Key Figure In Secret Taliban Talks Was A Fake

In October, New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins broke the news that top-level Taliban leaders were crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan for peace talks. Today, Filkins reports that the key Taliban leader in those secret talks was an impostor.

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About a month ago, we spoke with New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins after he broke the story that top-level Taliban leaders were crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan for peace talks - some of them aboard NATO aircraft. On the front page of today's New York Times, he and his colleague, Carlotta Gall, report that the key Taliban leader in those peace talks was an impostor.

Dexter Filkins just got off a place from Kabul and joins us by phone from New York. Dexter, welcome home.

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Foreign Correspondent, The New York Times): Hi, thank you very much.

CONAN: So the insurgent leader who was a key to the progress of those talks, in fact, his presence was a measure of progress of those talks wasn't who he said he was.

Mr. FILKINS: No. I mean, it's one of those stories where you don't really know whether to cry or to laugh.

CONAN: Who was he supposed to be?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, he was supposed to be - and everyone thought he was a guy named Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who if he really had been that person or whoever he is, is the pretty much the number two commander in the Taliban, just below Mullah Omar. And so - the trouble really, and this goes to the heart of the story is that, you know, these Taliban guys are these kinds of barely literate clerics that are from these tiny villages in the countryside in Afghanistan, no one's really seen them for years. And they, you know, they're living and hiding in Pakistan. Nobody really knows what they look like.

I mean, if you think about, you know, you just say Mullah Omar, what's the image that comes to mind? I mean, there's only a couple of really grainy black-and-white photos of him. And, you know, God knows what Mullah Mansour looks like. And so that's kind of what happened here. This guy presented himself. I think it was arranged through a middleman as the number two guy in the Taliban, and through, I think, pretty painstaking efforts they - after three meetings, they determined that this guy was basically a nobody.

CONAN: And you say, though, they did make efforts to discover, if he was who said he was, among other things, showed his picture to detainees who said they knew this guy.

Mr. FILKINS: That's right. That's right. But remember, I mean, it's been a long time, and so I think what was decisive in this case, was they brought somebody in to one of the meetings who - or he looked at a photo of somebody who actually knew this guy. I mean, he hadn't seen him for a long time, but he took one look at the photo apparently and said that's not him.

CONAN: In the meantime, he had made some, well, according to what your story said, his presence at the talks and his position as representing the Taliban seemed to represent a lot of progress.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I - it did. I mean, I think people - you know, I have to be careful because I think, you know, from the beginning the Americans and the Afghan government, they weren't, you know, they were skeptical, appropriately so. I mean, they wanted to...

CONAN: General Petraeus said today he was not surprised by this.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah. I mean, well, I mean, that's probably - that's putting a nice touch on it, but I think, you know, they, look, I mean, the - only about a month ago, General Petraeus and others were talking publicly about these discussions and remarking that they appear to be promising. And I - so, you know, it took a while to establish that this guy was not who said he was and, you know, I guess, it's a good thing, you know, it makes you wonder like how long could this have gone on before something would have happened, you know?

But the talks, you know, as they were, the talks apparently were, like, going pretty well. I mean, the guy said - you know, the Taliban said, look, you know, all we want is, you know, we want jobs for our fighters and we want, you know, a guarantee of safety or safe return for the commanders, the release of prisoners, all, you know, reasonable stuff that you would kind of expect to hear from them.

CONAN: And not every foreigner must leave the country and not we want a piece of the government.

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

CONAN: And...

Mr. FILKINS: We were like, wow, you know?

CONAN: Yeah. And it seems reasonable, particularly when he was getting, apparently, a fair amount of money from the United States.

Mr. FILKINS: He oh, he was. I don't know how much exactly, but the person I spoke to well, I'll say, a Western diplomat said, yeah, we gave him a lot of money. And that was kind of, hey, you know, nice to meet you. And we really hope you come back, so here, take this.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. So was he a con artist with nerves of steel and had a very interesting routine? Was he, as some speculate, a messenger from the Taliban? Was he a plant by the Pakistani intelligence services?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think all of those things are possible. I mean, this is a part of the world where nothing is as it seems. I mean, everything is kind of a 3-D chess game, you know, in the dark, so all those things are possible. I mean, to me, there I should say, there's no evidence that this guy is anything but a fraud, you know. There isn't any evidence that the Taliban sort of sent him up and said, just tell them you're Mullah Mansour and then see what they offer. There isn't any evidence of that. So maybe, it's true, but who knows.

And the same with you know, there are some people speculating that maybe the Pakistani intelligence services, which are very close to the Taliban, maybe they sent him up just to kind of get a handle on things as, you know, the Pakistani intelligence services are always meddling in these sort of things. And they are very close to the Taliban so but the thing is that, at this point, that's just kind of you know, it's just speculation. There just isn't so it just looks like, you know, this guy was just sort of following the money, you know. And he just looks like kind of a freelance phony.

