Almost a month ago, The Guardian was warning that the Afghanistan “peace talks”, which General David Petraeus was claiming to aid by transporting key Taliban figures, had “less than meets the eye“.  However, on Tuesday, the New York Times revealed that the “key” figure who had been meeting with NATO and Afghan officials was not Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, who is believed to be second in command in the Taliban behind Mullah Omar.  In fact, the Washington Post went so far as to point out that the imposter was “a lowly shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta.”  This development is a remarkable setback for Petraeus and NATO, especially because there have been so many claims about the famed “biometric database” that has been developed for rapid identification of insurgents.  The equipment used in this endeavor has been given the rather unfortunate acronym “HIDE”, for Handheld Interagency Detection Equipment.  Because of HIDE, it will be very difficult for Petraeus to hide from the failure of his intelligence operatives to determine that “Mansour” was an impostor.

Here is The Guardian warning us about the negotiations in late October:

Recent widely-reported contacts between senior Taliban and the Kabul government have little to do with a peace settlement and involve scarcely more than exchanges of cash and prisoners, diplomats and observers have told the Guardian.

/snip/

Nato officials spoke of meetings with four Taliban commanders, including a top member of the movement claiming to express its “collective will” with the approval of its leader, Mullah Omar.

The US and Nato commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, even said his forces had facilitated the talks by allowing Taliban officials to fly to the meetings in safety.

But according to officials briefed on the talks, there is, in the words of one source, “less than meets the eye”.

Just as predicted by The Guardian, the facade of the “negotiations” then fell when the New York Times made its revelation:

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.”

Adding insult to injury, the Washington Post informs us of the true identity of the imposter:

A man purporting to be one of the Taliban’s most senior commanders convinced both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the NATO officials who flew him to Afghanistan’s capital for meetings, but two senior Afghan officials now believe the man was a lowly shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta.

His daring ruse has flummoxed those attempting to start a peace process with a determined Taliban adversary.

“He was a very clever man,” one of the officials said.

It would appear that Petraeus and his team are finding “clever” to be in very short supply on their side of the negotiating table.

A role for Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI, in this ruse cannot be ruled out. It should be recalled that the previous number two in command of the Taliban, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was “arrested” (by ISI, with CIA help) when he was reputed to be in peace negotiations back in January.

Whether he was duped by the Taliban, ISI or just a clever shopkeeper, Petraeus has suffered yet another massive blow to his credibility just before the next Afghanistan strategy session scheduled for the Obama administration. How many failures will Petraeus be allowed before he is sent to an early retirement?