Peace talks with an impostor posing as a Taliban
leader, which led to a meeting with Hamid Karzai in Kabul and thousands
of dollars in "goodwill payments", were started by the Afghan
government and approved by the former American commander, Stanley
McChrystal, the Guardian has learned.
This account sharply
contradicts claims made by the Afghan presidency, which has put the
entire blame on the British government, apparently supported privately
by US officials.
In fact, the overriding desire to find a negotiated end to the conflict – particularly on the part of David Cameron
– appears to have generated credulity on all sides, and led to an
embarrassing debacle which has diminished trust and set back hopes of
meaningful negotiations in the near future.
Sources close to the
contacts said the impostor, who claimed to be Mullah Akhtar Mohammad
Mansour, the Taliban's deputy leader, was originally introduced by an
insurgent commander in Kandahar to the then Afghan interior minister,
The Taliban commander was Mohammad Aminullah, who is
close to the movement's overall leader, Mullah Omar, and has led some of
the fiercest Taliban fighting in the Zhari and Panjwai districts of
When he was picked up in a Nato raid in January
this year, the Afghan government complained that he was a longstanding
channel of Atmar's to the Taliban, and called for him to be freed. In
return, Aminullah offered contacts with Mansour, suggesting he might be
open to political talks. The agreement was approved by McChrystal, then
the commander of Nato and US forces in Afghanistan, and a supporter of reconciliation efforts.
McChrystal asked MI6
to develop the contacts, rather than going to the CIA, which was not
empowered by the necessary White House directive to enter into direct
talks with Taliban officials. The absence of such a "presidential
finding" is seen by many diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic as an
obstacle to progress towards a political settlement.
It is at this
point that MI6, delighted to have been given the mission, appears to
have got carried away with enthusiasm for the "breakthrough", and
brushed aside doubts raised by both US and British officials about
"Mansour's" credibility. "Our friends got very excited," one official
involved in the discussions recalled. "I remember everyone being very
pompous and secretive about this."
McChrystal's successor, General
David Petraeus, is believed to have harboured doubts about Mansour's
identity, but ultimately encouraged the contacts and discreetly
After the coalition took office in May, both
Cameron and William Hague were briefed about the talks with Mansour. The
prime minister's eagerness to pursue a negotiated settlement
contributed to an echo chamber in which more cautious voices were
A series of meetings at a Nato military base in
Kandahar culminated in the supposed Taliban leader being flown to Kabul
in a British military plane to meet Karzai just over three months ago.
that meeting, and at some of the preliminary meetings, the impostor
(reported by the Washington Post, citing Afghan intelligence, to be a
grocer from Quetta), was given tens of thousands of dollars as a reward
for attending and encouragement to develop the dialogue. It is unclear
how much of that money was paid by Britain and how much by Karzai, who
keeps his own fund, partially financed by Iran, for such purposes. The
US has insisted no American money was used.
It was at the meeting
with Karzai that "Mansour's" identity was definitively challenged,
leading to his unmasking earlier this week.
McChrystal, who has
retired from the US army, could not be reached for comment and Atmar,
who was in London this week, did not reply to emails seeking comment.
in today's Washington Post, Karzai's chief of staff, Mohammad Umer
Daudzai, squarely blamed the British for the fiasco. "This shows that
this process should be Afghan-led and fully Afghanised," Daudzai said.
"The last lesson we draw from this: international partners should not
get excited so quickly with those kind of things … Afghans know this
business, how to handle it."
Another Afghan official echoed that
account, telling the Guardian: "Generally speaking British intelligence
has been the main director and architect of the peace plan and in this
particular case the mediators were British."
The official also
blamed the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, which he said
introduced the fraud to MI6. The Guardian, however, could find no
confirmation of any role played by the ISI, which is frequently blamed
for setbacks by the Kabul government.
British intelligence is
conducting an inquiry into the episode, in part to uncover the motive.
One theory is that it was an exercise in kite-flying by the Taliban, to
discover what Kabul and the British were offering without risking a
senior figure in the movement. Taliban leaders have been wary about
attending meetings with would-be mediators, fearing they are on a Nato
hit-list, known as the Joint Priority Effects List.
A Nato source
said: "If you look at it from their point of view, as soon as they turn
up for a meeting, they give us an eight-digit map reference of where
they are. This, on the other hand, is no risk."