Nov. 23, 2010— -- High level talks facilitated by NATO forces between Afghan officials and the man thought to be representing the Taliban, were supposed to open a line of communication in the near decade-long war in Afghanistan.
Instead they unearthed an embarrassing episode of political subterfuge.
The man American and Afghan officials thought was a Taliban leader was really an impostor. But he was treated with respect by American officials and met with members of the Afghan government while impersonating the Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour.
Two U.S. officials confirmed that the impostor was paid to meet with representatives of the Afghan government. In Washington Tuesday, White House spokesman Bill Burton told reporters no U.S. tax dollars went to the impostor.
The U.S. officials, who requested anonymity, confirmed that the talks took place, but it's unclear at what level, and who in the Afghan government he spoke with while impersonating Mansour. Afghan President Hamid Karzai today denied meeting with the impostor.
The Washington Post report identified the impostor as a shopkeeper from Quetta, Pakistan.
Speaking to reporters in Berlin, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said there had been skepticism all along about the man.
"It might well be that that skepticism was well founded," Petraeus said.
Another U.S. official, who requested anonymity, suggested that the U.S. never trusted the impostor or had faith that he could deliver anything to the talks. Another American official said suspicion of the impostor was immediate.
"We were always suspicious. He was two inches shorter than we had thought," said the official.
The story, as originally reported by The New York Times, "vastly overstates our investment in this channel, and we had doubts from the first meeting that this guy was who he said he was," said another official.
It is troubling from a security standpoint that an impostor was feted to a certain extent by the U.S. in Afghanistan. The news comes less than a year after seven CIA agents were killed when a spy they were recruiting detonated a suicide bomb at a secret CIA base in Afghanistan.
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke Hinted of Incident
What is not clear is if this infiltrator, pretending to be Muhammad Mansour, was working with a group or as an independent operator.
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, may have hinted at the incident just weeks after a senior military official first told reporters that there had been high-level talks between the Taliban and Afghan officials.
At a briefing in Washington on October 29, after returning from a trip to Afghanistan, Holbrooke told reporters that "there's been more written about it than has actually happened."
Holbrooke said there are talks with lower-level fighters, but downplayed expectations for talks with high-level leaders within the Taliban.
"This is not, however, the kind of high-level talks which all of you are writing and speculating about. And those are not taking place. They're just being written about. ... There is less here than meets the eye."
The comments were a shift because Holbrooke was one of the officials who had been quoted earlier saying the Taliban leadership wanted to talk.
That optimism had softened when Holbrooke told reporters at the briefing that "there is no indication at this point that the Taliban leadership wishes to change its course."