Italy charged with bribing Taliban

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(Image: Flickr user Ed Yourdon (cc: by-nc-sa))

Story by Gerry Hadden, "The World"

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A controversial report alleges Italian groups in Afghanistan paid the Taliban not to attack them. That report appears in the newspaper, "The Times" of London. It quotes unnamed Taliban and Afghan officials describing the alleged payoffs. The story claims that secret payments may have led to the deaths of French soldiers in Afghanistan.

The Italian government has denied the story. So have French officials. But if it proves true it could damage the unity of the international coalition in Afghanistan.

"The Times" of London reporter who wrote the Italian bribe story is Tom Coghlan. Speaking from his newsroom, Coghlan says Italian forces maintained relative peace in the Sarobi district east of Kabul at a price -- literally.

"The Italian intelligence service made routine payments of tens of thousands of dollars to particular Taliban and insurgent commanders in areas where Italian troops were operating in Afghanistan."

Coghlan says the goal was to reduce Italian casualties as much as possible.

"And the reason for this was that the Italian government was obviously facing a very limited support for the war in Afghanistan on the part of the Italian people. The Italian government strenuously denies the allegations.

Ignazio La Russa, Italy's defense minister, strongly dismissed the "Times" report.

"The information given by the 'Times' is absolute rubbish," said La Russa through a translator. "I've given authority to my staff after speaking with all the high ranking military officials and looking at the information to begin legal action against the Times.

What makes the accusations all the more inflammatory aren't the payments themselves. It's what the Times" says came next.

In July 2008 French troops took over the Sarobi district from the Italians. According to the "Times," the Italians didn't tell the French of their financial arrangement with the Taliban, leading the French to think the area was safer than it perhaps was.

A month later, 10 French soldiers were killed in Sarobi in the deadliest single attack on NATO forces since 2001. Some relatives of those victims are now calling for an investigation.

But today the French government cast out on the story saying there was no evidence to back it up. But coalition members will likely discuss the issue -- at least behind closed doors. Spain also has troops in Afghanistan, and as in Italy, the war is unpopular in Spain.

Spanish newspaper editor, Jose Antonio Alvarez says NATO needs to get to the bottom of the accusations or support for the mission could drop further.

He says they have to launch an investigation to either show that it's false or if it turns out that some Italian military commanders committed such a barbarous act, to punish those responsible. If not, says Alvarez, the confidence between coalition members will be blown to pieces.

A spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan also denied the allegations saying "we don't pay the insurgents." But NATO has acknowledged that coalition forces sometimes pay village leaders to get information. And some observers point out that paying insurgents was part of a successful strategy in Iraq in 2007.

Dana Allin, with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, confirms. "A big, big part of it was siphoning off these former insurgents in Ambar province. Payment to Sunni tribes was key."

The key difference Allin says, is that at the time the US didn't hide the payments from its partners. If the Italians did slip cash to the Taliban, the secrecy around such payments could be more damaging than the money itself.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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