"I have been in Kabul for two and a half years. A period that allowed me to further deepen my knowledge of this fascinating and complex country. Unfortunately, the current security situation does not allow it to be turned freely and this constitutes a limit, but the opportunities to be able to deepen the various problems are not lacking and a stay that is not too limited in time is certainly positive.".
HE Roberto Cantone is our ambassador to Afghanistan. We met him at the Italian Embassy in Kabul which is located inside the Green Zone and we took the opportunity to understand what Italy's relations are with Afghanistan and with other countries, both the neighbors and those with whom we share the mission. NATO Resolute Support.
Ambassador Cantone, how are Italy's relations with Afghanistan?
The relationships are excellent. Italy has been among the first countries to have established diplomatic relations with Afghanistan since the beginning of the 1920s. Relationships that during the different historical periods have assumed different values and dimensions. Starting from the 2001, thanks to our military presence within the NATO mission, aimed at supporting the democratization of the country and fighting terrorism, the ties have intensified further. The important action carried out by the Italian development cooperation which considers Afghanistan a priority country has also contributed to this.
Do you work also coordinating with other embassies?
Certainly. Especially with those of the EU and Western countries. The multilateral aspect is very important here. This is particularly the case with regard to the management of international funds used to support the Afghan armed forces and police. These are funds that are paid for the army into the Afghan National Army Trust Fund, which is managed by a facility within NATO, and for the police into the Law and Order Trust Fund used primarily for payment. salaries to the police. These funds are managed with the Afghan counterpart and under the supervision of all contributing countries. The relationship that exists between us and other Western diplomatic representations is therefore very close.
Is the same relationship also in the context of information transmission? The intelligence argument is always delicate, but it's important ...
This kind of information is essential in a war context like the Afghan one. They allow us to take all the necessary measures to guarantee the protection of Italian personnel and structures in the country. Here too the collaboration with NATO and the other Western embassies is very close.
Herat, where the bulk of the Italian military mission is, is the most peaceful of the Afghan areas. Do you also have an answer as an embassy?
Yes, Herat is the part of Afghanistan where Italy is more present, both with the military component and with that of development cooperation. Surely, Herat remains one of the least critical areas in Afghanistan. This also depends on the excellent work that Italy in its various components, civil and military, has been doing for some time in that area. Regarding the military component that operates within the scope of the Resolute Support mission, it is a matter of "training" and "advising" activities in favor of the Afghan army. While, as regards development cooperation, Herat remains, together with the province of Bamiyan, the area in which we have concentrated the largest number of initiatives. Projects that are, for 80%, aimed at the construction of infrastructures and for the remaining 20% to support other sectors, from agriculture to education and health.
What are the infrastructures we are building Italians in Afghanistan?
To name a few projects, in August 2016 we inaugurated a road connecting Kabul to Bamiyan. An artery that today allows you to make this journey in about two and a half hours while before it took a whole day. In Herat we are working on various initiatives, including the expansion of the airport, the construction of the last section of the railway that will connect Herat to Iran, a ring road that will connect the railway station to the airport where a commercial hub is planned and the construction of approximately 200km of road between Herat and Chest-i-Sharif. We are also following other projects: in Bamiyan, again with regard to infrastructures, the construction of a ring road is planned that will allow heavy traffic to pass away from the archaeological area where the famous Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban were located, for whose restoration he is arguing with the Japanese and the Germans. In fact, it seems important to bring this precious archaeological site back to life, which is a UNESCO heritage site.
It is said Bamiyan and one thinks of the Taliban who, for the most part, seem oriented to re-enter legality, as demonstrated by the cease-fire at the end of Ramadan. Does the Italian embassy also move in this direction, together with the RS mission?
The international community as a whole has all the interest that Afghanistan finds its stability. The recent proposals for a ceasefire by President Ashraf Ghani have received our full support. There was the first one, coinciding with the end of Ramadan at the beginning of June, which was accepted by the Taliban. It was an important signal because it was the first cease-fire, albeit temporary, after 17 years of conflict. A second similar proposal has instead been less successful. Some believe that the reason is due to the fact that during the first ceasefire there was a large fraternization between the population, the Afghan security forces and many Taliban militants. Repeating this experience, in the view of the Taliban leaders, could have meant a loss of control over a large base of their militants. This prolonged conflict situation is getting a bit tired.
