KABUL, Afghanistan — For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the repeated appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement.
But now, it turns out, Mansour was apparently not Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, U.S. and Afghan officials now say that the Afghan man was an impostor and that 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.”
U.S. officials confirmed Monday that they had given up hope that the Afghan was Mansour or even a member of the Taliban leadership.
NATO and Afghan officials said they held three meetings with the man, who traveled from across the border in Pakistan, where Taliban leaders have taken refuge.
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.
The episode underscores the uncertain and even bizarre nature of the atmosphere in which Afghan and U.S. leaders search for ways to bring the nine-year-old U.S.-led war to an end. The leaders of the Taliban are believed to be hiding in Pakistan, possibly with the assistance of the Pakistani government, which receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid.
Many in the Taliban leadership, which is largely made up of barely literate clerics from the countryside, had not been seen in person by U.S., NATO or Afghan officials.
Doubts were raised about the man claiming to be Mansour — who by some accounts is the second-ranking official in the Taliban, behind only the founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar — after the third meeting, held in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. A man who had known Mansour years ago told Afghan officials that the man at the table did not resemble him.
As recently as last month, U.S. and Afghan officials held high hopes for the talks. Senior U.S. officials, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, said the talks indicated that Taliban leaders, whose rank-and-file fighters are under extraordinary pressure from the U.S.-led offensive, were at least willing to discuss an end to the war.