Could we look dumber? Mmm… No.

This has to be a leading candidate for the Intelligence Screw-Up Hall of Fame: NATO, US, and Afghan officials thought they were negotiating with one of the Taliban’s top leaders and were making progress toward a settlement… Until it turned how he was a fake:

Coalition and Afghan officials have believed for months that they have been in direct talks with Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, one of Mullah Omar’s top two deputies, but have discovered that the person they have been in talks with faked his identity, The New York Times reported.

Mansour and Mullah Abdul Qayum Zakir, a former detainee who became the Taliban’s top military commander in the south after his release in December 2007, were appointed by Mullah Omar to lead the Quetta Shura, the Taliban’s executive council, in March of this year. Mansour took over the administrative role, and Zakir became the Taliban’s top military leader.

Zakir and Mansour replaced Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was taken into custody by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence directorate earlier this year after he supposedly tried to conduct negotiations with the Afghan government. The terms of Baradar’s detention are unclear; some officials say he was not arrested but merely placed into protective custody.

Mansour was the Minister of Civil Aviation and Transportation during the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. He also served as the shadow governor of Kandahar province after the Taliban were ejected from power during the US invasion in 2001.

The fake Mansour approached NATO and Afghan officials months ago, and “was initially given a sizable sum of money to take part in the talks — and to help persuade him to return,” The New York Times reported. Officials became suspicious about the identity of the man only after the third meeting. The man’s identity could not be confirmed; he was unable to return to the meeting with other Taliban leaders, and his demands were radically different from the Taliban’s stated negotiating position.

No one seems to know who this faker was, but, man, get him a spot on cable selling blenders! He could be the new Billy Mays! “But wait! For only $19.95 million, not only will you get peace in Afghanistan, but we’ll all become Mennonites, too! Call now!”

Face, meet egg. In fact, meet a full dozen of them.

My friend Jimmy Bise has a great rant on this, but I have to quibble with his blanket assertion that this shows our intelligence in Afghanistan is lousy overall. We do have excellent “human intelligence” penetration of the Taliban and the Waziristan region of Pakistan; that’s how we’ve been able to get information on the movement of Taliban leaders for our increased campaign of Predator strikes – it’s not all coming from communications intercepts.

But, clearly, we didn’t know enough about Mullah Mansour to even know what he looked like before the meeting, indicating a serious gap in our knowledge of the Taliban leadership. Worse, in my opinion, this incident smells like something that happened because of pressure from political leaders back home (including our own) to pursue “all avenues for peace” and an exit from Afghanistan. By leaning on the generals and intelligence officers in the region, pressure was created to find someone to negotiate with, so, when this con artist waltzed in, he was accepted by someone who said his bona fides were “good enough” and decided to take a risk.

And thus was a humiliating fiasco born.

This is just a guess on my part, of course, but it seems a reasonable one.

There’s no doubt this hurts our reputation, especially in the Af-Pak region, where the regional culture is based strongly on concepts of shame and honor. We just shamed ourselves with this act of buffoonery, and thus fewer legitimate sources will be willing to work with us, because we look incompetent.

And, in this case, we were.

ADDENDUM: this isn’t the only time we’ve been played for suckers in an intelligence operation, of course. One incident I recall reading about years ago involved sending a lot of gold to what we thought were anti-Communist subversives in Poland right after World War II… Only it turned out the whole thing was con by Polish intelligence and we’d been giving gold to the Polish government. In other words, we’ve been fooled before and will be again, someday; the job now is to find out why in this case and make sure it never happens again.

UPDATE: Luckily, Iowahawk has found another mullah for us to negotiate with.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

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