Kim Sengupta: Whether a conman or spy, he made fools of Western forces

Talks seemed so delicate that officials had asked the media not to mention Mullah Mansour by name

By any diplomatic or military yardstick the tale of an imposter pretending to be the Taliban's chief negotiator was a disaster. What gives it added bathos is that peace talks with the insurgency is a central element in the West's exit strategy from the war and what has taken place brings the process into question.

At the Nato summit in Lisbon last weekend Mark Sedwill, the urbane British diplomat who is the Alliance's chief civilian official in Afghanistan, asked about the progress of the talks, said he was not aware of any significant developments. One can only assume he had not been told that "Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour", second ranking in the Quetta Shura after Mullah Mohammed Omar, on whose presence such hope had been placed, was not who he seemed to be. The prized delegate, brought in secretly on a UK military aircraft, was indeed from Quetta, but, according to reports, was a shopkeeper, possibly a greengrocer.

So delicate were these talks that Western officials had requested media to desist from even mentioning Mullah Mansour by name. To do so, they warned, risked his life and would have jeopardised a most promising avenue for a settlement. They could point to a previous occasion when it became known that the then Taliban No 2, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was holding talks with the Karzai government. The Pakistanis, determined that they should be brokering any deal and thus retain influence in the future of Afghanistan, arrested him.

Mullah Mansour is said to have taken over from Baradar and a man claiming to be him put out feelers about talks. A meeting was held in Dubai with an Afghan delegation followed by two visits to Kabul to talk to President Karzai and senior Western officials. The senior Talib left with assurances that the Afghan government and Nato were sincere in seeking a negotiated peace – and a pocketful of cash.

No one appeared to doubt the authenticity of the figure they were talking to until the end, when an official from Kandahar, having met Mansour before, pointed out the dissimilarities in his features.

If the fake Mullah was sent by the ISI it is another example of how the Pakistanis, recipients of huge amounts of Western aid, are running rings around the US and allies. But one would like to think he was a shopkeeper from Quetta who saw the main chance and made cash out of the new "Great Game", making very important people look foolish.