Remember last month, when all the news was atwitter about the prospect of meaningful negotiations with the Taliban in Kabul? The story was moderately shocking: a senior Taliban figure was being flown around the region, talking directly with General Petraeus, President Karzai, and other senior figures in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan government. The driving force behind coverage of those negotiations was New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, who wrote that NATO had provided air transportation and secure road travel for Taliban leaders to visit Kabul for the negotiations.
Almost precisely one month later, Filkins and Carlotta Gall are writing the exact opposite.
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.
"It’s not him," said a Western diplomat in Kabul intimately involved in the discussions. "And we gave him a lot of money." …
The fake Taliban leader even met with President Hamid Karzai, having been flown to Kabul on a NATO aircraft and ushered into the presidential palace, officials said.
Think about this for a moment: a man whose identity no one was able to verify was flown, by NATO, for face-to-face meetings with high-ranking members of the coalition (though Karzai denies having met Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the impersonated Taliban leader in question). We don’t know what his intentions were, nor do we know what information he may have stolen for whatever his ultimate goals are. We can speculate all we want about what really happened: the impostor was out to grab cash ("we gave him a lot of money," one U.S. official lamented), he was an ISI agent sent to penetrate the negotiations process, and so on. But no matter how we spin it, this is hugely embarrassing for ISAF, for the war, and for any prospects of ending it soon.
Mullah Omar, who leads one group of Taliban fighters based in Quetta, has insisted from the beginning that the talks last month were not taking place. At the time, Filkins had written that Omar was being "explicitly being cut out" of the talks. Now, it seems that is because the talks weren’t really occurring.
Are there any lessons we can learn from this? For one, the officials hyping the talks to reporters never seemed to talk about the prospect of American withdrawal. Filkins himself reported last year that this is a primary, unchangeable goal of the Taliban.
But ISAF and Afghan officials spun the talks as evidence that the new, aggressive stance taken by General Petraeus, focused on killing mid-level commanders to ‘force’ the Taliban to the negotiating table, was working. They were partially right: something had changed. But it wasn’t the effectiveness of their tactics or strategy. Instead, this episode confirms what many Afghanistan watchers have long feared: the leadership of ISAF doesn’t seem to have any idea what it’s doing, who it’s talking to, and (probably) who it is really killing.
You can see this confusion in press reports of what the Taliban look like (reporters almost always get their information about the Taliban from U.S. officials). The Washington Post claims Mansour, the man this impostor was impersonating, took over the number two position within the Taliban after a joint CIA-ISI operation resulted in the February arrest of Mullah Baradar, the Taliban’s previous number two (and who was widely rumored to be engaged in tentative negotiations with Kabul). The AP, however, explicitly says that didn’t happen, and that after Baradar’s arrest Mansour was passed over in favor of Maulvi Zakir Qayyum — a former Guantanamo detainee who rejoined the Taliban a few months after being released from prison.
We don’t know the real truth. In part, we are left with spin — from the Taliban, to be sure, but also from ISAF, which has developed a habit of pushing misleadingly optimistic stories through reporters. The result is total confusion about who the enemy is and is not, and incoherence in terms of policy and execution. This impostor is another data point that ISAF is crippled by its own leadership, believing its own spin about how well the war is going. As Michael Cohen has noted, only the U.S. military is truly optimistic about the chances for success in Afghanistan — literally every other party to the conflict, including the Taliban, is convinced the U.S. is slowly losing its ability to win.
Next month, the Pentagon begins its latest review of the war strategy in Afghanistan. The constant refrain General Petraeus has shouted to reporters is that his new strategy is working — it is "degrading" the Taliban; it is reversing momentum; it is forcing their leadership to the negotiating table to beg for relief. None of that is actually true — and as Alex Strick van Linschoten has explained, there is very little data to support any of it. We cannot identify an insurgent leader sitting across the table from senior officials; how can we possibly know what’s really happening in the insurgency (or even identify people through the video feed from a drone)?
Will the strategic review take into account that every high profile attempt to break through the war’s impasse in the last year — Marjah, Kandahar, and now Mansour — has not only apparently failed, but likely made our position within the country worse off? Probably not, unfortunately. If we can learn anything from this, it is that the U.S. military is so blinded by its belief in its own effectiveness that it won’t examine its own failures to see what went wrong. So the review will say there’s progress, the tide is turning, and the insurgency is breaking… even as the actual insurgency expands its attacks, occupies and controls new swaths of the country, and laughs itself to tears while we waste our time shuffling businessmen from the back alleys of Quetta, congratulating ourselves on eking out a win.
Joshua Foust is a military analyst specializing in Central Asia. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, and a contributing editor at Current Intelligence. He is the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net, available from Just World Books.