BRITISH intelligence officials are being blamed for the humiliating ruse by a suspected Pakistani shopkeeper, who fooled Afghan and NATO officials.
The authorities thought he was a top Taliban commander willing to negotiate a peace settlement in Afghanistan.
British newspapers yesterday reported that Pakistan-based MI6 officers paid a man who claimed to be Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, an Afghan Taliban commander second only to Mullah Omar, up to $500,000 to encourage further talks and flew him from the Pakistani city of Quetta to Kabul on a British C130 transport plane.
Afghan and US officials have turned on MI6 for the embarrassing setback, which has undermined recent US assurances of progress towards a peace deal in Afghanistan.
The US, whose duration in Afghanistan yesterday surpassed that of the former Soviet Union at nine years and 50 days, is desperate for an exit from the country known for good reason as the graveyard of empires.
President Hamid Karzai’s chief of staff yesterday said the impostor incident was an example of why foreigners should stay out of delicate negotiations between the government and Islamic insurgents.
“This shows that this process should be Afghan-led and fully Afghanised,” Mohammad Umer Daudzai told The Washington Post.
“The last lesson we draw from this: international partners should not get excited so quickly with those kind of things . . . Afghans know this business, how to handle it.
“We handle it with care, we handle it with a result-based approach, with less damage to all the other processes.”
A senior American official familiar with the case was also quoted as saying the false Mansour was “the Brits’ guy” and that MI6 had ignored the misgivings of both Afghan and US intelligence officers.
While it’s true that the CIA initially expressed scepticism over his identity, the top US commander in Afghanistan, David Petraeus, told reporters just last month that NATO was flying Taliban leaders to Afghanistan for top-level negotiations.
The real Mansour, a former aviation minister in the Afghan Taliban government, was significantly taller than the man who took his place at the negotiating table and even met Mr Karzai at the presidential palace.
It was only after an Afghan official, who had previously met Mansour, pointed out the discrepancies that the ruse was uncovered.
The impostor has since disappeared, with many thousands of British taxpayer pounds and the fervent hopes of a US administration seriously under pressure.
British intelligence officials have been trying since to limit the damage to their reputation.
One unnamed officer told The Times: “It wasn’t like no one else was involved and everyone just said, ‘OK, we’ll go along with it because British intelligence insists he’s the right man’.”
US intelligence agencies are understood to have conducted background checks on the man, who reportedly did have inside information on the Taliban inner circle.
The latest Pentagon report concluded “uneven” progress had been made this year, despite the US’s 30,000-strong troop surge.