More than a year has passed since the dramatic evacuation from Afghanistan, a twenty-year so-called "peace" mission abruptly interrupted, which has left much controversy on the ground. First of all, did it do anything?
One thing is certain. The Italian soldiers came out "with their heads held high". And Afghanistan with its head held high is the title of the book published by Defense Information which was presented on Wednesday 24 November last at command for operational forces north of Padua. Talking about the book's curator, Gianandrea Gaiani, director of Defense Analysis and journalist embedded of long course, with the army corps generals Giorgio Battisti, Alpine and former commander of the brigade Taurinense, and Salvatore Camporeale, commander of the ComFopNorth, tank driver and former brigade commander Ram, both Afghanistan veterans, who co-authored their own introduction to the book with current Deputy Chief of Defense Staff, General Carmine Masiello.
The title of the book is taken from a sentence uttered by the then Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini who on 24 August 2021 reported, to the Joint Foreign Affairs and Defense Commissions of the Chamber and Senate, the unfolding of the Afghan crisis at its epilogue with the airlift still active to bring as many Afghan citizens as possible to Italy. “The Italian soldiers come out of their commitment in Afghanistan with their heads held high. The great effort of these days testifies to this and the figures tell us, the remarkable results achieved on the ground...".
“The book aims to tell what has been done in that country and to remember those who have never returned to Italy - explains Gaiani - There are dozens of contributions from many members of the Armed Forces, of every order and rank, from general to corporal", memories that are anchored in every soldier who has trampled the land of a country that no one forgets anymore.
“All stories to be told head-on - explains Gaiani again - narrations of daily life or curious episodes. Like that of corporal major Giusi Stano, at the fifth wheel of a lynx which during a routine patrol jumps over an improvised device. A team of engineers intervenes immediately for the surveys of the case. Some time later, the female soldier will marry and have a child of her own with one of the bomb squad who intervened, whom she met in such a particular moment".
The evolution of the Afghan mission
On the current situation in Afghanistan, Gaiani is lapidary. “It hurts to say it, but they won, the Taliban. Since they returned to power, opium production has increased when the NATO mission aimed to destroy it. And then, Sharia came back”.
General Battisti was the Italian general who arrived first boots on the ground in Afghanistan in 2001 and then in 2003, following the authorization of the Italian Parliament to participate at the American request - to the then Prime Minister Berlusconi - in the mission underway in the Asian country. With his command, the Nibbio operation begins. “Only ten thousand American soldiers, one thousand Italians, eight hundred Romanians, as well as local militias, were present at that moment – explains the general – The country was controlled by not even twenty thousand men. We were about to win. But then there was that unfortunate decision to divert all major resources to the war in Iraq, in the belief that the war in Afghanistan was over. But this gave the Taliban, who had taken refuge in the Tora Bora mountains on the border with Pakistan, space and breathing space to recover and return with a counter-offensive in 2007. Think instead of the beginning, with twelve thousand men and a last-ditch effort in addition, today we would be here to tell another story of that now forgotten country where there is still an expanding Resistance. Although not the size of that of Commander Masoud, who died on the eve of the attack on the twin towers in New York in 2001”.
Only twelve thousand NATO men in 2003 against 140.000 in 2011 to which must be added 300.000 Afghan policemen and soldiers. Gaiani points out that after 2014, at the end of the Combat period of the mission, a phase of support and training for local militias also begins in all the other Italian missions around the world.
General Miller, American hero
General Camporeale points out that most of the cadres of the Italian Armed Forces have been on a mission in Afghanistan. He himself was there in two shifts, in 2009 in Kabul, and in 2018 and 2019 with the "Resolute Support" operation which saw sixteen thousand men from 38 countries on the field. He was deputy commander of the American general Austin Scott Miller, national hero, protagonist as captain of the special forces in the battle of Mogadishu in 1993, told in the book and in the film "Black Hawk Down". He is also the protagonist of an attack in Afghanistan in 2018, when present in the office of the governor of Kandahar he sees a Taliban enter and shoot the provincial police chief. In the shootout, Miller draws his pistol and finally waits for all the wounded to be attended to, before flying off with his men.
