The wording used by the Taliban is characteristic of a political authority that sees itself as enjoying sovereignty over the territory it controls, and which is fighting a war against those whom it sees as invaders: the military forces of the United States and NATO.
On Tuesday allied U.S., NATO and Afghan forces began their spring offensive, code-named Operation Achilles. The operation involves some 4,500 foreign soldiers and 1,000 Afghan troops.
The Taliban reported that the kidnapping had been overseen by Mullah Dadullah, thought to be the group's military commander and number two after its long-time leader, the charismatic Mullah Omar.
A taped message, possibly a recording of Dadullah's own voice, was delivered on Wednesday to an AFP correspondent in Pakistan. It claimed that Mastrogiacomo had "confessed" that he was spying out Taliban locations so that the British could bomb them.
La Repubblica editor Ezio Mauro said that Mastrogiacomo was a war correspondent who regularly covered Iraq, Lebanon, the Middle East and Afghanistan, and that he had worked for the newspaper for 27 years, and not for the military or secret services of any country.
The Taliban accusation might be a ploy to justify a far more elaborate political operation, as the voice presumed to be Dadullah's said on the tape that Westerners gave freedom to their own media, but not to the Taliban's, showing that they wanted unilateral press freedom, which the Taliban rejects: "either it is total, or it is forbidden."
The speaker said it was unacceptable that Taliban reporters were in jail while Westerners were free.
He was referring to Taliban spokesmen Mohammad Hanif, arrested in January, and Abdul Latif Hakimi, arrested on Oct. 4, 2005, whose release he demanded.
They were both regularly in touch with Afghan and international media, by telephone.
However, Dadullah added that the first point of discussion was whether the media should be free or forbidden. Later they would decide about the fate of the prisoners.
The Taliban regime inherited Soviet concepts about the media, and took them further: they shut down newspapers and television channels, while the radio station, renamed "The Voice of Sharia (Islamic law)" broadcast for only four hours a day.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, to shore up the communist government installed there the previous year, and only withdrew from the country in 1989.
One theory, which remains untested, is that the Taliban may propose an exchange of "prisoners," Mastrogiacomo for Hanif and Hakimi, which would make sense of the statement that the prisoners' fate would be decided later.
But depicting Mostrogiacomo as an "Italian British spy" might also aim at assuaging the frustrated hope of kidnapping a Briton directly, as the first report from the Taliban about his arrest mistakenly claimed.
Would the Taliban have preferred catching a British "spy"? Most probably, yes.
The Achilles offensive involves British, Canadian, Dutch and Afghani troops. Italian forces, on the other hand, are participating only in the United Nations peace-keeping mission and not in the war itself.
Traditionally, the Italian government has negotiated with kidnappers. The United States and Britain do not. Whether Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai will do so remains to be seen, although he tends to follow Washington's line.
In keeping with its policy, Italy has announced that all its channels of communication are open. As far as is known, the Taliban have not yet made use of them.
Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, told Afghani agency Pajhwok Afghan News on Thursday over the telephone that the investigation of Mastrogiacomo was coming to an end, but no decision had been made on what to do. He said Taliban leaders would decide his fate. Twenty-one foreigners are known to have been kidnapped in Afghanistan since November 2003. Nine of them were killed. But never before have those responsible, including the Taliban, used the terms and concepts that have been expressed this time.
In some cases the kidnappers set conditions for the release of their captives that seemed to be political, but later it became clear that the main or only motive was financial gain.
In other cases, the Taliban have simply executed Afghanis or foreigners they considered to be spies in the service of "the invaders."
According to the latest news reports this Saturday, Dadullah spoke to AFP by telephone and demanded the release of the imprisoned Taliban spokesmen and a date for the withdrawal of all Italian troops from Afghanistan. If the conditions were met in seven days, Mastrogiacomo would be released, he said. If not, he would be killed. The Italian embassy in Kabul has asked for proof that Mastrogiacomo is alive.
It remains to be seen whether Dadullah will show flexibility consistent with the power and authority he has been at pains to emphasise, in the forthcoming negotiations.
Mastrogiacomo's life depends on that, and on Rome's negotiating skills with its allies on the battle front and with President Karzai.
Ricardo Grassi has been working in Afghanistan for the past three years
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Albion Monitor March
12, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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