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.