"There are just so many people running around. Doing different things-no kind of unity."
-Syd Barrett, founding member Pink Floyd
I sat down at my computer yesterday to find a piece of paper from the US Army command resting on the keyboard:
"The US government has received the information below and classified the information as 'Unclassified' to ensure the widest dissemination as possible to include NGO's.
Due to the release of the Italian journalist, the US government has credible information that the Taliban, buoyed by their recent success in obtaining the release of five imprisoned Taliban members in exchange for an Italian journalist, will undertake additional kidnappings of foreigners in southern Afghanistan, especially Helmund Province. This threat extends to and includes main highways as well as more rural areas."
Daniele Mastrogiacomo, an Italian freelance journalist who writes for La Repubblica was working in an area in Helmund Province where there is little to no Coalition force presence; it is an area that is reported to be under narco-Taliban control. Using a "fixer" or guide to take him in to the area he stated in an interview that, "... he had not been looking for a scoop at all costs. He said he did not expect anything to happen." His statement either reflects complete disregard for the current state of unrest in the Helmand Province, or he's downplaying his intended purpose. He was abducted with his driver and interpreter. The driver was allegedly beheaded in front of him, with the head later delivered along with the demands for Mastrogiacomo's release.
Working through the Italian aid agency Emergency as the intermediary, British sources have confirmed that the Italian Embassy sent representatives down to negotiate Mastrogiacomo's release. AP reported that a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's has said the exchange came about after Karzai told authorities to find a solution to the kidnapping, citing Afghanistan's good relations with Italy. That may very well be, but only after strong Italian pressure. One can easily imagine that the Italians, having narrowly missed a Parliamentary recall of troops and now facing a new government, pressured the Karzai government to free the prisoners in exchange for Mastrogiacomo, and help keep the Italian public opinion from swaying against their presence in Afghanistan, thus losing support for the their involvement here.
Following his release, Mastrogiacomo commented that, "If things are done to save a human life... this is a positive thing." Especially since the "human life" that was saved was his. His driver wasn't so fortunate, and his interpreter's whereabouts are still unknown as rumors continue of his possible release, or that he is still being held captive or is already dead. Italy seemed to forget that NATO and ISAF forces promote the idea that Afghans are equal. According to US intelligence, Afghan citizens are expressing deep discontent with the Afghan government over this matter, since there was no equal effort to seek the release of the Afghan interpreter that was with Mastrogiacomo. While Italians celebrate, Afghans mourn. An odd juxtaposition.
The Taliban militants who abducted Mastrogiacomo initially accused him of being a spy for British forces. The journalist denied ever being a spy, and the Italian government has put forth a strong effort to prove this case with the production of documents and work histories. However, the amount of effort put forth by the Italian government to secure Mastrogiacomo's release, leaves an outside observer with doubts. Joe Mellott, the spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, said: "The U.S. does not make concessions to terrorist demands. End of story." The Italians apparently do, however. Quid pro quo.
The ramifications of the Italian action will be lasting. As was written in an article dated 21 March 2007 on Stratfor.com, "This means that reporters (and other Western noncombatants) have now become a valuable commodity in Afghanistan -- a "get out of jail free card" for jihadists or criminals." Furthermore, the Italian governments actions have gone further put in question the true motives of all journalists... are they here to get the story, or are they working to get information for their governments and essentially acting as spies? It's a slippery slope of assumptions by association that implicates the entire community of journalists working here in Afghanistan.
Assuming that the actions to free Mastrogiacomo were nothing more than actions to free an Italian citizen, Italy's agreement to pay a ransom for his freedom has now placed an entire journalist community at greater risk. "We Italians are by now considered unreliable by our own allies," a statement made by former premier Silvio Berlusconi. Considering the Italian's shaky commitment to Afghanistan and political volatility back home, the motives surrounding Mastrogiacomo's release seem little more than actions driven by self-serving agendas.
Mastrogiacomo's release marks the beginning of a new hunting season... with journalists being this seasons prize big game.