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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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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

BDS And Us: Gaza's Toll Multiplies Boycotts Of Israel And Its Allies — Seinfeld Included

In Egypt and elsewhere in the region and the world, families and movements are mobilizing against companies that support Israel's war on Gaza. The power of the people lies in their control as consumers — and the list of companies and brands to boycott grows longer.

A campaign poster with the photo of a burger with blood coming out of it with text reading "You Kill" and the Burger King logo

A campaign poster to boycott Burger King in Bangkok, Malü

Matt Hunt/ZUMA
Mohammed Hamama

CAIRO — Ali Al-Din’s logic is simple and straightforward: “If you buy a can (of soda), you'll get the bullet too...”

Those bullets are the ones killing the children of Gaza every day, and the can he refuses to buy is “kanzaya” – the popular Egyptian soft drink. It is just one of a long list of products he had the habit of consuming. Ali is nine years old.

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The clarity and simplicity of this logic has pushed Ali Al-Din to boycott all the products on the lists people are circulating of companies that have supported Israel since the attacks on Gaza began in October. His mother, Heba, points out that her son took responsibility for overseeing the boycott in their home.

A few days ago, he saw a can of “Pyrosol” insecticide, but he thought it was one of the products of the “Raid” company that was on the boycott’s lists. He warned his mother that this product was on the boycott list, but she explained that the two products were different. Ali al-Din and his younger brother also abstained from eating any food from McDonald's. “They love McDonald’s very much,” his mother says. “But they refuse.”

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