As the finger pointing spreads between Afghan and NATO circles, opposing conclusions have been drawn from the debacle over an alleged Taliban official now revealed as a fraud.
Believing negotiations with the Taliban to be a waste of time, those in favor of pursuing the war think U.S. forces should hit the Taliban harder than ever - and slacken rules of engagement designed to minimize civilian casualties. Those opposed to the war see the Taliban impostor as one more black mark on the Obama administration’s strategy, which has degenerated into military predominance to nullify July 2011 as a significant withdrawal date. The second line of thinking has ridiculed the White House and Pentagon for being duped.
But despite the murky waters, evidence suggests that Washington knew what it was doing all along. It’s more likely that those publics caught in the propaganda of their governments are the real losers of this game.
What exactly occurred within these “negotiations” remains unknown, and thus difficult to piece together, but a general picture has emerged since the news broke on Tuesday. A large piece was revealed by Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS), in an interview with The Observer. According to Saleh, a man named Muhammad Aminullah contacted the NDS in 2008 bearing a letter from Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, a Taliban official within Mullah Omar’s inner circle.
Saleh says his department grew "very suspicious” after Aminullah, a purported Taliban commander in Kandahar, failed a series of information tests, and eventually “lost track of him.”
Aminullah later approached Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar in 2009 and was “enthusiastically embraced” by Kabul, which had its own reasons to foster an image of successful negotiations. Still presiding over the war at the time, General Stanley McChrystal supposedly signed off on London’s plan to negotiate, as U.S. officials are theoretically barred from speaking with "terrorists." Afghan and UK officials disagree over the sequence of events, with each saying the other introduced the agent.
"I tried time and again to convince my colleagues in the ministry and subsequently at the palace that he is not a genuine representative of anybody," said Saleh, who was terminated after controversy over a security lapse at August’s peace conference in Kabul. "I am not criticizing anyone personally, I enormously respect Minister Atmar, but there has to be proper system of government. They should have respected the views of the intelligence community."
At this point everyone involved appeared to realize that something was wrong, and the subsequent cover up indicates that security lapses indeed occurred. Once Aminullah linked up “Mansour” with the NDS, officials immediately grew suspicious during a meeting on the Afghan-Pakistani border. "Mansour" was supposedly refused entry. Now a battle has broken out over whether he ever made it to Kabul, and how far he got inside the government.
In an interview with The Washington Post, President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff, Mohammad Umer Daudzai, said the British flew in “Mansour” to meet with Karzai in July or August. Daudzai also explained that one official at the meeting revealed the man as an impostor. Salah confirmed this account, saying, "I have to say taking him to the president was the biggest mistake. That shows lack of insulation around the top leadership of this country."
Possibly in damage control, the NDS released a statement on Saturday claiming that “Mansour” never visited the presidential palace. Believing such a claim is difficult enough after Saleh’s inside account, which garnered more reservations after U.S. Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen joined in on the denial. Mullen told CNN’s Fareed Zarakia that “Mansour” never reached Kabul - “as far as I know.”
"There were very early initial suspicions,” Mullen insisted. “And it took a little while to verify who he was or who he wasn't. And, in fact, it turns out that he wasn't the guy that he was claiming he should be.”
The ultimate question, then, is why these talks proceeded at all. Saleh’s initial outreach makes sense; his job as director of the NDS is to acquire intelligence on the enemy. “Mansour” offered the prospect of feeling out the Taliban leadership without a high degree of risk, as Aminullah was quickly discarded. But alarms should have gone off at every subsequent stage of the process, from the Interior Ministry’s immediate contact to vetting with NATO officials, all the way up to Karzai’s inner circle.
Or maybe everyone was alert to the scam.
One U.S. official told The Washington Post, "The agency expressed skepticism early on that this was Mullah Mansour. There was very healthy skepticism." If so, the question narrows to why high-level negotiations that never existed continued to be trumpeted by Afghan and NATO officials. The answer seems crystal clear despite the shadows obscuring it.
