Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

If an aubergine seller can fool our Afghan allies . . .

Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph
Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph

What a shock I got lying in bed at the weekend, to suddenly feel the earth shifting on its axis.

But it turned out it was only the world rocking with laughter at the story of the grifter from Quetta who finessed £600,000 from Nato by impersonating a senior Taliban commander and offering terms for ending the Afghan conflict. Is this not the type of imaginative fellow who might usefully be hired to run the Republic? But I digress.

The hoaxer even held talks in the Presidential palace in Kabul with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who, I noted, was quick to claim, as soon as the story broke, that if it hadn't been for MI6 vouching for the chap he'd have rumbled him as a rogue right away.

Perhaps so. And perhaps, like an MLA complaining about being forced to impose cuts, he was just excusing himself by Blaming The Brits. Works here. Why not there?

The exchanges with the fraudster appear to have provided the main, if not the only, basis for seemingly authoritative reports of success in efforts to split the Taliban and move towards a power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and Taliban moderates.

On CBS News on August 20, Nato's Afghanistan commander, US General David Petraeus, told Katie Couric: "I don't think there's an expectation that (Taliban chief) Mullah Omar is going to charter a plane any time soon to sit down and discuss laying down weapons en masse. However, there are certainly leaders out there who we believe are willing to do that."

Five weeks later, on September 27, as discussions with the daring greengrocer (as it's suggested he may well have been) continued, Petraeus told reporters: "There are some high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan Government and they have done that."

In October, the New York Times reported, Petraeus believed that, "the talks indicated that Taliban leaders, whose rank-and-file fighters are under extraordinary pressure from the American-led offensive, were at least willing to discuss an end to the war".

American officials told reporters that Nato governments were facilitating the discussions by providing air transport and securing roadways for the negotiators.

The man MI6, Petraeus and the Afghan Government believed they were talking to was Mullah Akhtar Muhammed Mansour, a senior Taliban official, possibly second-in-command to Mullah Omar.

The New York Times says that it was asked by the Obama administration in October to withhold Mansour's name from an article on the state of play in Afghanistan lest the peace talks be jeopardised and Mansour's life put at risk.

The fake Mansour's interlocutors weren't fazed by the fact that his negotiating position bore no resemblance to any position the Taliban had previously taken. 'Mansour' wanted the release of all Taliban prisoners, safety assurances for fighters returning home and the promise of government-funded jobs - but no demand for the withdrawal of the occupation forces. (Might he have chanced on a copy An Phoblacht, I wonder?)

Nor was their faith in their fake shaken by Taliban denials that any talks were under way. On September 29, asked about Petraeus's reference two days earlier to Taliban leaders reaching out to the Kabul Government, spokesman Zabiullah Majahid dismissed the suggestion as "completely baseless" and restated the Taliban's refusal to negotiate with "the foreign invaders" other than on the logistics of their leaving.

By this stage, the swindler's spiel had become the linchpin of Nato's exit strategy from a war it couldn't win, but couldn't afford to be seen to lose. The jaw-dropping gullibility of all concerned was a measure of the desperation in which they were engulfed. Any doubt they may have harboured about the chancer come among them was overwhelmed by their need to believe they had an honourable way out.

At the Nato summit in Lisbon a fortnight ago, an appalling vista must have opened up before the 28 leaders of the most powerful military alliance in history, with its bombers, tanks, drones and helicopter gunships, being defeated by a lightly-armed bunch of farmers' sons and tribesmen.

It was in the distorted, demented perspective brought on by this terrifying possibility that the aubergine salesman from downtown Quetta (or maybe he was a dentist, how would I know?) was greeted like an angel of God.

They don't who they are dealing with, they don't know what they are doing, they are lost in Afghanistan, and their war is lost.

A few weeks ago in London, Joe Glenton, a British soldier court-martialled for refusing to fight in Afghanistan, told an anti-war meeting: "I have learnt that the real enemy is not the man in front of you you're pointing your rifle at, but the men behind you and above you telling you to pull the trigger . . . The wheels have fallen off the pro-war bandwagon. If you want to support the soldiers, then bring them back. If you want to help Afghanistan, then liberate it from Britain and the US."

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