KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's protracted move toward talks with the Taliban bordered on farce on Friday with Afghan and foreign officials trading blame after a fake Taliban "leader" left them red-faced.
Reports about talks have intensified as U.S. President Barack Obama's December review of his war strategy approaches and as acceptance grows for the need for a negotiated settlement to a war that is widely seen to have gone badly for the United States.
They have also come as U.S. and NATO commanders talk up recent military successes since the last of 30,000 extra troops, ordered by Obama last December, arrived over the summer and fighting intensified in the Taliban's southern heartland.
Against that backdrop, interest in talks has grown dramatically, although there have been no high-level negotiations confirmed by U.S., NATO or Afghan officials.
Karzai's government maintains the process must be Aghan-led and has established a peace council as part of its wider reconciliation efforts.
"The international community, including the U.S. and UK, have been supportive of the peace efforts and have expressed their willingness to help," a senior palace official told Reuters.
"We have always stressed any direct efforts by the international community toward reconciliation will not only fail to bring results but could be counter-productive," he said.
Some Western leaders have said the conflict cannot be won militarily. Violence is at its worst across Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in 2001 by U.S.-backed Afghan forces despite the presence of about 150,000 foreign troops.
With U.S. and NATO leaders agreeing at a summit in Portugal last week to meet Karzai's timetable for foreign combat troops to leave by 2014, the pressure for talks has grown even further.
On Tuesday, The New York Times said a man it had described as a "Taliban leader" who it said had taken part in secret peace talks was in fact an impostor. It said the man met Afghan President Hamid Karzai and was given "a lot of money.
The man, identified as Taliban number two Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, was likely just a shopkeeper from Quetta, the Pakistan city where the Taliban leadership fled after they were toppled in late 2001, The Washington Post said.
The palace official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed the meeting, describing it as a "unique case," but said it was clear he was not Mansour. Afghan officials assumed he was sent by Pakistan's powerful ISI spy agency, he said.
"We are not sure who this man was exactly and what exactly his motives were," the palace official said.
"The assumption that he was an ISI asset sent to Kabul to test the waters is the strongest."
Deepening the farce, Karzai's chief of staff was quoted by The Washington Post on Friday as saying that "British authorities" were responsible for taking the Taliban impostor into Karzai's palace in "July or August."
"This episode has embarrassed Afghan and Western officials, and it has undercut the notion circulated earlier this year by senior U.S. officials that there was some momentum toward talks," the paper said.
Neither British nor U.S. officials would comment on the latest report. "We don't comment on operational matters," a spokeswoman for the British Embassy in Kabul said.
Britain's Times newspaper reported the man acting as Mansour had been paid and promoted by Britain's Secret Intelligence Service. [nLDE6AP00F]
"Far from being a former Taliban government minister, the individual concerned is now thought to have been a shopkeeper, a minor Taliban commander, or simply a well-connected chancer from the Pakistani border city of Quetta," it reported.
Contacts between Karzai's government and the Taliban have been maintained for the past two years and included a failed attempt to broker talks in Saudi Arabia in 2009. Karzai and NATO describe the contacts as little more than preliminary.
Despite blanket denials by Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials, the flurry of guardedly sourced media reports began on October 5 when the Post reported Kabul had started secret talks with the Taliban to negotiate an end to the war.
On October 20, The New York Times quoted an unidentified Afghan source as saying leaders from the Taliban's "Quetta shura" and the al Qaeda-linked Haqqani network had held "extensive" talks with the government.
Analysts warn that there was likely a high degree of media manipulation being attempted by European and U.S. officials.
European NATO leaders are under pressure from an increasingly skeptical public to justify their continued commitment to the costly and unpopular war. Conversely U.S. officials who in the past may have been reluctant on talks now want to be seen to be leading the process. The Taliban routinely say no peace talks are possible until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Michel Rose in LONDON; Editing by Andrew Marshall