By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 12:16 PM
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."
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One on Tuesday, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said no American money went to the Taliban impostor.
"'Broadly, we have been able to make a lot of security progress," Burton said. "We've broken the momentum of the Taliban."
The Afghans say 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.
Mansour was said to have taken over as the No. 2 Taliban commander after Abdul Ghani Baradar was arrested early this year by Pakistani officials. Afghan officials are convinced that the Pakistanis arrested Baradar because he had begun talking with the Afghan government about possible negotiations without their consent. Pakistan is widely suspected by U.S. and Afghan officials of harboring some insurgent leaders, including members of the Quetta Shura.
Staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.
American officials pursuing lower-level Taliban defections have also struggled with identifying who they are dealing with. The senior NATO official said that about 40 percent of the time the men turning themselves over to the government may not be the Taliban fighters they claim to be, but rather are looking for money or protection or something else.
"It's hard to verify who they are," the official said.
Afghan officials said they did not have the name of the man purporting to be Mullah Mansour.
"One would suspect that in our multibillion-dollar intel community there would be the means to differentiate between an authentic Quetta Shura emissary and a shopkeeper," ssaid a U.S. official in Kabul who did not know about the particulars of the Mullah Mansour case. "On the other hand, it doesn't surprise me in the slightest. It may have been Mullah Omar posing as a shopkeeper; I'm sure that our intel whizzes wouldn't have known."