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.”