An Overeager Petraeus Ignored Danger Signs on Taliban Imposter

IPS — The revelation that the man presumed to be a high-ranking Taliban leader who had met with top Afghan officials was an imposter sheds new light on Gen. David Petraeus’s aggressive propaganda about the supposed Taliban approach to the Hamid Karzai regime.

Ever since August, Petraeus had been playing up the Taliban’s supposed willingness to talk peace with Karzai as a development that paralleled the success he had claimed in splitting the Sunni insurgency in Iraq in 2007.

It is now clear, however, that Petraeus was deceiving himself as well as the news media in accepting the man claiming to be the second-ranking Taliban commander, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, as genuine, despite a number of indications to the contrary.

Petraeus’s failure to heed those signals was certainly driven by his strong desire to establish yet another narrative emphasising his brilliance as a war strategist, judging from his public statements prior to the revelation of the fraud.

The tale of self-deception began a few months ago when a man claiming to be Mullah Mansour somehow persuaded U.S. officials, including Petraeus, to help him go to Kabul to talk with Karzai. Mansour had been named, along with Abdul Qayum Zakir, to replace Mullah Baradar last March after Baradar was detained by Pakistani intelligence, according to a Taliban spokesman quoted in Newsweek.

The first warning signal that the man was an imposter was that he gave Karzai regime officials terms for peace that bore no resemblance to the public posture of the Taliban.

He suggested that the Taliban merely wanted to be allowed to return safely to Afghanistan, along with promises of jobs and the release of prisoners, according to the Times account. There were no demands for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces or for a change to the constitutional system.

Both those demands had been fundamental to the Taliban position, both in public statements and in communications to ex-Taliban intermediaries between Karzai and the Taliban leadership.

But instead of finding the sudden disinterest in bargaining over those demands suspicious, Petraeus apparently approved giving the man a considerable amount of money to continue the talks, according to reports by the New York Times and Washington Post.

That decision was evidently influenced by Petraeus’s strong desire to believe that the vast increase in targeted raids aimed at killing or capturing suspected Taliban officials that had begun in March had caused top Taliban officials to give up their fundamental peace demands – and that he was now on his way to repeating what was believed to be his success in Iraq.

Petraeus began to hint at such a repeat performance when he presented the supposed Taliban approach to Karzai as another case of splitting the insurgency in his interview with Katie Couric of CBS news August 20.

Couric asked, “So you think they’d be receptive to reconciliation?” to which Petraeus replied, “Some. Again, I don’t there’s an expectation that [Taliban spiritual leader] Mullah Omar is going to charter a plane any time soon to sit down and discuss the Taliban laying down weapons en masse. However, there are certainly leaders out there who we believe are willing to do that.”

In fact, the imposter had said nothing to indicate to U.S. and Afghan officials that he was not speaking on behalf of the entire Quetta Shura, including Mullah Omar himself, according to one U.S. official familiar with the episode. The official, who insisted on anonymity, told IPS the hope was that the man presumed to be Mansour was authorised by the leadership to speak for them.

Nevertheless, Petraeus returned to the same theme in late September, hinting at a divided Taliban leadership and again drew a parallel between peace talks in Afghanistan and what happened in Iraq.

“There are some high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government, and they have done that,” Petraeus told reporters on September 27.

The United States supported Karzai’s conditions for the talks, he said, likening them to U.S. support for similar conditions for negotiations with Sunnis in Iraq. Then he added, “This is the way you end insurgencies.”

The New York Times reported that senior U.S. officials, including Petraeus himself, were saying in October that “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.”

Through the late summer and early autumn, Petraeus was continuing to ignore other warning signals that the Taliban willingness to give up the demand for U.S. withdrawal was too good to be true.

But throughout the entire period of U.S. and Afghan contacts with the imposter, the Taliban leadership was firmly denying that they were negotiating with the Afghan government. During the three-day Muslim holiday that began September 9, Mullah Omar had said the Taliban would “never accept” the current government.

On September 29, Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Majahid, said Petraeus’s claim that the Taliban were negotiating with the Afghan government was “completely baseless”, and that the Taliban would not negotiate with “foreign invaders or their puppet government”.

Even more important, Taliban officials were telling Pakistani intelligence officers seeking clarification on the Taliban position on peace over the summer that the U.S. and NATO forces would have to be withdrawn before any settlement with Karzai, as reported by Syed Saleem Shahzad in the Asia Times.

But Petraeus evidently believed that he was now in a position to be able to repeat in Afghanistan the strategy that had worked in Iraq.

He had talked about negotiations with a segment of the Taliban leadership as the key to reducing the insurgency in Afghanistan even before he had taken over as chief of CENTCOM in October 2008. At a talk at the Heritage Foundation October 8, 2008, Petraeus had said the key in Afghanistan was negotiations with those insurgents willing to reconcile while isolating the irreconcilables.

Petraeus has been able to reap the political benefit from the fact that most journalists and the U.S. political elite believe that it was Petraeus’s maneuvering, combined with the surge, that produced the Sunni turn towards cooperation against al Qaeda.

That narrative of Petraeus-driven success is largely mythical, however. In fact, the Sunni shift toward joining local anti-al Qaeda militia units was already well underway before Petraeus took command in February 2007.

When Petraeus’s U.S.-NATO command, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), finally consulted someone who had actually known Mullah Mansour in late October or early November, they were told the man they had been dealing with was an imposter.

Neither ISAF nor the Karzai government, however, have been able establish the identity of the imposter.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

3 comments on this article so far ...

Comments RSS feed

  1. bozh said on November 25th, 2010 at 10:11am #

    i realized or expected yrs ago nato-u.s wld one day try get the pashtuns or pashtuns-talibans to a ‘negotiating’ table [caveat, dubious symbol].
    but i have also expected that if the ‘invitation’ ever came it wld have amounted to nato-u.s gaining at least some narrow or political gain.
    such as? sending a message to all afghanis that nato-u.s is interested in peace but talibans r not.
    facts point out to a firm conclusion that taliban wld not ever want anything less than total troop withdrawal.
    i also expect that because of that nato-u.s wld increase its terror on pashtuns and
    by tenfold if deemed necessary to defeat neoindians.
    expect even use of wmd! tnx

  2. Don Hawkins said on November 25th, 2010 at 10:37am #

    And this thinking Bozh just on the off chance you are correct is done for what reason bottom line?

  3. mary said on November 26th, 2010 at 1:29am #

    Several hundred thousand dollars were given to this impostor courtesy of the incompetents in the British MI6. No words.

    MI6 promoted Taliban impostor: report
    (AFP) – 5 hours ago

    LONDON — MI6 agents were responsible for promoting an impostor who they believed was a senior Taliban commander key to the Afghan peace process, the Times reported Friday.

    Intelligence agents paid the man several hundred thousand dollars, convinced he was a senior commander with the authority to negotiate with senior American and Afghan officials on behalf of the insurgents.

    It is now believed that he was either a minor Taliban figure or simply a con-man.

    A senior Afghan government official told the newspaper: “British intelligence was naive and there was wishful thinking on our part.”