Italian politics have always been confusing, both for Italian and for international observers. For this reason, when unconfirmed sources in the Italian Ministry of Defense reported that the Minister of Defense, Elisabetta Trenta, was planning to withdraw the 200-strong Italian force in Afghanistan in 12 months, domestic and international politicians reacted with surprise. Enzo Moavero Milanesi, Italy’s Foreign Minister, told reporters that Minister Trenta did not inform him of this plan. The anti-interventionist Five Star Movement, Trenta’s political party, applauded the minister’s decision, calling it “courageous and deeply moving.”
Despite the positive reaction from Trenta’s party, other Italian parties did not appear thrilled by this announcement. The Five Star Movement’s far-right coalition partner, The League, expressed uncertainty about this decision, affirming that Trenta’s statement was “not official” and that “Italy will do his part in bringing peace and stability.” Meanwhile, opposition parties such as Forza Italia and the Democratic Party condemned Trenta’s action, labelling it irresponsible because her plan was not shared with other members of the government. They also criticized the fact that, a couple of weeks earlier, both the chambers of the parliament renewed Italian support to the Afghan peacekeeping mission and others around the world.
Internationally, Italian media reported that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was unaware of Italy’s plan to withdraw and repeated that “at the moment there is no active plan to withdraw NATO troops from Afghanistan” and that “any decision will be taken in accord with the NATO allies.”
The Italian involvement in Afghanistan: why and how
The Italian military has been in Afghanistan since 2002, following United Nations Security Council Resolution 1386, which was aimed at supporting the Afghan government against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda through combat and training operations. Concrete Italian military intervention began in 2003, when NATO assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force. Since 1 January 2015, Italian forces have been involved in another NATO mission called Operation Resolute Support (RS), ISAF’s replacement mission. The difference between the two operations is that ISAF was a combat operation with a focus on training and supporting the Afghan army in addition to humanitarian actions and infrastructure-building. However, from the beginning of the RS, the scope of the mission has been limited to training and supporting local forces.
Initially, the Italian contingent was composed of 2,250 to 3,000 people. Now that number is reduced to about 750 military personnel. In the Kabul area, around 50 soldiers serve under NATO command, and about 700 members serve in the Herat region. These military personnel are dedicated to training and advising local military forces. Besides the military forces, there are five Carabinieri, Italian military police, present in Afghanistan and currently under the control of the Interior Ministry.
Is Afghanistan a problem now?
Since the beginning of Operation ISAF, Italy has lost 52 members of its forces, 31 of them due to terrorist attacks directed at the Italian presence in the region. Furthermore, the Italian involvement in Afghanistan has cost the Italian government around €5,5 billion. In 2017 alone, Italy spent around €200 million for maintaining its forces in Afghanistan.
The cost of the operation only partially explains Trenta’s announcement. Other important factors are related to the political climate in Italy and in the world. First, the Five Star Movement, which campaigned on a populist platform, condemned the Italian military operations around the world. For this reason, many analysts believed it was only a matter of time before the FSM government tried to renege on Italy’s international military commitments. Furthermore, Donald Trump created the perfect situation for them to act, when he announced on 19 December 2018 that the United States was going to pull out American soldiers from Syria, declaring victory over ISIS. This announcement, coupled with the subsequent resignation of U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and the negotiations between the Taliban and American officials, signaled to America’s allies that the United States did not want to continue its involvement in the region. For Five Star Movement members, this was the sign they had been waiting for to begin plans to withdraw from Afghanistan.
NATO intervention in Afghanistan and the entire War on Terrorism has become a very contentious topic around the world. From a counterterrorism perspective, the military presence of NATO in Afghanistan prevented more terrorist attacks against the United States and essentially defeated Al-Qaeda. On the other hand, prolonged intervention in the area has cost lives and money from all the actors involved and has not conclusively ended the threat posed by the Taliban. For these two reasons, the necessity of withdrawal of the NATO troops must be organized with the best planning available, because one mistake might create consequences which no one wants to experience. Unfortunately, the Italian government officials and President Trump do not seem to understand the complexity of this situation.