Oct 15, 2009 16 Comments ›› Pat Dollard
When ten French soldiers were killed last year in an ambush by Afghan insurgents in what had seemed a relatively peaceful area, the French public were horrified.
Their revulsion increased with the news that many of the dead soldiers had been mutilated â€” and with the publication of photographs showing the militants triumphantly sporting their victimsâ€™ flak jackets and weapons. The French had been in charge of the Sarobi area, east of Kabul, for only a month, taking over from the Italians; it was one of the biggest single losses of life by Nato forces in Afghanistan.
What the grieving nation did not know was 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, The Times has learnt. The clandestine payments, whose existence was hidden from the incoming French forces, were disclosed by Western military officials.
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 dÃ©marche, 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.
â€œOne cannot be too doctrinaire about these things,â€ a senior Nato officer in Kabul said. â€œIt 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.â€
On August 18, a month after the Italian force departed, a lightly armed French patrol moved into the mountains north of Sarobi town, in the district of the same name, 65km (40 miles) east of Kabul. They had little reason to suspect that they were walking into 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. â€œThey took us by surprise,â€ one French troop commander said after the attack.
A Nato post-operations assessment would sharply criticise the French force for its lack of preparation. â€œThey went in with two platoons [approximately 60 men],â€ said one senior Nato officer. â€œThey had no heavy weapons, no pre-arranged air support, no artillery support and not enough radios.â€
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. â€œThe French were carrying just two medium machine guns and 100 rounds of ammunition per man. They were asking for trouble and the insurgents managed to get among them.â€
A force from the 8th Marine Parachute Regiment took an hour and a half to reach the French over the mountains. â€œWe couldnâ€™t see the enemy and we didnâ€™t know how many of them there were,â€ said another French officer. â€œAfter 20 minutes we started coming under fire from the rear. We were surrounded.â€
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 French public were appalled when it emerged that many of the dead had been mutilated by the insurgentsâ€” a mixed force including Taleban members and fighters from Hizb e-Islami.
A few weeks later French journalists photographed insurgents carrying French assault rifles and wearing French army flak jackets, helmets and, in one case, a dead soldierâ€™s watch.
Two Western military officials in Kabul confirmed that intelligence briefings after the ambush said that the French troops had believed they were moving through a benign area â€” one which the Italian military had been keen to show off to the media as a successful example of a â€œhearts and mindsâ€ operation.
Another Nato source confirmed the allegations of Italian money going to insurgents. â€œThe Italian intelligence service made the payments, it wasnâ€™t the Italian Army,â€ he said. â€œIt was payments of tens of thousands of dollars regularly to individual insurgent commanders. It was to stop Italian casualties that would cause political difficulties at home.â€
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. The Nato source added that US intelligence became aware of the payments. â€œThe Italians never acknowledged it, even though there was intercepted telephone traffic on the subject,â€ said the source. â€œThe dÃ©marche was the result. It was not publicised because it would have caused a diplomatic nightmare. We found out about the Sarobi payments later.â€
In Kabul a high-ranking Western intelligence source was scathing. â€œItâ€™s an utter disgrace,â€ he said. â€œNato in Afghanistan is a fragile enough construct without this lot working behind our backs. The Italians have a hell of a lot to answer for.â€
Haji Abdul Rahman, a tribal elder from Sarobi, recalled how a benign environment became hostile overnight. â€œThere were no attacks against the Italians. People said the Italians and Taleban had good relations between them.
â€œWhen the country [nationality of the forces] changed and the French came there was a big attack on them. We knew the Taleban came to the city and we knew that they didnâ€™t carry out attacks on the Italian troops but we didnâ€™t know why.â€
The Italian Defence Ministry referred inquiries to the Prime Ministerâ€™s Office. A spokesman said: â€œThe American Ambassador in Rome did not make any formal complaint. He merely asked for information, first from the previous Government and then from the current Government. The allegations were denied and they are totally unfounded.â€
Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister, defeated Romano Prodi at elections in April 2008.
The claims are not without precedent. In October 2007 two Italian agents were kidnapped in western Afghanistan; one was killed in a rescue by British special forces. It was later alleged in the Italian press that they had been kidnapped while making payments to the Taleban.