The US Government acknowledged for the first time yesterday that payment of protection money to the Taleban by Italian forces in Afghanistan was discussed by American officials and their Italian counterparts last year.
A senior US official confirmed, two days after The Times reported that Italian authorities had paid the bribes, that “the issue [of payments] was raised with the Italians”.
The official would neither confirm nor deny that the representation to Silvio Berlusconi’s Government was in the form of a dÃ©marche or diplomatic protest, but Nato officials have told The Times that such a complaint was made by the US in Rome last year.
The payment of Italian protection money was revealed after the deaths of ten French soldiers in August 2008 at the hands of a large Taleban force in Sarobi, east of Kabul. French forces had taken over the district from Italian troops, but were unaware of the secret Italian payments to local commanders to stop attacks on their forces, and misjudged threat levels.
The day after The Times report, a Taleban commander and two senior Afghan officials also said that Italian forces had struck deals to prevent attacks on their troops.
Bruce Riedel, who headed President Obama’s Afghanistan policy review this year but is no longer inside the Administration, told The Times that he heard allegations of the Italian payments during a trip to Paris in the last week of September. A businessman with close ties to the French Government told him that the Italians had been paying the Taleban “but had forgotten to tell us [the French]”, Mr Riedel said.
Rome has angrily denied the report. “The Berlusconi Government has never authorised nor has it allowed any form of payment toward members of the Taleban insurgency,” said a statement by the office of the Italian Prime Minister.
Ignazio La Russa, Italy’s Defence Minister, insisted that the allegations were “absolute rubbish”. The French Opposition, however, has demanded an urgent explanation to Parliament, describing the details as “very serious”.
Yesterday HervÃ© Morin, the French Defence Minister, said the idea that an army might pay Taleban insurgents not to attack them would breach established military doctrine. He added: “I have no reason to question the word of the Italian Government.”
Canada has also been forced to deny reports that its soldiers paid the enemy in Afghanistan to keep the peace. A foreign wire service quoted an Afghan Army source as saying that Canadian soldiers in Kandahar province, in the Taleban-strong south, had made payments to insurgents.
“I haven’t heard of any type of payment that would be done by our troops in order to remain protected,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Lemay, a spokesman with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command. “With the number of casualties we’ve been getting, had we paid these guys they wouldn’t be holding up their end of the bargain.”