Did Afghan Officials Meet With Taliban Imposter?
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
He was a senior Taliban commander flown to Kabul on NATO aircraft and given a lot of money to take part in secret talks with Afghan leaders. He even met with President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace. And it now turns out he was an imposter; not a senior Taliban commander, not even a Taliban member at all.
So who was he? Who sent him? And how were the Afghans and NATO fooled?
New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins joins us to sort out this bizarre story.
Dexter, let's talk first about what we thought we knew. As you reported last month, this was a top Taliban commander brought under NATO protection from Pakistan to Kabul for talks aimed at ending the war. How many meetings were there?
Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Correspondent, The New York Times): There were three. There were two in Kandahar, which is in the south, and then there was one in Kabul when he was brought to the presidential palace.
BLOCK: And how much money was he paid?
Mr. FILKINS: I don't know. But a fairly sizable amount. I think somebody said to me tens of thousands of dollars. I think that was, you know, frankly, a sweetener to encourage him to come back.
BLOCK: And the assumption at the time was that this was Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. How did they figure out eventually that that was not who was sitting at the table for these talks?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I think if you start at the beginning, to be fair to the Afghan government and the Americans here, I think they were - look, nobody really knew what this guy looked like. So when this guy kind of stepped out of the shadows and said, I can do a deal for the Taliban, everybody was kind of interested. But at the same time, they knew that they had to establish his identity and that that would be difficult to do.
Again, because if you think about the Taliban, I mean, these are just sort of semi-literate guys from the villages, you know? And now they've been in hiding in Pakistan for nine years. So nobody knows what they look like.
So, I mean, the real Akhtar Mansour is the deputy commander of the Talibans. So, you know, it's bingo jackpot if it was really Mansour.
So they knew they had their work cut out for them. My understanding is, is that they took some photos and they showed them to Taliban people who knew him or who they thought knew him. And - like, initially, at least, some of those people signed off and said, yeah, that's him.
And then, by the time the third meeting came, serious doubts had been raised. And my understanding is, is that a person who knew him personally and pretty well, took a look at him or took a look at a photo and said it's not him. So, you know, kind of back to square one.
BLOCK: Well, if it wasn't this Mullah, Mullah Mansour, who was he?
Mr. FILKINS: You know, it's strange. It's a good question. You know, some Walter Mitty character, you know, who...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FILKINS: ...wanted to like, you know, end the war. But you can speculate about the stuff, but that's all it is without any evidence. It's possible that he was sent by the Taliban. You know, look, tell them you're Mullah Mansour and see what they want. And, you know, see if they kill him, you know? And if they don't, well then maybe we'll send the real guy next time.
I mean, that's possible. But it's just hard to say, or maybe there are some people who believe that Pakistani intelligence service, which is known by its sinister acronym, the ISI, that they sent this guy up there.
Who knows? There just isn't a lot of evidence. At the moment, it looks like he was just a kind of a fraud who correctly assumed that he'd come out of this a wealthier man.
BLOCK: Hmm. Well, how embarrassing do you think this is for the Afghan government, for NATO? And what does it mean for the future of talks with the Taliban?
Mr. FILKINS: Well, I don't know whether it's embarrassing or not. It doesn't really matter, at least to me. I mean, I think, you know, there's a war going on and people are dying. And that's a lot more important than any egg on anybody's face.
And so, they're trying to end the war. And you want them to try. And they're trying to do a deal. And so maybe they'll just get wiser and smarter, and at some later date, they'll be able to make that deal.
I think at the moment, you know, the talks are dead. I mean, at least that channel, such as it was, is closed. Will there be another channel? Probably. I mean, these discussions or discussions like this have been going on for years. You know, they kind of open and then they close.
So I think it's a good bet that they'll open again. I think the trouble is they never seem to get anywhere.
BLOCK: I've been talking with New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins.
Dexter, thanks very much.
Mr. FILKINS: Thank you so much.
BLOCK: One final note. White House Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton said today that no U.S. money went to the individual in question.