Afghan Vignette 7: How to Buy Peace in Afghanistan

In the course of what is now called a counterinsurgency campaign by U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, we have been told a lot about using aid, latching onto civilian non-governmental organizations (“civil military fusion“), “mixing fighting and food,” building clinics, undertaking development efforts to ensure jobs and “bring progress” to Afghan villagers in order to lure them away from the Taliban, and various so-called “non-kinetic” measures, and of course the work of the Human Terrain System. War would now be fought differently, as if it were not war, which makes it less surprising to see commentary on this blog insisting now that it is not war. It’s more like buying the peace. So how do you buy the peace? The simple and direct Italian method is this: with money.

Silvio Berlusconi, 9 July 2008. Ricardo Stuckert/PR, Agência Brasil, From Wikimedia Commons at

Silvio Berlusconi, 9 July 2008. Ricardo Stuckert/PR, Agência Brasil, From Wikimedia Commons at

So why is there a “scandal” at whose centre is now The Times of London, pitted against the Italian government of Premier Silvio Berlusconi and the Italian Defence Minister, Ignazio La Russa? (See: “Silvio Berlusconi issues denials over Afghanistan bribe scandal,” Tom Coghlan and Nico Hines, Times Online, 15 October 2009.) The “scandal” is this, as ostensibly constructed by the media, and the official denials from Rome: that Italian intelligence paid off the Taliban in the Sarobi district east of Kabul to not attack Italian forces. In fact, Italian forces suffered almost no attacks, and no losses during their stay in Afghanistan, minimizing the political cost of the war at home. Indeed, “when six Italian troops were killed in a bombing in Kabul last month it resulted in a national outpouring of grief and demands for troops to be withdrawn” (source). Berlusconi then promptly announced, after that suicide attack that killed six Italian paratroopers, “we must bring our boys home as soon as possible” (source).

But is the fact of the payment of tens of thousands of dollars really the scandal? After all, the Italians, and the media, depicted the Italian zone of operation as “a benign area,” and one which “the Italian military had been keen to show off to the media as a successful example of a ‘hearts and minds’ operation” (source).

Haji Abdul Rahman, a tribal elder from Sarobi, recalled how a benign environment became hostile overnight [when the French replaced the Italians]. “There were no attacks against the Italians. People said the Italians and Taleban had good relations between them” (source).

(Given the last sentence, I envision scenes of Taliban fighters and Italian soldiers enjoying spaghetti alla marinara together, with some bottles of San Pellegrino aranciata, then some cannelloni and espresso, followed by games of briscola and bocce. Prosciutto crudo and vino, of course, would be off limits to il carissimo signor Talib.)

What is the difference between paying tens of thousands of dollars to the resistance, to “stay quiet,” and building schools and clinics or handing out food aid, or hiring them for security? Is it the belief that villagers are fundamentally neutral, that the Taliban are not inherently embedded in the villages, and that if the Taliban can be out maneuvered they will be forced to return to their true place of origin…which is where? Is it the belief that once a clinic is built, that the Taliban’s brothers, fathers, sons, and cousins in the village will not use the clinic to attend to their wounds? Or are occupation forces committed to raiding hospitals and clinics more frequently now, in continued violation of international law?

Instead, the scandals in question seem to be other ones entirely. First, there is the scandal that what was once an official secret, kept from all of us but known to all NATO military commanders in Afghanistan, has now become public. Secondly, it turns out that the Italians were not the only ones to be paying off the Taliban — everyone does, according to a senior Afghan Army officer, except for the Americans and the British, the ones to bear the brunt of Taliban attacks, and apparently the French (more later). As The Times revealed, everyone in NATO knew about this; high ranking NATO officials provided the information to the newspaper, and it was confirmed by other high ranking officials, and further confirmed by U.S. intelligence and the U.S. Ambassador in Rome. Thirdly, the scandal is that the Italians failed to inform the French who replaced them in the area, and who suffered a slaughter as a result in May of 2008 (See: “French Opposition demands answers on bribe claim in Sarobi ambush,” Times Online, 15 October 2009). The French public was scandalized to see photos of Taliban fighters wearing French helmets, flak jackets, watches, and holding French weapons after the attack, which also saw the mutilation of the bodies of the dead French soldiers.

The French Defence Ministry confirmed that it had long been aware of “rumours” of the Italian payoffs, and a senior Afghan Army officer told Agence France-Presse: “We knew that Italian forces were paying the opposition [fighters] in Sarobi so they would not be attacked. We have information on similar agreements made in the western Herat province by Italian soldiers under NATO command there” (source). As for the French: “Asked whether it was normal practice to pay the Taleban to avoid combat engagements, he [Rear Admiral Christophe Prazuck] added: ‘It is not French practice in Afghanistan in any case'” (source).

“One cannot be too doctrinaire about these things,” a senior NATO officer in Kabul said. “It might well make sense to buy off local groups and use non-violence to keep violence down. But it is madness to do so and not inform your allies” (source).

The scandals multiply further, however. There is also the scandal that NATO leaders claim their domestic publics will oppose the war in greater numbers if they see their troops dying to prop up an illegitimate government in Kabul, the result of an electoral fraud the extent of which U.N. itself has tried to cover up. This is not to mention wide condemnation of the marriage law passed earlier this year by the Afghan parliament, that many in the West saw as legalizing spousal rape. So how about a war that props up Taliban coffers? This is a war that, the more is spent on it, the richer the Taliban get, and the more powerful they become. No wonder they seem so eager in welcoming further troop surges — it’s not just bravado, they are being sincere.

Then there is the scandal of a shoddy, botched war effort that resembles more of a medieval crusade with soldiers of fortune, merchants, and bumbling monarchs. Even if the Americans decide to add 40,000 more troops, it seems that it will take them a year to get them and their supplies in place (source).

And the ultimate scandal remains: that foreign troops are dying for absolutely nothing, utterly in vain, and in the process killing Afghan civilians who also die for no reason other than just living in their homes, having attacked no Western nation.

As for the Italian method of buying the peace, it is simple genius. It made everyone happy, it seems, except for the Americans. One can just imagine the staged theater for any visiting American forces in Sarobi, with the Italians and the villagers feigning growls at each other to show the Americans that, yes, the fighting and hating was going on as planned. Apparently winning hearts and minds is only good as long as you don’t win all the hearts and minds; getting non-kinetic is only good for as long as there is some kinetic element; everything is good, as long as peace does not break out. What would become of the war then?

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