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One Conman Falls for Another

Why Gen. Petraeus was Snookered by the "Taliban" Imposter

by GARETH PORTER

The revelation that the man presumed to be a high-ranking Taliban leader who had met with top Afghan officials was an impostor sheds 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 contrive yet another saga emphasizing 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 impostor 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 lack of interest 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 in an interview with Katie Couric of CBS News Aug. 20, when he presented the supposed Taliban approach to Karzai as another case of splitting the insurgency.

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 impostor had said nothing to indicate to U.S. and Afghan officials that he was 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 me the hope was that the man presumed to be Mansour was authorized 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 Sep. 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’s 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 impostor, the Taliban leadership was firmly denying that they were negotiating with the Afghan government. During the three-day Muslim holiday that began Sep. 9, Mullah Omar had said the Taliban would "never accept" the current government.

On Sep. 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 Oct. 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 version 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 impostor.

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

GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.