And we wonder why we haven't found Osama bin Laden.
Though we're pouring billions into intelligence in Afghanistan, we can't even tell the difference between a no-name faker and a senior member of the Taliban. The tragedy of Afghanistan has descended into farce. In the sort of scene that would have entertained millions if Billy Wilder had made a movie of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, it turns out that Afghan and NATO leaders have been negotiating for months with an imposter pretending to be a top Taliban commander — even as Gen. David Petraeus was assuring reporters that there were promising overtures to President Hamid Karzai from the Taliban about ending the war.
Those familiar with the greatest Afghan con yet say that the British had spent a year developing the fake Taliban leader as a source and, despite a heated debate and CIA skepticism, Petraeus was buying into it. The West was putting planes and assets at the poseur's disposal, and paying him a sum in the low six figures.
We've heard a lot about the shadow world of Afghanistan, but this is ridiculous. We're bargaining with the shadow of a shadow. Even Karzai may have been fooled. The man taking us for a ride may have been taken for a ride.
Indeed, sometimes it feels as if the entire region is taking us for a ride. Everybody is lining up for Western cash, treating America, the British and NATO like suckers. Karzai and his brother toy with us for their immense personal profit, even as they corrupt their own elections. Karzai undermines the American military plan by going up against Petraeus on night raids. And the Taliban and the Pakistan intelligence service are playing us as well.
America is stomping around the moonscape of Afghanistan trying to do the right thing, but we can't because we're clueless about the culture to the point where we can be faked out by an imposter masquerading as Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, a high-level Taliban commander.
As Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall revealed in the New York Times on Tuesday, the Afghan faker attended three meetings with NATO and Afghan officials, traveling across the border from Pakistan, where Taliban leaders are hiding with the help of the ISI, Pakistani intelligence service (even though we give Pakistan billions of dollars in aid every year).
He may have been dispatched as an agent by the Taliban — whose leaders still deny there are any peace talks — or the double-dealing ISI.
Bizarrely, the Afghans let the fake Mansour retreat over the border. In a further huge embarrassment for the Western intelligence community, he was not held to determine whether he was an enemy agent. Nor is this the only confusion about our war. We also can't seem to get the calendar straight. First, we were leaving in 2011. Then maybe we weren't. Then we weren't leaving until 2014. Then maybe we aren't.
President Barack Obama has provided a confusing plethora of plans and semiplans for withdrawal. No sooner had the NATO ministers in Lisbon agreed that we were staying till 2014 than Obama declared that "early 2011 will mark the beginning of a transition to Afghan responsibility."
On the duration of our commitment to the war in Afghanistan, we seem to be faking ourselves out. Obama wants to get out; Petraeus wants flexibility.
It should have been a sign that the Russians, who are a lot more vicious than us and have a much closer cultural attachment to the Graveyard of Empires, got whipped after nine years and 50 days — which we're now exceeding.
Just as with Saddam Hussein and WMD, or groping and the TSA, we get no satisfaction for the $80 billion a year we spend on intelligence. Or we get fake information like Curveball that leads us into spending trillions more on a trumped-up war. Last year, seven top CIA officials were fooled by a Jordanian double agent who got onto an American base in Khost and blew all of them up. Our agents in the "wilderness of mirrors" may not be up to John le Carré, but can't they learn to Google?
Who knows? Maybe we've been dealing with bin Laden all along. Maybe he's been coming and going under a different moniker. As far as our intelligence experts are concerned, a turban and beard are just a turban and beard.
© 2010 New York Times News Service