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How MI6 was fooled by Taleban impostor

MI6 became convinced it had achieved an 'historic breakthrough' in forging contacts between the Taleban and the Afghan Government

Tom Coghlan
, Michael Evans and Daniel Lloyd
British Intelligence has suffered its most embarrassing setback since Iraq after a senior Taleban commander promoted by MI6 as the key to an Afghan peace process was exposed as an impostor.

An investigation by The Times can reveal that British agents paid Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour from May this year, promoting him as a genuine Taleban figure of the highest standing who was capable of negotiating with senior American and Afghan officials.

But according to officials in Britain, America and Afghanistan, he was uncovered this month as a fraudster, dealing a blow to the credibility of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. Far from being a former Taleban government minister, the individual concerned is now thought to have been a shopkeeper, a minor Taleban commander, or simply a well-connected chancer from the Pakistani border city of Quetta.

A senior Afghan government official said yesterday: “British Intelligence was naive and there was wishful thinking on our part.”

One source with knowledge of the affair described it as simply “a major f***-up”.

Last night Bill Harris, who retired this month as the most senior US representative in Kandahar province, told The Times that it was not British intelligence officers alone who were responsible for the error. “Something this stupid generally requires teamwork,” he said.

Mr Harris said that he was unsure if the mistake could be entirely pinned on British Intelligence, but added: “I can say that US Intelligence has long been institutionally sceptical of dealing with ‘non-marquee Taleban’ and senior US military always felt that their British comrades in arms might outrun their headlights on reconciliation unless reined in.”

The Times has learnt that MI6 became convinced that it had achieved an “historic breakthrough” in forging contacts between the Taleban and the Afghan Government. Intelligence officers, thought to have been based in Islamabad, MI6’s biggest station, had made contact with a man claiming to be Mullah Mansour, a former Taleban government minister and now second only to Mullah Omar in the Taleban leadership. The British were convinced of the man’s bona fides and flew “Mansour” from Quetta to Kabul on a British C130 transport aircraft on a number of occasions.

Afghan officials confirm that meetings took place, including one with President Karzai in his guarded palace in Kabul. The man was reimbursed by MI6 with several hundred thousand dollars, possibly as much as half a million, to encourage further talks. The man’s bargaining position seemed unusually moderate. He did not, for instance, demand Western troop withdrawal as a precursor to formal talks with the Afghan Government, as has been the standing Taleban position.

In June, the CIA apparently remained sceptical about MI6’s “coup”. Leon Panetta, the CIA Director, went on public record to say that no serious approach was under way. US sources suggested that the scepticism extended then to General David Petraeus, commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan.

By September General Petraeus was briefing reporters, including The Times, that negotiations involved senior Taleban figures. In October he went farther, saying that the senior-level contacts were travelling in and out of Afghanistan on Nato aircraft. One Western official said that those who raised doubts about the “Mansour” programme were swept aside. In London, briefings were going to ministerial level and above in Government.

Last month those hopes began to unravel after one Afghan official, who had met the real Mullah Mansour years before, said that the informant was not the same man. At that point MI6’s man disappeared. Pakistani officials told The Times yesterday that a hunt was under way for him.

Hope has since given way to bitterness and a blame game. One alliance official described a continuing “Operation Egg Not on My Face” between intelligence agencies.

One well-placed source said: “It wasn’t just the Brits who were to blame, even though they were the ones who provided the transport for the trips and the money to persuade him to come back.”

He added: “It wasn’t like no one else was involved and everyone just said, ‘okay we’ll go along with it because British intelligence insists he’s the right man’.”

The Times understands that though the fake “Mansour” was handled by MI6, the US was involved in checking his bona fides using signal intelligence.

The source said: “It should have been the Afghans themselves who should have pointed out the almighty cock-up. Sometimes Nato doesn’t know one bearded, turbanned Taleban leader from another. But surely it was up to the Afghans, who know all the key Taleban players, to have pointed out that this was not Mohammad Mansour.”

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