Taliban impostor reveals perils of negotiation

Images from the front lines of the military effort in Afghanistan.
By Joshua Partlow and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 10:20 PM

KABUL - He was a few inches shorter than his file suggested, but to those searching for a way out of the war in Afghanistan, he was too tantalizing to pass up: a top Taliban commander ready to talk peace.

In the end, he was also too good to be true.

The revelation that the man who was flown by British intelligence officials to Kabul, sat down with President Hamid Karzai and paid for his interest was not Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour but an imposter in an elaborate ruse became an embarrassing episode this week in the United States' nearly decade-long war.

But it has also demonstrated just how hard it will be to end the conflict through a negotiated settlement with an adversary that has shown remarkable resilience on the battlefield and a cool refusal to engage in talks. The incident has called into question whether the Obama administration's strategy of pounding the Taliban into submission, and toward the bargaining table, has gained any traction.

With the senior insurgent leadership safely harbored in Pakistan, according to U.S. and Afghan officials, the Taliban has remained firmly opposed to any formal negotiations, while the informal contacts between the two sides have so far amounted to little.

"That leadership in Pakistan is not losing its grip yet," said a senior NATO official in Kabul.

The ramped-up American military pressure in recent months, including 30,000 new troops and an escalation of U.S. Special Operations raids to levels not seen before in Iraq or Afghanistan, should not be discounted, said one coalition official, but "it may not be the dominant factor."

No one should expect Taliban fighters to defect as fast as Iraqi insurgents switched sides during the military surge there, the official said.

"It's important to understand that what drove that dynamic was desperation by all sides. We aren't at that stage here," the official said.

Some U.S. officials who have monitored the talks, particularly those within the intelligence community, have questioned the status of Taliban interlocutors and said that intelligence indicated the insurgents still believed they were winning and had little incentive to negotiate.

Others, including senior U.S. military officials, have cited intelligence showing the opposite - that the Taliban is beginning to fracture under the stress of coalition operations - and said that top insurgents are participating in exploratory talks.

A humble shopkeeper

In September, Gen. David H. Petraeus said the coalition was providing safe passage to Taliban leaders to talk with Karzai's government, quickly raising expectations that a new phase of serious discussions had begun. But one of those men - Mansour, a top deputy of Mullah Mohammad Omar - has turned out to be a fraud, nothing but a humble shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta, according to Afghan officials. Those in Kabul familiar with the meetings have been casting doubt on the importance of the others.

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