Inside Italy's Slow And Strategic Withdrawal From Afghanistan

An Italian Para in Qala-I-Kuna, Afghanistan
An Italian Para in Qala-I-Kuna, Afghanistan
Franceso Grignetti

HERAT - The withdrawal of Italian soldiers here in Afghanistan has already begun, even if nobody back in Italy knows it yet.

For several months now, Italians have stopped being on guard at several bases they used to protect. The smallest, the most inconvenient, or the furthest from the contingent’s center of gravity, have been passed into the hands of the Afghan forces over the summer.

Golestan, for example, a troublesome border area where people sympathize with the Taliban, and which has cost Italy dearly over the years, is now locally run and secured. What is happening in these valleys is a foretaste of what will spread throughout Afghanistan in the next few months: there is fighting nearly every day, the “insurgents” are multiplying their attacks, but for the moment, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s army are retaliating blow-by-blow.

In these areas, there are no Western soldiers left. Even the helicopters are flown by Afghan pilots. Golestan, in short, despite its extremely precarious situation, is holding on. It could turn into a disaster, like when the Soviets left, but so far it has not. “We understand that the insurgents have changed their tactics. Now they mainly attack the Afghan forces to demoralize them, but they are not succeeding,” explained General Marco Bertolini, commander of the joint operations center, overseeing Italy’s foreign missions.

Seen from above, from the windows of helicopters, these bases with unpronounceable names - Bakwa, Shindand, Bala Baluk - are sand fortresses in an expanse of emptiness. The soldiers live protected by high walls of clay and when they leave the gates they are dressed for war. “Attacks are the order of the day, but you can see the capacities of the Afghans growing,” says General Dario Ranieri, who commands the Taurinense Alpine brigade, that took over responsibility for the western region earlier this month.

Italy, which has supplied one of the top NATO contingents in Afghanistan for the past decade, has some 3,800 troops stationed in the western part of the country.

Italian Defense Minister Giampaolo Di Paola was also in the country recently visiting these evolving outposts. “What struck me was the capacity of our soldiers to change the nature of their mission. It has evolved from fighting to teaching,” he said. “It wasn’t easy. It is one thing to move with your own team, whom you have been prepared to work with. It is another to find yourself in such treacherous territory with a soldier at your side who speaks a different language and who you know has not been perfectly trained. It requires courage. And our soldiers are showing this.”

Traveling in this area, under the scorching sun that bakes the Shindand tents and tin huts of Bakwa, you understand that NATO has completely changed course over the past year. Before, whatever you might have called it, the Italian military was there to fight. But the famous “surge” was a failure: for every Taliban killed, another two took their place. The battle was thus taken to another level entirely. To win, it is necessary to convince the Afghans that their army and their police are becoming a serious force and that they can trust the state more than the clans or the passing militias.

To achieve this result, all energy is directed at instructing and supporting the locals. In Shindand, for example, there is a pilot from the Italian air force, Alfonso Cipriano, who has learned to drive the colossal Russian-made MI-17 helicopters so that he can teach the young Afghan cadets. In two years, 84 of them have gotten their pilot or technician licenses: they are the first nucleus of a new Afghan air force.

In Bakwa, they instruct recruits from the army and the police. “They demonstrate notable courage,” says a colonel of the Italian Carabinieri military police forces who trains them. “They defy death every day in vehicles that don’t have our protective armor, without aerial support, and with exhausting shifts.”

In Herat, the contingent manages a broadcaster - Radio Bayan - that transmits music, poems, news bulletins and training programs morning and evening, exclusively in local languages. The two officials who supervise the transmission, Angelo Cipriani and Alessandro Faraò, have at their service a newsroom of enthusiastic youngsters who recount the events of the day, and don’t forget to glorify the deeds of their security forces.

“It is our editorial line,” they explain. “We don’t hide the fact that we want to be the voice of the contingent. We make it known to people who we are and what we do. But the main objective at this point is to support the transition.”

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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