Friday, October 16, 2009

Did Italian Bribes Kill French Troops?

Though it hasn't gotten much attention on this side of the Atlantic, France and Italy are in the middle of a huge diplomatic fight over a British report that Italian bribery led to the deaths of French troops in Afghanistan.

The Times of London reported earlier in the week that in order to make their lives easier last year, Italian troops stationed in the Sarobi district of Afghanistan simply paid local Taliban tribes not to attack them. The arrangement worked out well and Sarobi was fairly quiet and calm. The problem was that when the Italian troops rotated out of Sarobi, they failed to tell the incoming French troops replacing them about their little side-deal with the Taliban. The French, thinking Sarobi was well pacified, let their guard down. Last August, Taliban forces staged a massive ambush against the French forces who weren't paying them not to fight, ten French paratroopers were killed and 21 others injured in an incident that shocked France.

The French are now furious that the Italians would basically set them up by letting them believe Sarobi was a calm region of Afghanistan. Of course the Italians have been tripping over themselves to deny any such arrangement with the Taliban existed. But in an editorial today The Times is sticking to its story, adding that since they published their first account, both a Taliban leader and Afghan government officials have confirmed that Italian forces in other parts of Afghanistan paid insurgents not to attack them.

But no one should be too shocked that such an arrangement could exist, Afghan militias are notoriously malleable in their allegiances - they are quick to switch over to a winning, or paying, side. And this strategy is being pushed by some pundits and strategists as a way of quelling the Taliban in Afghanistan. A similar approach was used in Iraq - part of the much-praised "Surge" by US forces involved paying Sunni tribal leaders not to fight against the US or the fragile Iraqi government (something we spun as the "Anbar Awakening" as the Sunni militias put down their guns).

Nathan Hodge over at the Danger Room blog though warns that the "bribe the tribes" approach has some flaws. The Sunni tribal militias in Iraq, which were suppose to have been absorbed into Iraq's national security forces recently balked after one of their leaders was arrested; it seems that bribery can only buy so much loyalty after all. And, Hodge points out, Iraq has a steady stream of oil revenue to pay for their bribes, something the impoverished Afghanistan lacks. Not to mention if you're going to engage in a cash-for-peace deal it would be nice to let your allies know what you're doing, a point France is making rather loudly these days.

The whole affair is reminding me of the character Milo Minderbinder, from Joseph Heller's WW2 novel Catch-22. Minderbinder was a US Army officer and small-time hustler who through some ridiculous business deals built up an empire while at an American airbase in occupied Italy. At one point Minderbinder is hired by the Germans to bomb his own airbase so that they won't have to. It was a vignette that Heller meant to show the futility of war, it's also something you could almost imagine happening in Afghanistan.
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