By TOBIN HARSHAW
Turnabout is fair play. That’s as true in Afghanistan, where “fair play” is a rather flexible concept, as it is anywhere. “In any place where they fight, a man who knows how to drill men can always be a king” insisted Dravot, one of the two Europeans in Kipling’s “Man Who Would Be King” who manage to hoodwink an Afghan tribe into believing in their royal status, at least for a while. Indeed, historically, Westerners of dubious character have had a knack for bluffing their ways to positions of prominence during times of strife. Consider Dravot’s real-life inspiration: Josiah Harlan, an American charlatan who in 1848 declared himself the prince of Ghor in central Afghanistan. (One of Harlan’s descendants, a horror-movie actor, is convinced that the royal title remains in the family.)
So perhaps we should not be surprised that even today the Afghans might be up to similar shenanigans. “For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement,” report The Times’s Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall. “But now, it turns out, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, United States and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor, and high-level discussions conducted with the assistance of NATO appear to have achieved little.”
“Afghan officials believe he is merely a ‘lowly shopkeeper,’ ” adds New York Magazine’s Daily Intel with a dose of sarcasm: “Identifying members of the Taliban has been a long-standing problem for American officials. Many of them don’t have official documents or even Facebook accounts, and a NATO official estimates that ‘about 40 percent of the time the men turning themselves over to the government may not be the Taliban fighters they claim to be, but rather are looking for money or protection or something else.’ ”
The Atlantic’s Max Fisher thinks this means trouble ahead:
Perhaps most worrying is the likelihood that the Mansour impostor was central to the supposed Taliban peace talks, which U.S. officials have been trumpeting to the press for months as evidence that the surge had succeeded in forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table and that President Barack Obama would meet his planned 2011 troop draw-down. If U.S., NATO, and Afghan negotiators believed for months that they were speaking to someone as senior as Mansour, they would almost certainly have designed their plans for Afghan peace, and indeed for their own impending military withdrawal, on those negotiations and on whatever Mansour promised or suggested would be possible.
For Juan Cole, the mix-up is an occasion to bang the same old drum:
The incident set me thinking about all the impostures of that war, which are legion. Let us begin with the frankly dishonest discourse about it of both our twenty-first century presidents, who maintain that the US is fighting “al-Qaeda” in Afghanistan. But there is no al-Qaeda to speak of in that country, if by the term one means the mainly Arab Pan-Islamic International that sees Usama Bin Laden as its leader. US forces in Afghanistan are fighting disgruntled Pashtuns, for the most part. Some are from Gulbuddin Hikmatyar’s Islamic Party. Others from the Haqqani family’s Haqqani Network. The Reagan administration and its Saudi allies once showered billions of dollars on Hikmatyar and Haqqani, so they aren’t exactly eternal adversaries of the US. Some insurgents are from the Old Taliban of Mullah Omar. Still others are not so much terrorist cartels as tribes and guerrilla groups who are just unhappy with poppy eradication campaigns, or with the foreign troop presence (they would say ‘occupation’), or with how Karzai has given out patronage unequally, favoring some tribes over others. The insurgency is almost exclusively drawn from the Pashtun ethnic group.
So the war is not about al-Qaeda.
My guess is that the war is mainly an example of mission creep. The US and other Western powers stood up the Karzai government in late 2001, and they would suffer a loss of face and a geostrategic reversal if he were hanged from a lamp post like Najeeb, one of his Soviet-installed predecessors. So then they have to do whatever they can to prop up the Kabul government, including crash training for 400,000 troops and police to maintain security.
“This development is a remarkable setback for Petraeus and NATO, especially because there have been so many claims about the famed ‘biometric database’ that has been developed for rapid identification of insurgents,” writes Jim White at FireDogLake. He explains why David Petraeus, the top American commader, is to blame:
The equipment used in this endeavor has been given the rather unfortunate acronym “HIDE”, for Handheld Interagency Detection Equipment. Because of HIDE, it will be very difficult for Petraeus to hide from the failure of his intelligence operatives to determine that “Mansour” was an impostor …
A role for Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI, in this ruse cannot be ruled out. It should be recalled that the previous number two in command of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was “arrested” (by ISI, with CIA help) when he was reputed to be in peace negotiations back in January.
