Senior Taliban leader declared a phony
KABUL, Afghanistan — 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 earlier 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 probably is 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,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of Western troops in Afghanistan, said in September.
The man in question was believed by Western and Afghan officials at the time of the talks to have been Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a senior member of the Taliban leadership hierarchy. The meetings were first reported by The New York Times, which reported yesterday that Western officials had concluded that the man representing himself as Mansour was not him.
In its original report, the paper did not name Mansour, but yesterday identified him as the person that 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 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 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.
The U.S. Embassy 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 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.