temporarily taken in by the ruse.
And it underscored the difficulties that lie ahead if efforts continue to engage the insurgents in talks.
The Karzai government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have signaled that after nine years of war, some form of political settlement is probably the only real chance for a durable peace. This year’s increase in the number of American troops has been aimed in large measure at reversing Taliban battlefield momentum, in hopes of luring the insurgency’s leadership to the bargaining table and its foot soldiers away from the fight.
The Taliban movement all along has issued strenuous public denials that meetings between emissaries of the movement and the Karzai government have been taking place.
But U.S. officials in recent months had been speaking more openly about contacts between the insurgency and the Afghan administration — some involving “very high-level Taliban leaders,” Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of Western troops in Afghanistan, told reporters in September.
The man in question was believed by Western and Afghan officials at the time of the talks to be Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a senior member of the Taliban hierarchy. The meetings were first reported by the New York Times, which also reported Tuesday that Western officials had concluded that the man representing himself as Mansour was not in fact him.
In its original report, the paper did not name Mansour but on Tuesday identified him as the person that both Afghan and NATO officials had believed they were dealing with in three encounters.
Because the Taliban movement operates clandestinely, many of its senior leaders are known by sight only to a handful of intimates. An Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the deception was not known until someone who had met Mansour years earlier saw a photograph of the fake Mansour and raised the alarm.
Taliban spokesmen could not be reached Tuesday for comment. Two days earlier, the movement had issued a communique ridiculing the notion that NATO could prevail by keeping troops in Afghanistan until at least 2014 and possibly beyond.
Once the Mansour ploy became public knowledge, speculation swirled about the motivation behind the hoax. Some suggested that the man in question could have been a Taliban plant or perhaps an operative acting on the orders of Pakistan’s intelligence service, which at times has been accused of supporting militant groups.
At a news conference Tuesday, Karzai told reporters he had never met Mansour and labeled earlier accounts of his encounter with a top Taliban official at the presidential palace as propaganda.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul had no public comment on the apparent charade. But a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the incident, said that in the early stages of any such talks, a degree of deception was to be expected — and that going forward, it would continue to be difficult to establish who was truly authorized to speak for the movement.
In the Karzai government, there was already a sense of lurching on to the next crisis. Final results of September’s parliamentary elections are to be released Wednesday, and authorities were bracing for possible violence.
Twenty-one candidates for the 249-seat lower house of parliament have been disqualified, and supporters of some of them have threatened to take to the streets if their losses are confirmed. At his news conference, Karzai called for calm, saying that violence in response to the results would amount to “national treason.”
The Afghan leader also appeared to shrug off pointed observations from President Obama at the weekend’s NATO summit about the U.S.-Afghan partnership. Obama said Karzai’s complaints would be heard, but “he’s got to listen to us as well.”
On Tuesday, however, Karzai repeated his criticism of night raids carried out by U.S. special forces and called the equipment provided by the West to the Afghan army “totally insufficient.” He also suggested that his administration provided a steadying presence for NATO, not the other way around.
Likening the Western-Afghan relationship to two friends traveling together, Karzai said one was “a bit naughty, and doesn’t pay much attention,” while “the good friend is obliged to say, ‘My brother, the journey is very long, and if we go on in this way, we won’t arrive.’ ”