CONAN: And this discovery apparently made while he was conveniently out of Afghanistan, so I suspect he's not going to be coming back anytime soon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: Well, yeah. I think my understanding is, you know - there were three meetings. There were two in Kandahar, there was one in Kabul. He met President Karzai. My understanding is that it happened kind of at the third meeting, and that's when he was discovered. And my understanding is, though, is that he was not confronted by this. And I think - to be fair, I mean, I think there are some people I spoke to them. There are some people in the Afghan government who say, look. Maybe, you know, maybe we're wrong about his identity. But maybe we're even wrong about being wrong about his identity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: Maybe he is still Mullah Mansour, and maybe he'll come back. So there were actually people that are kind of hoping for that. So they didn't want to confront him and say, hey, we think you're a fake, because then he would have, you know, taken off and run into the hills and they'd never see him again.

So, again, I mean, this is how hard this part of the world is. You know, we don't know that much. Everything is wreathed in shadows and ambiguity. And we're trying to make our way through this. You know, this is the 10th year we've been at war there.

CONAN: The New York Times knew this man's name and was asked not to report it and did not, among with the names of two others people said to be participating in the talks. Their lives were thought to be at risk if their names were published. Might The New York Times reconsider such a policy?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, look, I mean, if, you know, we the White House came to us or I think we went to them and said, look, we've discovered what appears to be these significant talks that are going on that you're facilitating. And they came back to us and asked us not to publish this guy's name. And the case was basically, look, you know, if he's real and if he's if it really is Mullah Mansour, then he's taken a terrible risk to do this. And if you publish his name, he's going to be killed, right? That makes a lot of sense. And, you know, we're mindful of that and at the Times. And we try to be, you know, we try to be in this case, we try to be responsible.

And so based on their based on the White House request and I think that was a measure of how sure the White House was or how sure they felt at that time, you know they - we got this pretty promising thing going. Please, don't scuttle it. So, we're you know, we're not trying to scuttle peace talks to end this war, that's for sure. But, you know, it's a you know I mean, we weren't going to withhold it anymore, certainly, after learning what we did. We decided to publish the name.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins of the New York Times. We have a caller on the line from New York City, perhaps one of his readers. Sam(ph) is with us.

SAM (Caller): Yes. Greetings. I just I had a question. As far as I recall, the Taliban has been - all along - been saying that they were not involved in those peace talks and at no point did that alert the U.S. government or intelligence agency to investigate that. I just wanted to know why they ignored them for the entire peace talk time that they were just ignored.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think - you know, look, there's a kind of there's a public world and there's a private world here, and they're very they're often very, very different. And so, in this case I mean, the Taliban, for years, have been saying, you know, no discussions, no talks, you know. We're going to drive the foreigners out.

And on many occasions, they have engaged in discussions and talks as early I mean, as recently as January, the number two the then number two in the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was absolutely engaged in talking to the Afghan government. He was arrested in Pakistan and taken into custody for reasons that are kind of unclear. But the point being, just because the Taliban say they're not talking doesn't mean they're not talking.

CONAN: Sam, thanks very much for the call.

SAM: Thank you.

CONAN: Good question. There is another point, which is where are we now? You quote in your story Sayed Amir Muhammad Agha, a one-time Taliban commander, who said he has left the Taliban but acted as a go-between with the government in the past. He said he didn't know the tale of the impostor. But he said the Taliban leadership had given no indications of a willingness to enter talks. Someone like me could come forward and say, I am a Talib and a powerful person. But I can tell you, nothing is going on. Whenever I talk to the Taliban, they never accept peace. They want to keep on fighting. They're not tired.

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think Tayyab Agha is a pretty good example of what I was just talking about. I mean, Tayyab Agha, if you ask me, I mean, he may say he's no longer involved in the Taliban - I think he is. He may say that he's never involved himself in negotiations - he has. And so, again, it's really hard work in this part of the world because, you know, you very rarely get people coming out and telling you what's really going on. That's why it's hard.

CONAN: And so there were others, obviously not as senior, in these talks. Was there any progress made? Was this just a - did this just blow up into nothing?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, they made - I think they made a lot of progress, but I think the - I mean, the talks as they were themselves, the discussions were pretty fruitful. But I think the problem is they weren't talking to anybody that mattered. And that's, you know - look, this isn't the first time it's happened...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FILKINS: ...in a war like this. I mean, in war, everything is confusing. I mean, you know, the phrase, the fog of war, I mean, everything is foggy. And so some guy comes forward and says, look, I can help you make a deal. Everybody wants to end this war, why not try? So in that sense, you know, it's not all that surprising - unfortunate, but not all that surprising.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, thank you very much for your time today. Welcome home.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Dexter Filkins, a New York Times foreign correspondent. He co-wrote a story with Carlotta Gall for today's front page. We've posted a link to that story at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Just got off a plane from Kabul, we appreciate him stopping to pause to speak with us there from New York.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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