When the United States pays off its enemies, American media outlets barely notice. When its foreign allies do so, reporters can’t wait to bite into the controversy.
Italian NATO regiments have been accused of bribing Taliban forces to hold off on attacks in the Sarobi region of Afghanistan, east of Kabul. French NATO forces assumed operations there in August 2008. Soon after, they suffered an ambush that killed 10 soldiers. The Times of London alleged on Thursday, Oct. 15, that the ambush was a result of the Italians failing to let their allies in on the secret of the region’s relative tranquility. The paper said the violence was a Taliban expression of discontent when the French did not continue the Italian policy of paying the Taliban off.
The next day, both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ran brief blurbs on Italy denying the bribery charge. A longer Washington Post article was most eager to emphasize a fight between The London Times and the Italian government. After the first article ran in the British daily accusing the Italians of buying stability in Sarobi, the Italian government threatened the paper with a defamation suit. American papers were more interested in the mudslinging than in the possibility of a NATO member bribing the Taliban.
Even more importantly, no news outlet drew the parallel between Italian bribery and an accepted U.S. strategy in Iraq.
The United States owes part of its counterinsurgency success in Iraq to dolling out dinars. In September 2007, the London Times attended a meeting between U.S. military personnel and Sunni tribal militia leaders. Each sheikh was paid $189,000 over the course of three months to adopt U.S. goals for the region and to drive out partisan insurgents.
Most of these local forces had previously taken up arms under the banner of al Qaeda. But they became fed up with al Qaeda’s cruel enforcement of fundamentalist rules and sensed a power shift in favor of Shiite rivals, according to the 2007 Times article. Sunni sheikhs allied with the Americans in the interest of protecting their tribesmen. The incentive of U.S. cash made the decision all the more appealing.
The United States will stabilize Afghanistan with similar cash incentives. In September, U.S. and Afghan governments announced the continuation of payments to tribal militias first employed to provide security during the Afghan presidential election. The strategy is modeled after counterinsurgency tactics in Iraq. Aid agencies and elements within the military have voiced skepticism. The plan, they say, might provide short-term peace but risks empowering warlords that could later pose a threat to a pluralistic central government.
But allegations of Taliban bribery by NATO members are more concerned with short-term violence. Why are the Italians the focus of controversy in U.S. papers, especially given American payoff practices? The article in the Times that first reported on the alleged payoffs also included interviews with Afghani sources claiming NATO forces from every country use bribery to pacify the Taliban.
Debates about a new Afghanistan strategy have much to take into account. Will additional deployment of U.S. troops eliminate the need to pay for allies? Or will it further embroil our country in an insuperable conflict? Here’s a better question: If the media won't put everything on the table, how is a real debate possible?