Afghanistan: twenty years of military commitment

(To Andrea Mucedola)

On 29 June 2021, our military engagement in Afghanistan ended with the return to Pisa airport of the last Italians still deployed in Herat.

Brigadier General Beniamino Vergori, the last soldier to board the plane, returned home concluding a long chapter of our recent history, leaving the Herat base, together with the soldiers of his glorious regiment belonging to the brigade thunderbolt. Our recognition goes to these soldiers and all those who preceded them for what they silently gave for that distant country but also as a contribution to international security.

In this short article I want to tell a story that lasted two decades, a story of sacrifices that men and women have made every day to restore hope to those who had lost it.

A twenty year history

It all began twenty years ago, with the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operation established following the UN Security Council Resolution no. 1386 of 20 December 2001 for the stabilization of Afghanistan.

The initial purpose of the mission was the preparation of an international intervention force to ensure a safe environment in the Kabul area where on December 22, 2001, following the military operations carried out as part of the mission Enduring Freedom, the Afghan Provisional Authority led by Hamid Karzai had taken office. In reality, Italian soldiers were already present in Afghanistan since November 18, 2001 with tasks of surveillance, maritime interdiction, as well as monitoring illicit drug and arms trafficking.

Thus began the ISAF operation, in January 2002, initially conducted by the military contingents of 19 countries, under a British-led UN mandate. A mission that was widely discussed in NATO during the historic summit in Prague (November 2002), in which a new military concept was approved, namely the global fight against terrorism, which effectively allowed NATO forces to operate even outside the area of ​​member countries.

As a result, on April 16, 2003 the North Atlantic Council (NAC), NATO's main political decision-making body, decided to take command of operations in the Atlantic Alliance's first non-European military mission.

On 13 October 2003, the mandate was extended and the use of NATO forces was also authorized outside the Kabul area. Italy was always present with its departments and also assumed command of the mission from 4 August 2005 to 4 May 2006.

An important change took place on February 4, 2007 when the management ofISAF Joint Command (IJC) was assigned to staff from the Standing HQ of NATO and the nations participating in the operation, under the command of a US general.

IJC had six employees Regional Commands (RCs), the Kabul International Airport Command (KAIA) and the command responsible for training Afghan units (NTM A - NATO Training Mission Afghanistan).

I Regional Commands they used Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), responsible for the socio-economic reconstruction of the run-down country, in support of the many national and international organizations operating in the region. This involved the establishment of the FSB (Forward Support Base), or advanced military airport installations, necessary to provide operational and logistical support to the PRTs present in the same region.

In 2008 there was an outbreak of terrorist activities of the Taliban with a rise in civilian casualties, which led to a strategic change. NATO, not without difficulty, developed the concept of comprehensive approach (approved at the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit of 3-4 April 2009), insisting on the need for support to Afghan institutions and sending new personnel, this time not only military but also civilian.

In December 2010, the United States sent 30.000 additional troops, indicating July 2011 as the beginning of a gradual withdrawal of US troops. At the same time, NATO announced an increase of about 7.000 units.

At the London International Conference on January 28, 2010, the need for "Recovering insurgent fighters not attributable to the more ideologically Taliban core and to Al Qaeda to civilian life", of course, this only applied to those who would give up violence.

At the NATO Summit in Lisbon (November 2010) it was decided to transfer the responsibility for security in Afghanistan from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces. A far from simple program that highlighted a difference between the Afghan government priority programs with those of NATO and the necessary reconfiguration of part of ISAF troops in the areas of security and training.

On December 31, 2012, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that 87% of the national population lived in areas whose security is under the responsibility of government forces and that 23 provinces, out of a total of 34, were totally under Afghan control. Furthermore, also at the Lisbon summit, the completion of these actions by 2014 was hypothesized, a program that was confirmed at the subsequent NATO summit in Chicago (20-21 May 2012) when the date for the withdrawal of operational forces was set for December 2014. .

In reality, at the Brussels summit in February 2013, nothing specific was achieved. The United States proposed a plan to keep 13.600 American troops in Afghanistan after the end of the NATO mission, and President Barack Obama leaked that he was considering a possible extension of the American contingent's presence in Afghanistan after 2014.

In fact, in 2013-2015, there were still about 112.579 soldiers belonging to contingents from 50 countries (NATO and non-NATO).

In 2013, the Italian contribution was about 3.100 soldiers and 95 support soldiers stationed in Tampa, in the United Arab Emirates, and in Barhain, without counting the Italian soldiers belonging to the NATO Commands sent on missions to the multinational Commands.

On January 1, 2015, the ISAF mission was replaced by the operation Resolute Support Mission, always led by NATO.

In 2018, the number of military personnel had dropped to 16.910, from 41 contributing countries. The United States of America still provided the largest number of soldiers 8.475, and Italy, which had been assigned command of the province of Herat, 895.

