LONDON // British intelligence agents were responsible for promoting an impostor who they believed was a senior Taliban commander key to the Afghan peace process, according to reports on Friday.
Agents paid the man several hundred thousand dollars, convinced he was a top militant with the authority to negotiate with US and Afghan officials on behalf of the insurgents, The Times and the Washington Post reported, citing Afghan officials.
It is now believed that the man whom they believed to be senior Taliban figure Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was in fact either a minor rebel or simply a conman who ran a shop in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
In an interview with the Post, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff Mohammad Umer Daudzai said the British brought the man purporting to Mullah Mansour to meet Karzai in July or August.
But an Afghan at the meeting knew "this is not the man," the Post quoted him as saying.
"This shows that this process should be Afghan-led and fully Afghanised," Daudzai said.
"The last lesson we draw from this: International partners should not get excited so quickly with those kind of things... Afghans know this business, how to handle it."
The Times said Britain's foreign intelligence agency MI6 flew the man to Kabul on numerous occasions believing he was Mansour, an ex-Taliban government minister and, in some accounts, second to Mullah Omar in its leadership.
A senior Afghan government official told The Times: "British intelligence was naive and there was wishful thinking on our part."
Afghan officials told The Times that a meeting took place with Karzai in his Kabul palace, although Karzai denied on Tuesday that the meeting had never occurred.
It was believed that the US had helped Britain check the man's bona fides using signal intelligence, The Times reported.
The former US representative in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, Bill Harris, told The Times that the embarrassing mistake was not Britain's alone, saying "something this stupid generally requires teamwork."
The US Central Intelligence Agency was reportedly sceptical of British claims. In June, CIA director Leon Panetta said that no serious approaches had been made.
US officials were sceptical about the man claiming to be Mansour because "this visitor was a few inches shorter than their intelligence indicated Mansour is, and he didn't come with the people he said he would bring," Panetta said.
After the story broke on Tuesday in the New York Times, General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Afghanistan, told a press briefing in Germany he was not surprised.
"There was scepticism about one of these all along and it may well be that scepticism was well-founded," he said Tuesday.
Petraeus, however, had in October been the first US official to openly say that NATO forces had "faciliated" the passage of what he said were senior Taliban leaders to Kabul.
Doubts began to arise last month when an Afghan official, who had met the real Mullah Mansour, claimed it was not the same man, the New York Times reported. The man who had been posing as Mullah Mansour then disappeared.
"It should have been the Afghans themselves who should have pointed out the almighty cock-up," a source told the British newspaper. "Sometimes NATO doesn't know one bearded, turbanned Taliban leader from another."