Afghanistan Casualties Raise New Doubts in Italy

ROME – Italy is once again torn by bitter controversies over its military presence in Afghanistan after 31-year-old Italian soldier Giorgio Langella was killed and another five were injured Sept. 26 near Kabul.

Militants, said to be from the resurgent Taliban, detonated a remote-control bomb as an Italian military convoy was on patrol in the morning.

Italy maintains around 1,700 troops in Afghanistan as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) peacekeeping mission.

Divergent views on the political and strategic aspects of Italy’s participation in the mission are a constant source of disputes within the leading majority, and these fresh casualties risk destabilizing the government’s delicate internal balance as opponents insist that Italy’s foreign policy must make a radical break with that of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government.

Moreover, Italian public opinion is likely to develop further hostility toward Rome’s military engagement in Afghanistan, because peacekeeping missions are normally perceived as carrying lower risks due to the way they are officially presented by decision-makers. Speaking on Italian television Tuesday, Barbara Langella, the sister of the killed soldier, hoped that "our soldiers will be soon pulled out in order to avoid further tragedies."

Italy’s left-of-center majority tried to reposition itself in the geostrategic framework set by U.S. plans for a "Greater Middle East" by speedily withdrawing its troops from Iraq – a war viewed as the emblem of U.S. "unilateralism" – while assuming a key role in Afghanistan and Lebanon under the aegis of NATO and the United Nations.

Commenting on Tuesday on news of the Italian casualties, President Giorgio Napolitano stressed the links between the Afghanistan mission and Italy’s engagement in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). "Our country’s commitment to peacekeeping missions is necessary," he said, "and particularly in Afghanistan and Lebanon" since these efforts may "give the EU the capabilities to bring about a peaceful international order on a global scale, even beyond its own boundaries."

Despite calls to refrain from fueling the fires of political disputes at a time of national mourning, sparks are already flying in the Italian government, parliament, and society in general.

Last July, leftist members of the nine-party coalition government and pacifist activists had opposed Prodi’s decision to refund the Afghan mission so strongly that Prodi was forced to ask for a vote of confidence in the Senate. Although Prodi eventually prevailed, the political wounds have not healed.

Paolo Ferrero, Italy’s minister for social solidarity and a member of the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC), told the press after the incident that "Italy is experiencing just what we had predicted, because we are rapidly becoming involved in a war scenario instead of a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan."

These words, echoed by Green Party member Paolo Cento, who suggested that Rome should "quickly disengage from Afghanistan," embarrassed the government and infuriated the right-of-center opposition.

Gianni Alemanno, the National Alliance (AN) Party’s former minister for agriculture, said in a radio interview Tuesday that Cento’s words are "an insult" to Italy’s armed forces and are politically "nonsensical" because "if someone in the government is convinced that we shouldn’t stay in Afghanistan, there’s no reason to wait for casualties to say it."

Both politicians and citizens in the right-of-center spectrum of Italian politics insist that Prodi’s government had been less than honest in describing the Afghan and Lebanese missions as "radically different from the Iraqi one." According to Alemanno and other right-wing exponents, it is as though the government aimed to label the military missions it supports as "the only good ones," denying the facts.

The pro-mission parties in the government, such as the Democratic Left (DS), however, remain apparently untouched by calls for withdrawal. "Our military is performing a vital role in Afghanistan," said Gavino Angius, vice-president of the Senate, echoed by DS senator Anna Finocchiaro.

"A troop pullout from Afghanistan," said Deputy Prime minister Francesco Rutelli, "is simply unthinkable." But the Green Party, the PRC, and the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI) have all called for a "reconsideration" of the Italian mission.

According to recent analyses, the resurgent Taliban militants have benefited from the Afghan administration’s inability to decisively expand its influence in Afghanistan, and their tactical expertise has resulted in a series of highly effective military operations in Kabul and the southern regions.

Italy had already been warned Sept. 8 of the growing danger its military units would be facing, when four Italian soldiers were wounded in an incident in Farah province very similar to the Tuesday attack.

Moreover, the NATO meetings in September highlighted the difficulties faced by the organization in increasing troops to levels required by its strategic planners. On Sept. 20 General James Jones, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, revealed that more than 1,000 Taliban militants had been killed in Kandahar province alone in August and September, an indication of the intensity of fighting in the region.

Given the perilous strategic context and Taliban resilience, the coming winter is likely to be marked by more deadly attacks against the coalition’s soldiers.

At a time when Italy enters the decisive operational stage of its Lebanese engagement, a serious and sincere communication strategy regarding its military presence in Afghanistan and the significance of its mission appears crucial.