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.
The hype about Taliban negotiations "was good for the public opinion in the Western countries, but the brutality of this war is much different," said a senior Afghan. While intelligence officials are in regular contact, Karzai has yet to meet "one single Taliban" of importance, he added.
One Afghan who has taken part in discussions on Karzai's behalf said he was certain that Taliban representatives he has been in touch with were increasingly senior and in direct contact with the Quetta shura and that the contacts were authorized, although it was unclear whether they had Mullah Omar's blessing to negotiate or were extending feelers and carrying messages.
During the last round of those discussions, about two months ago, two senior Taliban arrived with a letter signed by a top Quetta shura official, though not Mullah Omar. The talks were suspended, however, after the Taliban refused to meet Saudi demands that they publicly renounce al-Qaeda.
When a five-man delegation from the insurgent group Hezb-i-Islami met with Karzai and other government officials in Kabul last May, they brought a handwritten, signed letter from their leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
A senior Pakistani official in Kabul said talk by NATO officials of high-level meetings seems little more than an "information operation."
"This is a billboard: Please come. We will transport you. We will give you money. We will help you in your dialogue with Karzai," the official said. "Nothing with the senior Taliban leadership has happened."
In an interview this month with The Washington Post, Karzai said he had met a high-level Taliban figure but that they discussed little more than a mutual desire for peace. It was unclear whether that was Mansour. On Tuesday, Karzai said reports of such a meeting with Mansour were "propaganda."
The man purporting to be Mansour emerged on the Afghan government radar as a possible interlocutor several months ago, officials said. He was later put in touch with British intelligence, which flew him to Kabul aboard a military plane to meet with Karzai and other officials at least twice. The United States was aware of his movements but were "not involved," a senior Afghan official said.Well-founded skepticism
Since those first meetings, U.S. officials said they have harbored suspicions about Mansour. He was shorter than expected and didn't arrive in Kabul with the people he said he would bring. Still, he was convincing enough as a Taliban leader to warrant more meetings and allegedly received payment for coming to Kabul.
After reviewing photographs of the man with those who know the insurgent leaders, Afghan officials concluded they had the wrong man. According to one senior Afghan official, Karzai's office "was the first to suspect and discover that the man was fake."
It is not clear to what extent - if any - the man posing as Mansour was involved in secret talks held outside Afghanistan, including a round reportedly staged earlier this year in Dubai.
The Afghans are still puzzling over the man's motivations. They suspect he might have been sent by Pakistan's spy agency to see what Afghans would offer, or by the Taliban to test if the Kabul visit was a trap, or to make money.
Speaking from Berlin, Petraeus said Tuesday that there had long been skepticism about one man claiming to be a Taliban leader. "It may well be that that skepticism was well-founded," he said.
Other U.S. military officials described the episode as an expected pitfall when trying to negotiate with insurgents during a war.
"It reinforces why you've got to look at all these guys with suspicion," a U.S. military official said.
The official was reminded of Iraq in 2003, when informants purported to know the hiding place of Saddam Hussein.
"Some of this reconciliation stuff tends to be Elvis sightings," the official said.
But the official discounted the notion that Mansour was considered the coalition's best chance to have a dialogue with the Taliban.
"I don't think anybody thought that was the most promising lead, or that we had all our eggs in that basket. There are lots and lots of baskets."
DeYoung reported from Washington.