US President Bush begged Italian PM Berlusconi to stop bribing the Taliban in Afghanistan
By Tom Coghlan and James Bone
August 12, 2011
PRESIDENT George W. Bush made a personal plea to Silvio Berlusconi to stop Italian forces paying bribes to the Taliban in Afghanistan, according to newly discovered US diplomatic cables.
They show that concerns over alleged Italian payments to insurgents, long denied by Rome, reached the highest levels of the US Administration.
They support claims that were first published by The Times in October 2009 and which were furiously denied, with threats of legal action, by the Italian Government.
Mr Berlusconi said that the claims were "totally baseless".
However, among the cables uncovered by the Italian magazine L'Espresso are four from 2008 onward that deal with the question of bribes paid by Italy's intelligence service in Afghanistan.
The cables, which The Times has verified, include one that shows that President Bush raised the matter with Mr Berlusconi personally after the latter's re-election for a second term in May 2008.
It reports that Mr Bush obtained "the promise of The Knight (as Mr Berlusconi is known in some cables) to get to the bottom of the question".
In April 2008, Ronald Spogli, the US Ambassador, wrote a memo to Washington promising: "We will press for Italian troops to take a more active attitude towards the insurgents.
"We will also give a strong signal opposing the habit of the past to pay money to obtain protection and to negotiate ransoms for release of kidnapped persons."
According to another cable, in a meeting on June 6, 2008, the US Ambassador told Mr Berlusconi: "We continue to receive worrying reports of Italians paying-off local warlords and other combatants. Berlusconi agreed this should be stopped."
In a cable to Mr Bush before Mr Berlusconi's visit to Washington in 2008, Mr Spogli writes that Italian support in Afghanistan "has been undermined by Italy's growing reputation for avoiding combat and paying ransom and protection money.
''This reputation is based in part on rumours, in part on intelligence which we have not been fully able to corroborate.
''True or not ... Italy has lost 12 soldiers in Afghanistan, fewer than most allies with comparable responsibilities".
The ambassador warned that, if true, "Italian actions are endangering allied troops".
L'Espresso quotes its own sources from within SISMI, the Italian military intelligence agency, who claim that the Italian Government signed off payments to warlords and insurgents.
The magazine says it has credible evidence that 23 million euros ($31.6 million) was authorised to SISMI for "security and information activities for the Prime Minister" in 2004-06, the first two years of the campaign.
Italian forces are alleged to have paid off insurgents in Sarobi district, east of Kabul.
After a six-month period in 2008 in which Italian troops suffered only one fatality, French troops took over in July.
Weeks later the French had 10 killed and 21 injured in a devastating attack.