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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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