This article originally appeared in
     
23 March, 2007
   
 
Italy: The hostage negotiators

Italy is criticized for negotiating the release Taliban operatives in exchange
for a kidnapped journalist as Prodi tries to score points for his weak
government at home.

Commentary by Eric J. Lyman in Rome
for ISN Security Watch (23/03/07)

Italy was still basking in the Taliban's
surprise release of La Repubblica
journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo when
its NATO allies began blasting the
controversial deal that allowed the
release to take place.

It is now known that Italy lobbied Afghan
President Hamid Karzai to release five
Taliban operatives - cultural adviser
Ustad Yaser, former spokesman Mofti Latifollah Hakimi, and commanders, Mullahs
Dadullah, Hambdullah and Abdol Ghaffar - in order to secure Mastrogiacomo's release
after two harrowing weeks in prison. Washington, London and The Hague pulled no
punches in criticizing a deal they said was short-sighted and likely to put all journalists
and NATO representatives in Afghanistan in danger.

"When you create a situation where the Taliban can buy the freedom of its fighters by
catching a journalist, then in a short time there will be no more journalists," Dutch
Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen told reporters on a trip to the Afghan capital, Kabul,
on Thursday, a day after Mastrogiacomo's release.

Verhagen's comments echoed views from the US State Department and the UK Foreign
Office, both of which were quick to cast the deal as a major foreign policy blunder. But
what critics of the deal brokered by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and Foreign
Minister Massimo D'Alema fail to grasp is that in Italy, the decision stemmed much more
from internal politics than from any foreign policy view.

The current Prodi government is less than a month old, reformed after a failed no-
confidence vote in the Senate over Italy's role in Afghanistan forced Prodi to resign.
The former European Commission president cobbled together a fragile coalition that
allowed him to retain power. But there is little doubt that what would have been the
likely violent murder of a well-known journalist like Mastrogiacomo - especially one who
writes for an influential newspaper friendly to the Prodi government - could have sent
the pacifists who felled the government in February packing again, forcing yet another
resignation.

Instead, polls indicate that more than half of Italians agreed with the move to make a
deal for Mastrogiacomo's life. In fact, the Prodi government is feeling a bit of triumph
that will allow it to continue to keep 1,900 troops as part of the NATO mission in
Afghanistan and turn its attention instead to urgent domestic matters, like sparking
economic growth while facing off with powerful trade unions over pension and tax
reform.

In discussions this week with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Italy's D'Alema
no doubt made the argument that the trade Italy made was not only to save
Mastrogiacomo's life but also the life of Italy's sizable coalition in Afghanistan.

The argument holds water, but it does not change the fact that Italy - no matter which
part of the political spectrum its leaders hail from - has often engaged in murky
negotiations with hostage takers.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's billionaire media tycoon and a three-time prime minister, never
misses a chance to lash out against Prodi, his chief political rival. But in this case,
Berlusconi's potential criticisms have been muted by decisions he's made in the past: In
2005, Berlusconi reportedly paid a secret ransom for another journalist, Giuliana
Sgrena, who was captured in Iraq. And a year later, the then-prime minister reportedly
paid €10 million (US$13 million) of his own money to guarantee the safe release of a
group of Italian hostages held in Yemen.

The case involving Sgrena is particularly poignant because her released was tarnished
by the fact that on the way to the Baghdad airport her car was fired on by US troops,
killing Nicola Calipari, the Italian agent escorting her. After the shooting, Sgrena alleged
that the troops fired on the car because a ransom was paid for her release - a practice
the US universally opposes.

Later, Sgrena backed away from that claim to some degree. But two years later, the
issue is still straining the normally strong relationship between Washington and Rome.
Italian magistrates are seeking the extradition of the soldiers who fired the shots, while
American officials repeatedly refuse to consider the move.

The release of Mastrogiacomo could have a fallout even more severe: The Taliban will
not be long in figuring out that Italy has both the weight to successfully lobby for the
release of Taliban operatives and the willingness to negotiate if its citizens are taken
hostage. And if that happens and more hostages are taken, it will not be difficult to
imagine a future in which public opinion in Italy will turn so strongly that Prodi and his
allies will be forced to once and for all decide between staying in Afghanistan and
staying in power.





Eric J. Lyman is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Rome.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the
International Relations and Security Network (ISN).
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