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Will Taliban Imposter Flap Force The Media To Reassess The War In Afghanistan?

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If you cast your mind back to the end of July, you might recall that interesting time in our lives when that WikiLeaks document dump caused the media to suddenly admit that for some time their unspoken consensus was that the War in Afghanistan was not going well. They did so in the hope that their viewers and readers would just come to see the bad news from WikiLeaks as a bunch of perfectly banal ho-hummery.

But one scoop that Julian Assange's minions didn't manage to land was the one that Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall have in the New York Times today: Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been having high-level negotiations for months with some dude who's been pretending to be a major player in the Taliban:

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 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, Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, United States and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor, and 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."

I'm not sure if that's fodder for a spy novel as much as it forms the basis for an Armando Iannucci screenplay, but that's really beside the point -- if the media thought the war was going badly four months ago, how much does this revelation force everyone to submit to a thorough re-evaluation of the war effort, now scheduled to proceed until 2014?

See, during the time that Hamid Karzai was meeting with Central Asia's version of Ashton Kutcher, a lot of important people have been formulating strategies and making decisions based upon the premise that these talks were actually going in some sort of substantive direction. For example, on November 9, Karen DeYoung and Joshua Partlow reported that the Obama administration was poised to undertake a review of the overall Afghanistan strategy that would "judge 'how this current approach is working'" and "provide 'a catalog of open policy issues that need to be addressed.'"

And at the root of this review?

Among other elements, the assessment will look at progress in forming local defense forces in Afghanistan, the size and capacity of the Afghan army and police, and progress in reconciliation talks between the government and the Taliban.

"There are not active talks ongoing," the official said. "However, the fact that there are talks about talks, and potential outreaches to senior Taliban, is an important dimension of the review."

A week later, Partlow reported that Karzai had a host of new demands/requests of the United States.

President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday that the United States must reduce the visibility and intensity of its military operations in Afghanistan and end the increased U.S. Special Operations forces night raids that aggravate Afghans and could exacerbate the Taliban insurgency.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Karzai said that he wanted American troops off the roads and out of Afghan homes and that the long-term presence of so many foreign soldiers would only worsen the war. His comments placed him at odds with U.S. commander Gen. David H. Petraeus, who has made capture-and-kill missions a central component of his counterinsurgency strategy, and who claims the 30,000 new troops have made substantial progress in beating back the insurgency.

The primary driver of Karzai's demands for a less intense military footprint was the Obama administration's hedging on the 2011 withdrawal date and the announced expansion of operations to 2014. But one gets the sense, reading the report, that Karzai was emboldened by the high-level negotiations that he thought he was having with the Taliban:

On the issue of negotiations with the Taliban, Karzai said that he met with Taliban leaders in "one or two" meetings about three months ago, but that the talks were in a nascent stage and amounted to little more than "the exchange of desires for peace."

He would not name the insurgents he has met but described them as "very high" level, and said that he believed that Taliban leader Mohammad Omar has been informed of the discussions.

"They feel the same way as we do here. That too many people are suffering for no reason. Their own families are suffering," he said, and it is this "national suffering they'd like to address with us."

Now, it could very well be that there are ongoing talks with perfectly legitimate Taliban leaders that are moving in some unknown, perhaps positive direction. But the fact that the talks we do know about took place between Karzai, NATO, and an impostor who really should have been immediately sussed out is not too terribly encouraging.

There's often no way around it, but it's important to remember that much of what reporters relate about the war in Afghanistan comes straight from the mouths of various government officials. And much of the time, they're not subjected to any sort of critical lens. But since these fake negotiations seem to have been foundational to much of the decision-making that's been going on in the latter half of 2010, some amount of re-evaluating is demanded, and much of what we know about the evolving military strategy and the diplomatic wranglings will have to be entirely reassessed.

Does the press have the stomach to get even more cynical about the way than they already were? I guess we are going to find out.

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