A professional relationship was born between Camporeale and Miller which was cemented with so much mutual esteem, producing over time a friendship that still lasts.
Why didn't the Afghan army fight?
Gaiani puts his finger in the wound. “What amazes many is that, despite the efforts made to train the Afghan army and police and NATO's declarations of their acquired operational capabilities, the country's armed forces melted like snow in the sun when the Taliban arrived without fighting".
General Battisti gives an explanation and states that “The Afghan Armed Forces – Army, Air Force and Police – were reconstituted in earnest starting in 2009. And in the years up to 2021 they had as many as 66.000 dead in their ranks. A figure that certainly does not belong to an army that does not want to lead”.
He also recalls that in the 2020 Doha agreement, to end the conflict and withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the Americans under the Trump presidency made agreements directly with the Taliban, without seating President Ghani and Afghan institutional representatives at the table. Trump had thus wanted to keep his electoral promises for his 2017 election at all costs. Ghani had then fled the country with bags full of money.
Moral? “We must not support corrupt governments” - concludes Battisti.
General Camporeale speaks of a foregone conclusion, since the Taliban advanced and gradually took the cities. "In Kabul, despite constant attempts, no one answered anymore" - comments desolate.
The debate on a European army
Gaiani brings attention back to the debate that was unleashed in Europe immediately after the August evacuation. "The Americans have decided to intervene in Afghanistan and to close the mission without the opinion of the allied armies". How harmful was this dependence on the Americans, starting with the migratory fallout in Europe, with a massive influx of Afghans? And how useful would a common European army with autonomous intervention capacity be? This is also due to the changeable nature of American interests in their wars. “Just look at the history of American wars from Vietnam onwards – urges Gaiani - The US abandoned the South Vietnamese after the 1973 Paris Accords. The Kurds have been abandoned at least three times, in 1991 during the war in Kuwait and recently, in Iraq and Syria. In 1979 the Shah of Persia was left alone during the Khomeini revolution and recently they left Afghanistan”. “It is true that the Armed Forces are an instrument of politics – points out the journalist – But it is equally true that if there is an independent and strategically autonomous military capability, then a certain type of policy can be afforded".
However, this discussion within the EU member states was suddenly cut short by the start of the war in Ukraine which brought everyone in Europe to regroup with the Americans.
The teaching of the Afghan experience
But what lessons have we Italians drawn from this war, in terms of military capacity, to face the next missions?
Battisti says that the operations in Afghanistan have "cleared" our army, which had already had experience in Lebanon, Somalia and Mozambique, but with conscripts who then took their leave and could not exploit this experience within a career. The first professionals actually participated in the missions in the Balkans. In Afghanistan, our military have learned to operate quickly and in joint mode. “We have learned that the soldier, therefore the human being, the man and the woman are the main value of an armed force. Of course there is technology, but in front of it there is always the individual. In some outposts, our soldiers operated in World War I conditions. We have again made combat an army that for so many years had a 'varnish' of soldiers of the peace, of civil protection and so on. I think our soldiers have internalized the pride of being Soldiers, not military. Because military is an administrative position, the soldier, on the other hand, is the one who fights and legitimately uses the weapons that have been authorized by the government. We have resumed the fundamentals, which are not those of setting up tents or bringing the desks with wheelchairs".
An affirmation shared by General Camporeale, who wanted to add the importance of having learned to relate and work together with the men of the other armed forces. Use the same communication systems, procedures, tactics. An experience that effectively revealed itself in the eyes of public opinion at the end of the mission, with the airlift organized between all the contingents.
When will Afghanistan change?
Camporeale points out that the Afghans who have asked to be evacuated to Europe are those who believe in democracy, study and culture. “Here in Padua there are fifty Afghan male and female students and the rector told me that they all want to return to their country to make Afghanistan change”.
And concludes. “I believe that everything we have done in Afghanistan has not been in vain. And I say this in the face of what is happening right now in Iran. Afghanistan will become a different country when women decide it has to be. Because it will be Afghan women who will make their country what we have dreamed it would be in the twenty years of commitment of our Armed Forces”.