Britain promoted Taliban peace talks impostor: reports
British spies promoted an impostor whom they believed was a top Taliban commander key to the Afghan peace process, paying him several hundred thousand dollars, reports said Friday.
Britain's foreign intelligence service MI6 believed the man to be insurgent leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a figure capable of negotiating with US and Afghan officials, The Times and The Washington Post reported.
Agents even flew the man on Royal Air Force transport planes from Pakistan to Kabul on several occasions, but it now appears he was either a minor rebel, a shopkeeper or even just a conman, the reports said.
In an interview with the Post, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff Mohammad Umer Daudzai said the British brought the man purporting to Mullah Mansour to meet Karzai in July or August.
But an Afghan at the meeting knew "this is not the man," the Post quoted him as saying.
"This shows that this process should be Afghan-led and fully Afghanized," Daudzai said.
"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."
Britain's Foreign Office refused to confirm or deny the reports about the fake Taliban leader but admitted that it provides "practical help for Afghan reconciliation initiatives".
"We can neither confirm nor deny operational detail on stories like this," a spokeswoman said.
"Reconciliation is an Afghan-led process. We support President Karzai's three conditions for this: renouncing violence, cutting ties with Al-Qaeda and working within the constitutional framework.
"As the Foreign Secretary has said, we can provide practical help for Afghan reconciliation initiatives."
The Times said MI6 initially believed it had made a "historic breakthrough" in promoting talks between the Afghan government and Mansour, an ex-Taliban government minister and currently second to Mullah Omar in its leadership.
Intelligence officers based in Islamabad made contact with the man and it was believed that the US had helped Britain check the man's bona fides, The Times reported.
He was then flown from the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta to Kabul on Royal Air Force Hercules planes on several occasions.
Afghan officials told The Times that a meeting took place with Karzai in his Kabul palace, although Karzai denied on Tuesday that there had been any such meeting.
"British intelligence was naive and there was wishful thinking on our part," a senior Afghan government official told The Times.
The US Central Intelligence Agency was reportedly sceptical of British claims because the man claming to be Mansour "was a few inches shorter than their intelligence indicated Mansour is," the Post said.
He also failed to turn up with people he promised to bring, it added.
But the former US representative in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, Bill Harris, told The Times that the embarrassing mistake was not Britain's alone, saying "something this stupid generally requires teamwork."
After the story broke Tuesday in The New York Times, General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan, told a press briefing in Germany he was not surprised.
"There was scepticism about one of these all along and it may well be that scepticism was well-founded," he said Tuesday.
The New York Times has reported that the man who had been posing as Mullah Mansour disappeared after the farce.
"It should have been the Afghans themselves who should have pointed out the almighty cock-up," a source told the London Times. "Sometimes NATO doesn't know one bearded, turbanned Taliban leader from another."
© 2010 AFP