And we now come to the end of June 2021 when, after 20 years of employment, the last contingent preceded by the war flag, returned to the homeland. A return in silence, perhaps forgetting that, since the beginning of the operations, as many as 50.000 Italians, men and women in uniform, have taken turns in that territory, unfortunately paying a sad toll of blood. 53 soldiers who lost their lives in the service of the Italian Republic to bring stabilization and peace to that distant country and, I believe they deserved a memory.

And now?

The future for that country is certainly not rosy. The Washington Post revealed, relying on the new carry-over US intelligence, which, after the withdrawal of NATO forces, Afghanistan will most likely return to the hands of the Taliban. The presence of foreign soldiers, announced at the political level by the various countries of the former coalition, as advisers to the Afghan government, will therefore not have a significant value.

In other words, these twenty years of effort, with so many victims on both sides, may have been in vain.

A defeat for NATO… which will have to ask many questions about ambitious operational concepts like the comprehensive approach, a global concept often associated with civil-military cooperation. That combined approach, a mixture of military, contractors and civilians, which has often proved not very functional in the field of cooperation.

Disengagement from Afghanistan knows a lot about exit strategy, a bitter defeat, sweetened with political declarations that underline that the commitment of the international community in Afghanistan, Italy in the first place, will continue in other forms.

US President Biden himself, who espoused his predecessor's plan, stressed that US diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue even after the military presence is over.

In Italy, Minister Di Maio spoke of "Development cooperation projects, with support for businesses, with support for civil society, with the protection of human rights" but, from saying to doing, there is a sea of ​​unsolved situations. What strikes me as a soldier, even if on leave, is the moral and ethical aspect of the mission that seems to have upset very few.


In the most deafening silence, the mission in Afghanistan ended on 30 June with the return of the last men and women of the 186th rgt. A return announced by the main media but on the sly, almost as if to hide a guilt that is certainly not military. Yet these are Italian soldiers, women and men who in the last twenty years have faced a difficult mission in an international context that is not easy, in order to give a future to that tormented land.

We would have expected a sober public ceremony, a reminder of the fallen, of the many wounded, and of those who got up in the middle of the night to reach remote villages with convoys to bring food and medicines, to organize schools, to help with their commitment. girls and young women to grow up, especially in those areas where secular, if not medieval, traditions prevented their growth.

In a country, stunned between COVID and European football, in which we discuss whether to bow or not (when it would be enough to simply apply our laws without buts) no one has had a thought for our 53 fallen and their families.

There was only the Minister of Defense waiting for them on the Pisa track. A few words on some news, nothing more.

I was on a mission in Kabul (KAIA) in March 2011, for a short time but enough to go beyond the stereotypes of the films, ... I slept like everyone else in a tent, under the starry sky, in a sleeping bag that separated me from a old and worn mattress, soaked by the sweat of many, with weapons and bulletproof vests always within reach, and the constant threat of mortar rounds, protected only by high concrete walls that included curtains so as to limit, in case , the number of casualties.

I still have vivid memories of men and women of many nations ... of helicopters that continually landed at the field hospital, of soldiers, sailors and airmen of all 50 nations who, between one mission and another, lined up, independently from grade, with a bowl ... tired faces that occasionally tore a smile as if to give a normality to that life ... endless meetings under the tents, interrupted by the noises of diesel trucks of convoys, but also desire, so much and always present, of wanting to give that country a future.

There were no rambo, but professionals who faced the many problems every day. At the Kabul camp there was a small Afghan shop, little more than a hut that sold souvenirs, pashminas spread like flags in the cold wind that came down from the mountains ... the Afghans thanked us, they spoke to us in that mixed language of English and many other languages , of the war against the Russians, of a land that had tried to grow but was then suffocated by hatred that never subsided.

We Italians have been there and have given our contribution for their future ... and we have done it as always without expecting anything, with exactly the same unchanged commitment that our soldiers profess on a daily basis in the area, at the service of our country.

As an Italian, I am sorry for this silence, this hypocrisy that he prefers not to say rather than acknowledge the sacrifice of his children.

In my small way I want to remember them like this, these children of a lesser god who have given so much to that country and to ours, 53 stars that shine in the forgotten skies of a distant land.


See also video: "June 8, 2021: flag down in Afghanistan"

Andrea Mucedola retired rear admiral of the Italian Navy (reserve). He attended the Naval Academy of Livorno from 1977 to 1981. In his 40 years of service he served 15 years aboard surface units, in numerous national and foreign Commands and in war zones. He graduated in defense maritime sciences from the University of Pisa and in Political Sciences cum laude from the University of Trieste. He is an independent maritime security analyst in several Think Tank geopolitical and collaborates with online magazines of the Italian and international sector. Underwater instructor, with dives carried out in almost all oceans, he has patented himself Scientific Diver in 1993 at the International School Scientific Diving of which, the following year, he became a teacher of cartography and geodesy applied to surveys at sea. In 2015 he created OCEAN4FUTURE with the aim of sharing the culture of the sea. In 2019 he received the Golden trident of the Academy of Underwater Sciences and Techniques for scientific dissemination.

Photo: US DoD / US Army / author / ministry of foreign affairs and international cooperation