Details of how British Intelligence promoted an apparently senior Taliban commander as the key to an Afghan peace process only to learn later that the man was an impostor were revealed Friday in a report by The Times of London.
An investigation by The Times shows that British agents paid Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour from May this year, promoting him as a genuine Taliban figure of the highest standing who was capable of negotiating with senior American and Afghan officials.
But according to officials in Britain, America and Afghanistan, he was uncovered this month as a fraud, dealing a blow to the credibility of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.
Far from being a former Taliban government minister, Mansour is now thought to have been a shopkeeper, a minor Taliban commander, or simply a well-connected opportunist from the Pakistani border city of Quetta.
“British Intelligence was naive and there was wishful thinking on our part,” a senior Afghan government official said Thursday.
On Thursday night, Bill Harris, who retired this month as the most senior U.S. representative in Kandahar province, told The Times that it was not British intelligence officers alone who were responsible for the error. “Something this stupid generally requires teamwork,” he said.
Harris said that he was unsure if the mistake could be entirely pinned on British Intelligence, but added, “I can say that U.S. Intelligence has long been institutionally skeptical of dealing with ‘non-marquee Taliban’ and senior U.S. military always felt that their British comrades in arms might outrun their headlights on reconciliation unless reined in.
MI6 became convinced it had achieved a “historic breakthrough” in forging contacts between the Taliban and the Afghan Government, The Times learned.
Intelligence officers, thought to have been based in Islamabad, MI6’s biggest station, had made contact with a man claiming to be Mullah Mansour, a former Taliban government minister and now second only to Mullah Omar in the Taliban leadership.
The British were convinced of the man’s claims and flew “Mansour” from Quetta to Kabul on a British C130 transport aircraft on a number of occasions.
Afghan officials confirm that meetings took place, including one with President Hamid Karzai in his guarded palace in Kabul. The man was reimbursed by MI6 with several hundred thousand dollars, possibly as much as half a million, to encourage further talks.
The Times understands that though the fake “Mansour” was handled by MI6, the U.S. was involved in checking his background using signal intelligence.
“Sometimes NATO doesn’t know one bearded, turbaned Taliban leader from another,” a source said. “But surely it was up to the Afghans, who know all the key Taliban players, to have pointed out that this was not Mohammad Mansour.”
Pakistani officials told The Times that a hunt was underway for the man, who disappeared after he was exposed.