After a man some officials believe to be simply a Pakistani shopkeeper duped NATO and members of the Afghan government into thinking he was one a top Taliban leader, the focus in Afghanistan is shifting from reconciliation and back to the mechanics of the war.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday morning, the day news of the Taliban impostor broke, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai was less interested in talking about meetings with the Taliban and more focused on what the NATO summit in Lisbon meant for his country.
Indeed, there remain serious questions about the legitimacy of talks with the Taliban following the revelation that NATO and Afghan officials had actually been dealing with a fake.
NATO and Afghan leaders reportedly thought they were in talks with Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the Taliban No. 2. Only after flying him from Pakistan to Afghanistan, reportedly providing him with large sums of money, and arranging meetings with key leaders did they realize he was just an ordinary Pakistani shopkeeper posing as the high-level Taliban leader. Some speculate, however, that he may have been a Pakistani spy or an undercover Taliban trying to see what was on the table by posing as a high-level Taliban leader.
Taliban leadership have categorically denied any participation in talks since they began, and on Tuesday Karzai denied reports that he’d ever met with Mr. Mansour or anyone claiming to be him.
NATO officials say this underscores the difficulty of negotiating with the Taliban. The High Peace Council, appointed by Karzai in September to negotiate with the Taliban, has been widely criticized for lacking anyone with serious ties to the Taliban – a weakness that this latest incident underscores.
Meanwhile, the president continued to take umbrage over night raids – the center of a public spat between him and top American commander Gen. David Petraeus before the summit – and said he was pleased that NATO members had laid the ground work for creating a framework within Afghan law for their presence in Afghanistan.
“One of the most important issues NATO agreed on with us was that Afghanistan has the right and authority to take action about the legalization of the presence of foreign troops here in Afghanistan,” he said. “It’s a new achievement.”
Although the details of such an agreement have yet to be discussed, American commanders who served in Iraq are likely to take note. In the final years of the Iraq war, a status of forces agreement determined a timetable for withdraw, but also required the US to get warrants to search homes and attain approval from their Iraqi counterparts before conducting certain types of operations, among other things.
Still, any such deal is a long way from the negotiation table. At Lisbon, NATO and Afghan officials only agreed that the country could create such a law.
“It is so early in the discussion that it is probably designed to be more of a rhetorical pressure builder than anything else,” says Daoud Sultanzoy, an Afghan member of parliament from Ghazni.
Among Afghans, there are concerns about how an agreement that could potentially require NATO forces to seek the approval of their Afghan counterparts could affect the shape of the war.
“In principle, I am in favor of legalizing [the presence of international forces],” says Barry Salaam, a civil society activist and journalist. “But on the other hand, there is the risk that the government of Afghanistan might at times be biased by not approving certain moves by NATO that are in the interest of the whole country, but not particularly in the interest of a certain group or political party.”