Militant Incognito

New York Times correspondents Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall are reporting that all was not as it seemed when Afghan officials sat down with Taliban leaders to negotiate an end to the conflict. It turns out that the guy they thought was the insurgents' "No. 2"—and the most senior representative at the table—was in fact just an imposter. And it wasn't only the Afghans who were fooled; apparently America and its allies plied him with "a lot of money," according to one "Western diplomat." The fake, at the time thought to be Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, was even escorted on a NATO aircraft to the presidential palace in Kabul, where he reportedly met with President Hamid Karzai.

Filkins and Gall say that "the episode underscores the uncertain and even bizarre" atmosphere surrounding the nine-year-long conflict. Officials only figured out they had the wrong guy after the third meeting, when someone who had known the real Mansour said they looked nothing alike. But he had so fooled the U.S. government that Washington asked the Times to withold the information last month that Mansour was supposedly attending the peace talks. It's still not known who the imposter was, or whether he was sent by the Taliban or Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, and either way, it makes it easier for the militant organization to deny that any discussions ever took place.

Juan Cole sees the incident as evidence that "the whole Afghanistan boodnoggle is shot through with flimflammery." The episode also got him thinking about all the "dishonesty" surrounding the conflict ("mission creep," Karzai's corruption, lack of realistic information about the level of violence, the idea that Kabul is safe for children, "the bizarre split personality of the Pakistani military," etc.).

The Atlantic's Max Fischer finds the news "depressing" and wonders if the discovery of the Mansour fake has anything to do with why the administration started emphasizing a couple weeks ago the 2014 withdrawal date over the July 2011 deadline. Time's Rachelle Dragani notes that "it doesn't take an intelligence specialist to conclude that talks aren't getting anywhere." Peter Schweizer feels vindicated for his stance that negotiating with the Taliban was a bad idea in the first place, and Wizbang puts forward this piece of advice: "Let's quit talking to them and instead let's start killing them."

Of course, the incident has set off the usual round of blogger goofy pictures, snark and sarcasm: "Laughingstan," "amateur hour" and "the gang that couldn't shoot straight." Jack Stuef says it sounds like an episode of Ashton Kutcher's MTV show Punk'd; Aaron Worthing doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. Steve Hynd can't tell if he's reading the Times or the satirical Onion. And Blake Hounshell offers up ten "ways to tell your new Taliban friend is an imposter."