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11.26.10

The Taliban's Laughing

In exclusive interviews, high-ranking Taliban commanders in Afghanistan respond to recent revelations that NATO officials were negotiating with an impostor.

Taliban commanders in Afghanistan reacted with amusement this weekend to news of an impostor who, by claiming he was a senior Taliban leader, managed to fool NATO officials and get invited to high-level peace talks.

The man pretending to be insurgent leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour was in fact a shopkeeper from Quetta in Western Pakistan, they said.

“Imagine,” Mohammad Hafiz, a senior Taliban commander, told The Daily Beast, “if a shopkeeper from Quetta can make a fool of them and keep them engaged in talks for months, how do they believe they can defeat the Taliban?”

Hafiz, himself a close aide to the insurgent leader Mansour, said Taliban commanders were laughing at the fact that American and British officials could be so easily deceived. But he and other insurgent leaders denied the shopkeeper was a plant; in fact, they said, they wouldn’t mind finding him and having a chat.

Taliban commanders also emphasized that the story of the impostor showed that the much-touted peace talks weren’t real.

“The U.S. and its allies claimed to be having negotiations with the Taliban,” senior Taliban commander Maulvi Rahmanullah said. “This impersonator exposed their inadequate knowledge of the Taliban and their poor intelligence.”

He added that U.S. military officials should have more thoroughly checked the man’s identity before showering him with money.

“If a shopkeeper from Quetta can make a fool of them and keep them engaged in talks for months, how do they believe they can defeat the Taliban?”

The impersonator was reportedly given large amounts of money for himself and others to persuade them to break ranks with the Taliban. He was also given safe passage to Kabul, flew on NATO aircrafts, and was received as an honored guest in the palace in the Afghan capital, even meeting with President Hamid Karzai.

On Friday, there were reports that it was the British Secret Service that had brought the impostor to the peace talks.

The New York Times broke the story of the impostor this week

Previous reports in The New York Times and elsewhere concerning high-level peace talks between insurgent leaders and U.S. and Afghan officials embarrassed the Taliban, with the insurgents’ leader Mullah Mohammad Omar repeatedly denying that such talks were taking place.

As stories of secret peace talks intensified, “We didn’t know what was going on and started thinking some people from our movement might have held secret meetings with the U.S. and its puppet Afghan government,” explained the Taliban commander Rahmanullah.

But he dismissed the idea that Mansour could be persuaded to part ways with Mullah Mohammad Omar, adding that American military officials don’t understand the command structure of the Taliban. American officials seem to be under the impression that Mansour is the deputy Taliban leader, he said; in fact, Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Gitmo detainee, is actually the organization’s No. 2.

The insurgent group has asked U.S. military officials and their allies to disclose the identities of the people they were holding peace talks with, said Mufti Munibullah, Taliban commander in Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces.

“Had they disclosed the identity of the impersonator in time, it would have saved [them] shame and embarrassment,” he noted.

Mushtaq Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based journalist who covers the war on terror for The News International, one of Pakistan's largest newspapers. He has worked for ABC news and NBC. He is the winner of the Kate Webb award and a graduate of the UN Dag Hammarskjöld Journalism Fellowship program.