By Momin Iftikhar
The silky smooth ease with which a lowly shopkeeper from Quetta, has managed to pull wool around the eyes of world’s two most renowned intelligence outfits; the CIA and MI6, is symptomatic of the ground reality in Afghanistan and reflective of the naiveté that governs the US/UK efforts to find a way out of the Afghan quagmire. The incident, that was reported by the New York Times in the third week of November has not only left the US military commander General Petraeus in deep embarrassment but has also cast aspersions upon the acumen and military capability of his predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal, who had originally approved inclusion of the imposter in advancing a peace process with the Taliban.
The news of secret talks between Taliban and the US had been wafting across for months. These parleys formed the nucleus of the in-operation US counterinsurgency strategy to work out a modicum of working relations with Taliban leadership. At the nucleus of this effort remained a clutch of Taliban leaders – their identity jealously guarded – selected painstakingly by CIA with MI6 assistance. Assured of a safe passage during their visits to Afghanistan, MI6 transported them in military helicopters for meetings in Kabul with US officials, even President Karzai. The group was supposedly led by Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in Taliban Movement, and such was the promise of his presence that US pinned high hopes for success of their counterinsurgency strategy on his willingness to participate.
It was after three meetings that the NATO and Afghan interlocutors finally realized that they were dealing with an imposter. It goes to “Mullah’s” cleverness that before being finally identified by an Afghan official who knew Mullah Mansour intimately , he managed to getaway safely, taking with him a hefty six figure amount in dollars as goodwill money, which the NATO officials offered him as bribery for inducement to return. Washington Post informs us that he was a lowly shopkeeper from Quetta yet “his daring ruse has flummoxed those attempting to start a peace process with the Taliban”. Hopefully he doesn’t have to labor at his shop for the rest of his life.
“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.
NATO and Afghan officials said they held three meetings with the man, who traveled from in Pakistan, where Taliban leaders have taken refuge.
The fake Taliban leader even met with President Hamid Karzai, having been flown to Kabul on a NATO aircraft and ushered into the presidential palace, officials said.
The appearance of an imposter who could befool the collective wisdom of US, NATO and Afghan with consummate ease, leaving them with egg on their faces is no simple matter to be shrugged off. It has laid bare the deep fault lines and vulnerabilities that bedevil the US and NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The first and foremost is the failure of the US/Western agencies to provide actionable intelligence to their military commanders that should help formulate an effective and viable national and military strategy. No wonder the US Afghan War has emerged as the longest US military engagement ever; even surpassing Vietnam and the nine year, seven week Soviet military misadventure in Afghanistan. The amount of uncertainty can be gauged by the fact that at the November NATO Summit, President Obama extended the deadline for the cessation of military operations in Afghanistan to 2014.
Second; the failure of the US/NATO intelligence establishment to understand and evaluate the local conditions has left them in a dangerous state of vulnerability. If one of the senior most Taliban commanders sitting just across the table can’t be positively identified by CIA/MI16 sleuths then how would they ascertain identity of the lower ranks of insurgents, considered malleable enough to lay down arms in return for amnesty, cash and jobs? No wonder then that an important track of the peace process – the reintegration effort to draw away moderate fighters from the hard core of Taliban movement has barely made any progress. The reason ; hordes of imposters are flooding in to assure the US troops and aid agencies of their intent to lay down arms, claim compensation money and simply vanishing back to where they belong – with weapons.
Third; the episode has shown how desperate the US is to open negotiations with the Taliban to the exclusion of the regional stake holders, most noticeably Pakistan. The talks with ‘Taliban’ were disclosed in October by General Petraeus who announced that the NATO was providing safe passage for the leaders for preliminary talks with the Afghan Government. It had raised expectations back home where the nascent process had been interpreted as an indicator that the year old switch in the strategy from the war on terror operations to counter insurgency operations, calling for restricting the trigger happy collateral-damage heavy tactics with focused pinpoint engagements coupled with efforts to win hearts and minds of the Afghan population, had begun to pay dividends. With slippery disappearance of the imposter, the façade of talks lies dead and the burden of a wasted effort and the failure of the US operational strategy have begun to manifest itself just before the long awaited review of the Afghan strategy by President Obama in December this year. Taliban leadership who always denied the news of negotiations with the US is gloating with renewed swagger. “Americans and their allies are very stupid and any one can fool them,” commented Taliban spokesman Qari Yusaf Ahmadi on the imposter ruse.
Lastly, the episode has indicated how the simple and commonsense based tactics by Taliban, backed by ingenuity and shrewdness are getting the better of high tech cutting edge technology employed by US and NATO in their intelligence gathering. The shopkeeper from Quetta has demolished the tall claims made by the General Petraeus regarding the sophistication of the “biometric database” which has been developed for rapid identification of the insurgents after incurring expenditure of billions of dollars. The poor quality of human intelligence has also emerged as an issue; no one seemed to have seen the photograph of Mullah Mansour; ranked high in Taliban hierarchy of command. And then there is the crippling pressure to produce results in the thick fog of war. “The intelligence services are being pushed to make something happen, really to pull a turbaned rabbit out of a hat”, said Michael Scheuer, a CIA veteran and an old hand having long spell of service in Afghanistan.