As Saleh explains of Karzai’s push for Taliban reconciliation, Kabul needed to create an image of progress to sell its Afghanistan Peace Council. Saleh believes, "This became so exciting that even certain figures were thinking of either an Afghan Dayton agreement or Good Friday agreement for Afghanistan. It shows the desperation of the leadership in Kabul, detachment from the reality and lack of sophistication on the most sensitive issues."
But with the Pentagon and NATO’s main strategy centered on “shock and awe” tactics to coerce the Taliban into negotiating, they too needed someone to give the appearance of reconciliation. “Mansour” would be perfect because he demanded nothing (no withdrawal of foreign forces), wasn’t truly connected to the Taliban, and hence posed no threat to negotiate with. $500,000 isn’t a steal on Mansour’s part (or whoever he was working for).
It’s a bargain to the Pentagon and NATO, desperate as they are for proof that their military surge is driving the Taliban to surrender. Or at least panic.
The Pentagon has already exploited its "successful" military operations to reduce July 2011 to a minor date along the way to 2014. Gareth Porter, a notable investigative journalist, highlighted General David Petraeus’s media campaign in his latest analysis to IPS. Listing samples from August, September, and October, Porter documents Petraeus’s cautious optimism that he's beginning to peel off factions of the Taliban army with massive firepower.
But while he concludes, along with many anti-war figures, that “an overeager Petraeus ignored the danger signs,” the astute Porter is more likely playing coy. Petraeus harbors no actual belief that the Taliban leadership intends to negotiate, content with the image of pseudo-negotiations. And not a very good one at that.
"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."
Petraeus even claims he wasn’t surprised by “Mansour’s” duplicity, saying, "It may well be that that skepticism was well-founded.” This sounds like his plan all along.
Yet the illusion isn’t confined to the US, NATO, and Afghan publics. As with many misunderstood devices, the total effect of faux negotiations cannot be controlled or accounted for, and Washington and Kabul’s shadow games are creeping up behind them. The exposure of “Mansour” does fall into the anti-war victory column. Another reason to leave sooner than later - proof that the Taliban won’t negotiate until they’re out of cards to play.
Only this reality has been admitted to by none other than the Pentagon.
In between positive assessments of Taliban negotiations, Petraeus has contradicted his former message - “we cannot kill our way to victory” - by planning to do just that. And according to Mullen, "We need to do that (push for reconciliation) from a strong position and we're just not there right now. And the Taliban don't think they're losing and the likelihood that they're going to take any significant steps with respect to reconciliation, I think, is low."
What happened to the Taliban's momentum being broken? America isn’t winning now?
Reading between their lines, Petraeus and Mullen have accurately gauged Taliban’s current position. It’s impossible for NATO’s uninterrupted barrage to cause no damage whatsoever, and indications of the Taliban’s exhaustion recently surfaced when a group of 17 commanders returned to Pakistan seeking temporary relief. Meeting with Abdul Qayum Zakir, a senior military commander, in Quetta, four Taliban officials briefed Newsweek about the ensuing conversation.
“We have lost many friends and commanders,” one commander told Zakir, says Mullah Salam Khan, a mid-level commander in Helmand province who was briefed on the meeting. “We are tired and want to take a rest.”
According to Khan, Zakir sympathized with their plight but said he needed them to maintain a harassing presence in their areas, to keep up appearances. Though weary, the commanders “promised to do what they could.” One official admitted that many skilled commanders have been lost, creating some fear among the lower ranks, but claimed that experienced soldiers are filling the gaps.
“The commanders told Zakir they were angry about all these rumors they hear about peace talks," he said. "They made it clear they just want a rest, not peace. They are still committed to the fight.”
By blurring July 2011 into the end of 2014, likely longer given the asterisk attached to “transferring authority,” Washington and its NATO allies commenced a policy of “shock and awe” on both the Taliban and international community. But with “Mansour’s” outing and the Pentagon’s lack of concern, U.S. strategy degrades into waiting out the Taliban in their own land.
And if the US and NATO publics continue to tolerate such a strategy, Afghanistan will make dupes of us all.