The sting 153

The New York Times exposes a farce enacted on the real stage of international politics: a perfectly performed con-trick by which an imposter extracted a mountain of moola from craven double-dealing presidents, diplomats, and generals involved in The Endless War of Waste and Futility.

The conman claimed to be Mullah Akhta Muhammad Mansour, “the second highest official in the Taliban movement” after the founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

He and “two other Taliban leaders” were flown to Kabul from Pakistan in a NATO plane, wearing serious beards, and were ceremoniously ushered into the presidential palace, where they proceeded to beard President Karzai in his den, so to speak. Then they were conducted to the city of Kandahar where “Mullah Mansour” and his two merry men hoodwinked government officials, NATO commanders, American diplomats and top-brass.

For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement.

But now, it turns out, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, United States and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor, and high-level discussions conducted with the assistance of NATO appear to have achieved little.

“It’s not him,” said a Western diplomat in Kabul intimately involved in the discussions. “And we gave him a lot of money.”

American officials confirmed Monday that they had given up hope that the Afghan was Mr. Mansour, or even a member of the Taliban leadership.

Doubts about the man’s identity arose after the third session of negotiations. Only then –

A man who had known [the real] Mr. Mansour years ago told Afghan officials that the man at the table did not resemble him.

Even so, they wistfully hoped that whoever he was would come again. They’d paid him to keep the fake peace talks going, and any old talks, with anyone at all, are better than none.

While the Afghan official said he still harbored hopes that the man would return for another round of talks, American and other Western officials said they had concluded that the man in question was not Mr. Mansour. Just how the Americans reached such a definitive conclusion — whether, for instance, they were able to positively establish his identity through fingerprints or some other means — is unknown.

As recently as last month, American and Afghan officials held high hopes for the talks. Senior American officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, said the talks indicated that Taliban leaders, whose rank-and-file fighters are under extraordinary pressure from the American-led offensive, were at least willing to discuss an end to the war.

President Karzai himself – who wears, literally, the mantle of power – denied that any talks with any Taliban, real or pretend, were going on at all:

“Do not accept foreign media reports about meetings with Taliban leaders. Most of these reports are propaganda and lies,” he said.

The Taliban also deny that any talks took place, or were planned.

In a recent message to his followers, Mullah Omar denied that there were any talks unfolding at any level.

Now, since “Mullah Mansour” turns out to have been a scam artist, it seems they might be telling the truth.

Since the last round of discussions, which took place within the past few weeks, Afghan and American officials have been puzzling over who the man was.

So who was he?

[Some] say the man may have been a [real] Taliban agent. “The Taliban are cleverer than the Americans and our own intelligence service,” said a senior Afghan official who is familiar with the case.  “They are playing games.”

Others suspect that the fake Taliban leader, whose identity is not known, may have been dispatched by the Pakistani intelligence service, known by its initials, the ISI. Elements within the ISI have long played a “double-game” in Afghanistan, reassuring United States officials that they are pursuing the Taliban while at the same time providing support for the insurgents.

The theory we like best is that he was “a humble shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta”, who simply enlisted the help of two cronies and carried out the sting operation for the most understandable of motives – to get a lot of money. Which they did.