Charles Glass on Counterfeit Clerics

December 3, 2010

In News

U.S. Intelligence Falls for Make-Believe Mullah

Sometimes a story brings an era into focus, and that story now is the saga of fake Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. He was ostensibly a senior Taliban official, and American bureaucrats thought they were negotiating with him. “But now, it turns out,” Carlotta Gall and Dexter Filkins wrote in a brilliantly understated New York Times report, “Mr. Mansour was apparently not Mr. Mansour at all.” Wait. It gets better. An unnamed Western diplomat —probably American—told the two journalists, “It’s not him. And we gave him a lot of money.”

It’s moolah for the mullahs, and there’s nothing to show for it. By U.S. standards in Afghanistan, the impostor received chump change. His fee was something in “six figures” for disembarking from U.S. helicopters at Hamid Karzai’s presidential palace like a minor celebrity at a nightclub opening. His pittance was probably smaller than what a motel pays Paris Hilton to endorse its vibrating beds. It is certainly less than the cash-filled suitcases Iran delivers to Karzai. It’s nowhere near the backhanders that Karzai’s brother receives from Kabul’s Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. has been giving its Afghan allies far more money than it gave the turbaned poseur, from Karzai on down to the police chiefs and army commanders, and guess what? They still hate us. And those are the guys on our side.

Perhaps General David Petraeus believed he had finally found someone to trust in Afghanistan, even if it was someone from the other side. In fact, being from the other side might have been an advantage. Few doubt that the Taliban are more honest than Karzai, his ministers, his brother, and his business associates. However, since Mullah Akhtar was not Mullah Akhtar after all, he might as well have been another con man from Karzai’s coterie. The invariably astute Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times, “The West was putting planes and assets at the poseur’s disposal, and paying him a sum in the low six figures….Everybody is lining up for Western cash, treating America, the British and NATO like suckers.” You can hardly blame them. The U.S., Britain, and the rest of NATO have been treating Afghanistan like a video war game for nine years, so the Afghans might as well ask for something in return for the landscape rental.

“It is not clear whether the U.S. officials pulled the hoaxer’s beard to make sure it was real. No one has said he had the full-body scan that American travelers endure.”

The Afghan pimpernel’s unmasking also reveals the contrast between American and Taliban claims about negotiations. The Taliban consistently declares its refusal to negotiate until foreign troops have left their country. The Americans and their increasingly hostile Afghan clients insist that they have been negotiating with the Taliban all along. Many of us who oppose Afghanistan’s American-NATO occupation assumed that the U.S. was simply lying, as it has lied about its other foreign wars. It turns out we were wrong. The U.S. was doing something worse: It believed a deceiver. It bartered with a fraud who told them, as most of their torture victims do, what they wanted to hear. Did they check his identity? Sure. They went to the prisons and showed his photographs to Taliban detainees. These guys know when to say yes. If it saved them another dousing in the water trough, why not confess this is our old buddy Mullah Akhtar? And so they did. It is not clear whether the U.S. officials pulled the hoaxer’s beard to make sure it was real. No one has said he had the full-body scan that American travelers endure. But he turned up at several sessions with U.S. officials to offer, in Filkins and Gall’s words, “surprisingly moderate conditions for a peace settlement: that the Taliban leadership be allowed safely to return to Afghanistan, that Taliban soldiers be offered jobs, and that prisoners be released.” Hey, war’s over.

While the counterfeit cleric was giving away the farm, another mullah said that the U.S. “wants to throw dust into the eyes of the people by spreading the rumors of negotiation.” This other mullah is named Omar, and he is the Taliban’s head despite (or because of) nine years of American efforts to hunt him down. Only one mullah was telling the truth: either Omar or Uncle Sam’s own Akhtar. My money is on Omar, who, after all, is winning the war and has little reason to negotiate with the foreigners who are desperate to get out of his country before they lose thousands more of their young people, bankrupt their treasuries, and sow more discord in the House of Islam than the Crusaders did in the 12th century.

If General Petraeus was not lying when he told the world the Taliban was at the bargaining table, he must have imagined that what he said was true. If the Pentagon and CIA’s top military and intelligence brains cannot differentiate one mullah from another, how reliable is the information they use to commit remote-control murder with Predator drones? If dubious sources supplied information for the death lists, what was to stop them from fingering their own enemies for dispatch to the heavenly kingdom? Why not accuse America’s allies in remote tribal regions of being Taliban or Al-Qaeda? It certainly happened during America’s Phoenix Program of mass assassination to purge Vietnamese society of its anti-American elements. It also happened to the Germans in occupied Europe, when opportunistic “informants” gave away business and marital rivals as Jews and members of the Resistance. There was so much “informing” going on in some countries, the Germans could not keep up. How many more Afghan informants are fakes? And how many innocents have they enabled U.S. drones to kill?

No revelation—whether Wikileaks’ thousands of documents or American policymakers’ idiotic credulity in dealing with a fake sheikh—has shaken the White House’s determination to prolong this illegal, vicious, expensive, and counterproductive crusade. With the U.S. having outlasted the Soviet Union’s nine year, seven-week Afghan sojourn only last Saturday, what more will it take to end it?