By Joshua Partlow
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; A08
KABUL - A man purporting to be one of the Taliban's most senior commanders convinced both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the NATO officials who flew him to Afghanistan's capital for meetings, but two senior Afghan officials now believe the man was a lowly shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta.
His daring ruse has flummoxed those attempting to start a peace process with a determined Taliban adversary.
"He was a very clever man," one of the officials said.
The man claimed to be Akthar Mohammad Mansour, the second-ranking Taliban commander after Mohammad Omar, and he met with Karzai and Afghan officials at least twice in recent months to discuss possible peace negotiations, according to the Afghan officials.
He was flown to Kabul on British military aircraft for the meetings and persuasively portrayed himself as an insurgent who spoke for the movement, the officials said. But after showing photographs of the man to those who know the insurgent leader, the Afghan officials have concluded that he was an impostor.
The episode underscores the difficulty of separating truth from deception on the path to peace and has chastened those who had initial high hopes about how quickly the negotiations were progressing.
"The verification of who is representing who, and who they actually claim they represent, is going to be an early part of the problem," said a senior NATO official, who said he was unaware of the Mansour episode but speaking generally about the problems of starting peace talks. "Eventually, if the other side gets more serious about it, it will be less of an ambiguity."
The Afghans said they have not concluded what motivations the man was pursuing in taking the risk to claim he was a member of the Taliban's leadership council, the Quetta Shura, and in allowing himself to be escorted to Kabul to meet Karzai.
Some speculate that Pakistan's intelligence service might have sent the man to test the waters, to see what the Afghan government was offering. They also suggested this might have been a business opportunity, as senior insurgents potentially stand to make large sums of money if they defect.
"He could have been sent by the ISI," said one of the Afghan officials, referring to the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, Pakistan's spy agency.