Sleeping with the Enemy

Sta. Ana coordinates Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph).This was published in the October 19, 2009 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 and S1/5.

The news that Italy bribed the enemies in Afghanistan to avoid armed encounters between Italians and the Talibans was shocking.  The alleged bribe would not have created anger and uproar, if not for the claim that it caused the death of French soldiers in August 2008.

An overwhelming number of Taliban insurgents ambushed two lightly armed French platoons, barely a month after the French took over the operations from the Italians in a mountainous district. The encounter resulted in heavy French casualties—10 dead and 21wounded.  It was, according to the news report “the costliest battle for the French in a quarter of a century.”  It was likewise “one of the biggest singles losses of life by Nato [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] forces in Afghanistan.”

Apparently, the French thought that the Sarobi district that they were patrolling was a relatively peaceful place.  But it turned out to be a deceiving peace. For the French were unaware of a secret deal between the Italians and the Talibans.

Writing for The Times, Tom Coghian (“French troops were killed after Italy hushed up ‘bribes’ to Taleban,” 15 October 2009) claimed that the Italian secret service bribed the Taleban commanders and local warlords to keep them from waging attacks.   Mr. Coghian cited an unnamed source from Nato who said: “It was payments of tens of thousands of dollars regularly to individual insurgent commanders. It was to stop Italian casualties that would cause political difficulties at home.”

Mr. Coghian also wrote that US intelligence officials and other high-ranking Nato officials had discovered that the Italian secret service had been buying off Talibans in other areas as well. He wrote,  “In June 2008, several weeks before the ambush, the US Ambassador in Rome made a démarche, or diplomatic protest, to the Berlusconi Government over allegations concerning the tactic.”

The Italian government has denied the bribery charge. In a press briefing, the Italian Defense Minister Ignacio La Russa said that the Italian government intends to sue The Times for publishing the story.   The Defense Minister said, “No government has ever worked in the way The Times has described.”

But the truth is, cooperating with the enemy is a quite common practice all over the world, at times tolerated or even encouraged by the top authorities.  An unnamed senior Nato official interviewed by Mr. Coghian very well expresses in words a succinct, honest, and objective view of cooperating with the enemy through bribery:  “One cannot be too doctrinaire about these things. It might well make sense to buy off local groups and use non-violence to keep violence down. But it is madness to do so and not inform your allies.”

This incident reminds me of The Evolution of Cooperation (1984), authored by Robert Axelrod. In one chapter of this book, “The Live-and-Let-Live System in Trench Warfare in World War I,” Axelrod explains how cooperation between enemies can happen at the battlefield. “The live and let-live system that emerged in the bitter trench warfare of World War I demonstrates that friendship is hardly necessary for cooperation based upon reciprocity to get started. Under suitable circumstances, cooperation can develop even between antagonists.”

Under the live and let-live system, the two warring British and German soldiers on the front, wanted to prevent an escalation of conflict.  Attack and retaliation proved costly for both sides.  Axelrod quotes a common soldier’s story from G. Belton Cobb’s 1916 book, Stand to Arms:

“The real reason for the quietness of some sections of the line was that neither side had any intention of advancing in that particular district….If the British shelled the Germans, the Germans replied, and the damage was equal; if the Germans bombed an advanced piece of trench, and killed five Englishmen, an answering fusillade killed five Germans.”

Especially for the Allies, the war against Germany was a war of attrition.  Even if both sides had an equal number of casualties, the Allies thought that this would still favor them, since Germany would be the first to get exhausted.  It was thus a zero-sum game, at the higher level.  Inflicting losses on the enemy, even if it meant having casualties as well, was considered a gain.

But at the local level, to quote Axelrod, “mutual restraint was much preferred to mutual punishment.”  In the World War I setting, bribery was unnecessary for this kind of mutual restraint do occur.  Other incentives were at work.

In trench warfare, with stable lines, the armed units of both sides had long, extended periods of interaction with each other.  It was no longer a game of either I get killed or you get killed.  That there was a constant interaction between the two sides meant that strategies other than mutual punishment was possible for survival.

The cooperation or the restraint took different forms.  Axelrod cites a few examples.  Here’s one example J.H. Morgan’s Leaves from a Field Note Book (1916):

“In one section of the hour of 8 to 9 A.M. was regarded as consecrated to ‘private business,’ and certain places indicated by a flag were regarded as out of bounds by the snipers on both sides.”

All in all, soldiers on both sides extensively fraternized with each other, and they forged frequent truces, without the authority of the British and German generals.  Defection from such arrangements of course broke the peace. But stability was  brought back through retaliation or threat of retaliation by the other side, making the offending party return to the game of cooperation.

To illustrate, Axelorod cites a story from G.H. Greenwell’s An Infant in Arms (1972).  “We go out at night in front of the trenches….The German working parties are also out , so it is not considered etiquette to fire.  The really nasty things are rifle grenades….But we never use ours unless the Germans get particularly noisy, as on their system of retaliation three for every one of ours come back.”

The lesson is:  Cooperation between enemies who regularly interact can happen on the basis of reciprocity. But to check defection from cooperation, each side must likewise demonstrate its capability to retaliate or to use Axelrod’s word, to be “provocable.”

Being in bed with the enemy, is common practice all over the world.  That is why, returning to the alleged pay-off to the Talibans. Italy’s allies, including the French and US governments, have not openly condemned the Italian government for playing games with the Talibans. Even the US is now contemplating a strategy of negotiating with the moderate Talibans towards isolating and destroying the incorrigible, hard-line Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The only thing wrong with the Italian cooperation with the Talibans was not the bribe itself but the failure of the Italians to inform the French about the cohabitation.

This topic about cooperation with the enemy has relevance to the political warfare in the Philippines. For the democrats and reformers, the opposition party must defeat Gloria Arroyo’s party.  The complication is that several opposition parties are contending. But at the local level, authorized or not, we can expect games of cooperation between enemies.

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