Taliban leader in secret Afghan talks was an impostor: Report

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

KABUL - The secret talks between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban to end the conflict in the country - that were “showing promise” - seem to have hit a dead end, with a revelation that the militant leader at the other end of the table was an imposter.

“In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, US and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor,” the New York Times reported Tuesday.

Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the seniormost commanders of the Taliban, took part in the discussion with the government. Mansour is reportedly the second-ranked official in the Taliban, only behind the founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

But the report now says Mansour was “apparently not Mansour at all”.

“It’s not him,” said a Western diplomat involved in the discussions. “And we gave him a lot of money.”

US officials confirmed Monday that they had given up hope that the man was Mansour, or even a member of the Taliban.

NATO and Afghan officials held three meetings with the man, “who travelled from Pakistan, where Taliban leaders have taken refuge”.

The fake Taliban leader even met President Hamid Karzai, after being flown to Kabul on a NATO aircraft and ushered into the presidential palace, officials said.

The report said Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding in Pakistan, “possibly with the assistance of the Pakistani government, which receives billions of dollars in American aid”.

US officials now say they were “skeptical from the start” about the identity of the man who claimed to be Mansour. Serious doubts arose after the third meeting with Afghan officials, held in Kandahar.

A man who had known Mansour years ago told officials that the man at the table did not resemble him.

“He said he didn’t recognise him,” said an Afghan leader on the condition of anonymity.

But as to how US officials came to the conclusion that the man was an imposter, has not been made clear.

Since the last round of discussions, officials were puzzled over who the man was. Some said the man may have been a “freelance fraud”, posing as a Taliban leader in order to enrich himself.

“The Taliban are cleverer than the Americans and our own intelligence service. They are playing games,” an Afghan official said.

Some suspect that the fake Taliban leader “may have been dispatched by the Pakistani intelligence service, known by its initials, the ISI”.

“Elements within the ISI have long played a ‘double-game’ in Afghanistan, reassuring US officials that they are pursuing the Taliban while at the same time providing support for the insurgents,” the report said.

Publicly, the Taliban is “sticking to the line that there are no talks at all”.

“The cunning enemy which has occupied our country, is trying, on the one hand, to expand its military operations on the basis of its double-standard policy and, on the other hand, wants to throw dust into the eyes of the people by spreading the rumours of negotiation,” Mullah Omar said in a statement.

Afghan leaders are still holding on to hope that the man really is or at least represents Mansour - and that he will come back soon.

Negotiators had urged the man claiming to be Mansour to return with other Taliban leaders whose identities they might also be able to verify.

Several steps had been taken to establish the man’s real identity. After the first meeting, photos of him were shown to Taliban detainees who were believed to know Mansour.

Whatever the man’s identity, the talks seemed substantive. The man laid down several moderate conditions for a peace settlement - that the Taliban be allowed to safely return to Afghanistan, that Taliban soldiers be offered jobs, and that prisoners be released.

Sayed Amir Muhammad Agha, a former Taliban commander who left the outfit but acted as a go-between with the movement in the past, said the Taliban leadership had given no indications of a willingness to enter talks.

“Someone like me could come forward and say, ‘I am a Talib and a powerful person’. But I can tell you, nothing is going on. Whenever I talk to the Taliban, they never accept peace and they want to keep on fighting. They are not tired,” he said.

Filed under: Terrorism

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