Whether he was duped by the Taliban, ISI or just a clever shopkeeper, Petraeus has suffered yet another massive blow to his credibility just before the next Afghanistan strategy session scheduled for the Obama administration. How many failures will Petraeus be allowed before he is sent to an early retirement?
The Nation’s Robert Dreyfuss agrees:
Count me among the fooled. Of course, I relied on Petraeus et al., who said that NATO had helped fly important Taliban leaders to Kabul for talks. But for Petraeus, the tip off should have been the absurdly modest “demands” of the fake “Taliban leader.” Instead of asking for a share of government power in Kabul and the withdrawal of US and NATO forces, the phony Mansour just asked “that the Taliban leadership be allowed to safely return to Afghanistan, that Taliban soldiers be offered jobs, and that prisoners be released.” Umm, no.
The thing is, there’s no way out of Afghanistan short of talking with the Taliban. But, as I’ve noted repeatedly, that means engaging not just with some fly-by-night “intermediary” .. but getting the core Taliban council and its Pakistani backers in the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, involved. The worrying thing, even in the early reporting of the purported talks, was that Pakistan was being cut out—and that would never work.
Meanwhile, unless he wants to be a laughingstock, Obama has to fire everyone involved in this charade.
Harsh judgments, to be sure, but at least the lefties seem to have backed off from the term “General Betray Us.” Others, however, think the president is the problem: “The episode underscores how frantic Mr. Obama is to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible,” writes Steve Gilbert at Sweetness and Light. “And that people on the ground there aren’t any too concerned about how that is accomplished as long as it happens soon.”
But by Friday, a new scapegoat had appeared: Britain. “The false Mansour was “the Brits’ guy,” said a senior American official familiar with the case,” reports The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow. ” ‘It was the British who brought him forward.’ ”
According to The Guardian’s James Meikle and Richard Norton-Taylor, the Kabul regime was already trying to use the disaster to its advantage:
Karzai’s aide, Mohammad Umer Daudzai, has accused British authorities of bringing the man to the presidential palace in July or August and said the US and Britain should stay out of delicate negotiations with the Afghan insurgents.
“This shows that this process should be Afghan-led and fully ‘Afghanised’,” Daudzai said, according to the Washington Post today. “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 very less damage to all the other processes.”
Others, of course, think that an inglorious collapse of talks with the Taliban is exactly what we need: “The negotiations don’t seem like a smart idea to begin with,” writes Scott Johnson at Power Line. “But now American officials have discovered after three meetings (including one with Karzai) that they have been had. One of the diplomats involved in the negotiations complains that ‘we gave him a lot of money,’ but not for value.”
“We’re at war with these people,” adds Rick at Wizbang. “Let’s quit talking to them and instead let’s start killing them. Or just come home. If we’re not there to defeat the enemy, then bring our men and women home. We’ve lost enough of our people due to our unwillingness to engage with full force. Enough is enough. Fight ferociously or return our troops to their families. Not another should die when we have incompetents who lead them.”
Like so much that has happened in the Afghan front, the unmasking of the faux Taliban a serious situation, but also a ridiculous one. Foreign Policy’s Black Hounshell is focusing on the latter aspect, giving us “10 ways of telling the true Talib from the con man”:
10. Keeps asking if the peace talks can be held in the Maldives
9. Eyepatch switches sides from meeting to meeting
8. Introduces himself as “Colonel Iqbal from the ISI”
7. Runs up a large minibar tab at the Four Seasons Kabul
6. Wife angling for a spot on “The Real Housewives of Kandahar”
5. Claims to be texting Mullah Omar but is actually just playing Angry Birds the whole time
4. Offers to settle Afghan War with a game of Jenga
3. Turban made of an actual towel
2. Wears trench coat, offers to sell the letters O and U
1. Agrees to trade Osama bin Laden for Justin Bieber
And with that, I’ll leave you to your Thanksgiving leftovers.
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