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The Italian government has angrily denied a Times of London report that says that the Italian intelligence service bribed the Taliban in Afghanistan not to attack Italian forces operating there. The report also says that Italy's failure to disclose the alleged bribes to the French forces that later replaced the Italian troops led to France making a "catastrophically incorrect threat assessment," something that resulted in the death of 10 French soldiers last year.
The Times report, which was published Wednesday, says that "in the months before the French soldiers arrived in mid-2008, the Italian secret service had been paying tens of thousands of dollars to Taleban commanders and local warlords to keep the area quiet."
US intelligence officials were flabbergasted when they found out through intercepted telephone conversations that the Italians had also been buying off militants, notably in Herat province in the far west. In June 2008, several weeks before the ambush, the US Ambassador in Rome made a démarche, or diplomatic protest, to the Berlusconi Government over allegations concerning the tactic.
However, a number of high-ranking officers in Nato have told The Times that payments were subsequently discovered to have been made in the Sarobi area as well.
Western officials say that because the French knew nothing of the payments they made a catastrophically incorrect threat assessment.
As a result, The Times writes, French forces were caught in "one of the biggest single losses of life by Nato forces in Afghanistan" and "the costliest battle for the French in a quarter of a century."
Operating in an arc of territory north and east of the Afghan capital, the French apparently believed that they were serving in a relatively benign district. The Italians they had replaced in July had suffered only one combat death in the previous year. For months the Nato headquarters in Kabul had praised Italian reconstruction projects under way around Sarobi. When an estimated 170 insurgents ambushed the force in the Uzbin Valley the upshot was a disaster. "They took us by surprise," one French troop commander said after the attack.
A Nato post-operations assessment would sharply criticise the French force for its lack of preparation. "They went in with two platoons [approximately 60 men]," said one senior Nato officer. "They had no heavy weapons, no pre-arranged air support, no artillery support and not enough radios."
Had it not been for the chance presence of some US special forces in the area who were able to call in air support for them, they would have been in an even worse situation. ...
The force was trapped until airstrikes forced the insurgents to retreat the next morning. By then ten French soldiers were dead and 21 injured.
The Guardian writes that the Italian minister of defense slammed the Times report as "rubbish" and announced plans to sue the newspaper, while the office of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi "stopped short of an outright denial."
The official statement said "the Berlusconi government" had never authorised or allowed payments to insurgents, and "nor is it aware of any such initiatives set in motion by the previous government". ...
The Italians soldiers left the base at Sarobi in July 2008, less than three months after Berlusconi's government took office. The go-ahead for any payments, if any were given, is more likely to have come from Italy's previous, centre-left administration, headed by Romano Prodi.
Berlusconi's office noted, however, that in the first of half of 2008, the Italian troops stationed east of Kabul had come under several attacks, and that in one of these an Italian officer had been killed.
A spokeswoman for Prodi, said he "is not aware and was never aware of the events reported by the Times". His defence minister, Arturo Parisi, said he "never authorized, nor allowed, nor was ever informed of any form of payment to Taliban terrorists".
But despite the Italian denials, The Times has stood by its report. Euronews writes that Tom Coghlan, who reported the story, said that "we know about those payments ... because the US intelligence services, according to our sources inside NATO, managed to tap phone conversations between insurgent commanders and Italian intelligence agents." The Times also published a second story, citing a Taliban commander and several unnamed Afghan officials who confirmed that a deal had been made between Italian forces and the Taliban.
Agence France-Presse reports that the French military dismissed the Times story as "rumor" and "baseless," although AFP notes that the French opposition has called for a government investigation into the story. France 24 reports that the story has also been "like turning the knife in the wound" for members of the family of some of the French soldiers killed in Afghanistan.
"I am waiting to know more," Julien [Grégoire, brother of Corporal Nicolas Grégoire, who was killed in the 2008 attack,] says. "But if Italy did do this, that money could have been used to buy the very weapons and prepare the ambush that killed those soldiers. If the reports of Italy's role are accurate, I do not know why the French were not informed."
But his mother adds: "Even if Italy is responsible, that does not excuse the French authorities."
But in a commentary for The Times, journalist Sam Kiley argues that while the Italians should have disclosed to France any bribes they may have made to the Taliban, paying off the Taliban is a legitimate tactic for NATO's mission in Afghanistan.
The Italians should not have been acting in secret. They should have learnt from their experiences in Mogadishu — where they cut local deals and were caught red-handed (by the CIA) tipping off the warlord general Mohammed Farrah Aidid about American operations to arrest him — that breaking ranks with their allies is stupid and dangerous. ...
But what they were doing in Sarobi and Herat is the sort of thing that the Nato commander, the American General Stanley McChrystal, has been saying for months should be an integral part of the whole counter-insurgency strategy. Back in June he told the Senate Armed Forces Committee in Washington that "our willingness to operate in ways that minimise casualties or damage — even when doing so makes our task more difficult — is essential to our credibility".
If that means that we can buy off elements of the enemy forces, rather than bomb them (at catastrophic risk to Afghan civilians), so much the better. Buying off enemies in Afghanistan is boxing clever.