And for future elections?
Two dates have been set, the next 20 October are scheduled for the legislative elections, while the 20 April next year should take place the presidential elections. It is important that both are credible and transparent. There are, however, some objective difficulties that must be taken into account, since not all areas of the country are under government control and, inevitably, in some places the elections can hardly take place. There are also some critical issues. The Independent Electoral Commission, a body responsible for organizing them, has accumulated some delays and its work is criticized by some opposition parties. That the elections take place remains an important factor for the democratization of the country for which we have all invested heavily.
We are helping to pacify Afghanistan and the results are there. And we are building many infrastructures. Do we also have Italian entrepreneurs investing locally?
At the moment the security situation does not allow it. There are some Italian companies that are conducting feasibility studies for some infrastructure projects, but they are very limited realities, as the presence of Western companies is very limited. There are Iranian, Turkish, Indian, Chinese companies, but the security conditions do not suggest for the moment the presence of Italian companies or companies that work on the ground.
China, on the other hand, is moving and expanding a lot in Afghanistan ...
China is particularly active on several fronts, especially on economic and commercial ones, also due to its geographical proximity. And it also has a geostrategic interest in Afghanistan. Like other countries in the region, it is worried about the presence of groups linked to Daesh that operate in the north-eastern part of the country, particularly in the Badakshan province. China has an interest, like most countries, to see as soon as possible a stable Afghanistan where there is a national consensus between the government and the Taliban and a defeat and marginalization of the most radical Islamic component.
However, China is building a lot of infrastructure, the Turks are doing the same. Do we not risk, one day, that what we have achieved as Italians and Westerners will be somehow invalidated?
In reality, these are complementary projects. For the current government, and in particular for President Ghani, a workhorse is precisely regional connectivity, which implies the existence of a whole series of infrastructures. Today we are working on the construction of a gas pipeline that connects Turkmenistan to India through Afghanistan and Pakistan, for the strengthening of power lines, for the construction of the five-nation railway line that should unite China and Iran. The projects financed by Italy are perfectly integrated into this regional development plan. Infrastructures serve the country, its economic growth, ultimately the Afghan people, and it is also for this reason that they are not opposed even by the Taliban.
Ambassador Cantone, to conclude: how would you describe Afghanistan?
The situation remains complex, unfortunately we see it every day, from the number of attacks and armed clashes. Since 2001, the international presence has allowed the country to take advantage of enormous support, including financial. Today is the time to put it to good use, both through the effective fight against corruption and thanks to a process of reform of the bureaucratic apparatus. But, first of all, by starting a peace negotiation as inclusive as possible with the insurgency. Of course, the ambitions and hopes of all of us are that this will happen as soon as possible. We have recently witnessed numerous initiatives in this sense, not only by the Afghan government, but also by the United States, the countries of the region, those of the Gulf. The role played by the religious component, the Ulema, was also important, with conferences held in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, precisely to try to create that positive climate that would allow a peace process to be launched. Finally, it must be considered that Afghanistan remains a strategic country for everyone. It is for the United States, for Russia, which fears a drift of Islamic State terrorism in neighboring countries such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Furthermore, Afghanistan is an important country for Iran, for Pakistan, for China. Historically, it has always been a crossroads. The Greeks, the Persians, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the English, the Russians, all left a mark of their passage. The geostrategic relevance of this country certainly remains.
At the end of the last century and the beginning of the current one, Afghanistan experienced particularly difficult moments: after the Soviet invasion the civil war, then the Taliban period. In these last 20 years the West has intervened in order to help the Afghan people to rebuild their country and regain peace and stability. Peace is the great desire of the Afghans, especially the new generations. And we, like Italy, are here to continue to support, together with our partners, this priority objective.
(photo of the author)