For months, the secret talks unfolding between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war appeared to be showing promise, if only because of the appearance of a certain insurgent leader at one end of the table: Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, one of the most senior commanders in the Taliban movement.
But now, it turns out, Mansour was apparently not Mansour at all. In an episode that could have been lifted from a spy novel, US and Afghan officials now say the Afghan man was an impostor, and high-level discussions conducted with the assistance of NATO appear to have achieved little.
"It's not him," said a Western diplomat in Kabul. "And we gave him a lot of money."
American officials confirmed Monday that they had given up hope that the Afghan was Mansour, or even a member of the Taliban leadership.
Nato and Afghan officials said they held three meetings with the man, who traveled from in Pakistan, where Taliban leaders have taken refuge.
The fake Taliban leader even met with President Hamid Karzai, having been flown to Kabul on a Nato aircraft and ushered into the presidential palace, officials said.
The episode underscores the uncertain and even bizarre nature of the atmosphere in which ways to end the nine-year-old war are searched.
As recently as last month, American and Afghan officials held high hopes for the talks. Senior American officials said the talks indicated that Taliban leaders, whose rank-and-file fighters are under extraordinary pressure from the US-led offensive, were at least willing to discuss an end to the war.
Some officials say the man may simply have been a freelance fraud, posing as a Taliban leader in order to enrich himself. Others say the man may have been a Taliban agent.
Publicly, the Taliban say that there are no talks at all.