An Unreliable Ally

Daniele Mastrogiacomo was freed on Monday in exchange for the release of up to five Taliban prisoners being held by the Afghan government. Our prediction was correct, unfortunately.
An unnamed official in the administration of US President George W. Bush, told news agencies on Wednesday that Washington had expressed “disappointment” over the deal to the Italian government on Tuesday, just a few hours before Massimo D’Alema, Italian foreign minister, said that U.S. Secretary of State, Condollezza Rice, expressed “comprehension” about Italy’s move to free Mastrogiacomo. The official said that “striking deals with kidnappers is never a positive thing”, adding that the released militants would go on to help the Taliban fight US and NATO forces in their bid to retake power in Afghanistan.

“The way Mastrogiacomo was released increases the risks for our troops, Afghan troops and international forces,” he said.
The official added that Washington had been “taken by surprise” by the exchange. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s spokesman said on Thursday that the U.S. were unaware of the exchange talks. Edward Luttwak speculated that American officials made the political calculation that for the sake of good relations with Italy, it was better not to stop the transfer.
“They certainly didn’t lean on the Afghans” to trade the prisoners, Mr. Luttwak said. “But they didn’t interpose themselves. They let them have it.”

Meanwhile, an official at the British Foreign Office told to news agencies on Wednesday that the British government was “concerned by the implications of the release of the Taliban” and had raised the matter with both Rome and Kabul.
“There is concern that this could send the wrong message to those who are thinking of taking hostages,” the official said.

The Dutch Foreign Minister, Maxime Verhagen, criticized on Wednesday the exchange of Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government to secure the release of Mastrogiacomo, saying it would “support the taking of hostages” by the Taliban. “When we create a situation where you can buy the freedom of Taliban fighters when you catch a journalist, in a short term there will be no journalists anymore”, Verhagen told reporters at the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul.

The centre-right Italian opposition accused Prodi of “giving in to terrorists” and encouraging the Taliban to carry out more kidnappings. They also argued that “freeing Taliban terrorists” went against the purpose of NATO’s mission to secure Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban insurgency there. Ex-premier and opposition leader Silvio Berlusconi said on Wednesday that Italy’s credibility was damaged and that “it’s clear we are no longer a trustworthy ally for the US”. This line was repeated on Thursday by Berlusconi’s main ally, rightist National Alliance chief Gianfranco Fini. But Mr.Berlusconi and his allies are not totally entitled to say that, since his government is said to have paid a ransom to free Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, two NGO members, and Giuliana Sgrena, a communist journalist. All abducted in Baghdad, a couple of years ago.

Now, there are some questions, looking for answers. Why didn’t Italy use its own secret service officials in Kabul? Why did Italy refuse a military intervention to free Mastrogiacomo, whose prison was located by British troops, just because Gino Strada of Emergency (an italian NGO, and the sole negotiator on the release of Mastrogiacomo), was opposing it? How can Italy stay the course in Afghanistan and deal with its own Nato allies, when Angela Merkel said on Monday, in Rome, that “Germany won’t give in to terrorist blackmails”, talking about a German woman and her son, whose kidnappers in Iraq are asking German troops to leave Afghanistan?

The Mastrogiacomo kidnapping came at a delicate time for Prodi, who is seeking to keep his hard left pacifist allies in line over Italy’s mission in Afghanistan.

Prodi briefly resigned last month after his government lost a foreign policy vote in the Senate. Another crucial Senate vote is scheduled to be held next Tuesday on the refinancing of the Afghan mission. A handful of hard-left “pacifists” in Prodi’s fragile nine-party coalition are threatening to vote against the measure, arguing that Afghanistan has become too dangerous for a peacekeeping mission.
Any defections in the Senate could prove fatal for Prodi, who holds only two more Senate seats than Berlusconi’s coalition. Now, the centre-right has the chance not to vote the refinancing of the mission. Since italian troops in Afghanistan are more in danger now, the parliamentary opposition must request stricter rules of engagement. Otherwise, there’s no sense in keeping our troops there. Once again, Italy is proving itself an unreliable ally.

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