How do we negotiate with the Taliban . . .

. . . if we can’t identify their leaders?

Had I watched such a story unfold on Spooks or 24, I would have shaken my head in disbelief and wondered how the scriptwriters thought they could get away with such a silly and unrealistic tale.

But it happened. In real life. In Afghanistan.

From the Daily Mail:

It sounds like the plot from a spy novel or James Bond film.

But Nato chiefs in Afghanistan have been severely embarrassed by a shopkeeper who fooled them into thinking he was a Taliban commander during secret peace negotiations.

Astonishingly, the ruse went on for two months, during which time the "contact" was paid a substantial sum of money.

He was also flown on a British military plane to three meetings designed to end the insurrection.

Despite suspicions about his identity, nobody disputed his claim to be Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, one of the Taliban's most senior leaders.

It was only months later – and after the handover of piles of cash to keep him coming back – that an old friend of Mr Mansour said they had the wrong man.

American officials have already given up hope that he was Mr Mansour, or even a member of the Taliban at all.

They now believe he was nothing more than a shopkeeper from the Pakistani city of Quetta.

The paper adds:

The fraudster even impressed negotiators with his moderate stance and, unlike other Taliban leaders, did not demand a withdrawal of foreign forces.

Travelling from Pakistan, he twice met Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It was during a third meeting, in the southern city of Kandahar, that a man who had known Mr Mansour years ago told Afghan officials that the Taliban leader at the table did not resemble him. Officials say it is not clear why he posed as Mr Mansour.

They believe it could have been for personal gain or he was possibly planted by the Pakistani intelligence service.

Others have said he could have been a Taliban agent, but all agreed that to pull off such a con meant he was "a very clever man".

A US official in Kabul added: "One would suspect that in our multibillion-dollar intel community there would be the means to differentiate between an authentic Quetta Shura emissary and a shopkeeper.

"On the other hand, it doesn't surprise me in the slightest. It may have been Mullah Omar – posing as a shopkeeper. I'm sure that our intelligence whizzes wouldn't have known."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.