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The Afghan issue is incredibly complex and different from the history of a nation as we Europeans conceive it. To understand the Afghanistan situation, we must understand that Afghanistan is an intricate constellation of ethnic groups intertwined in valleys, mountains and plateaus, dotted with villages and towns with their own traditions and customs. It is a land that has developed over the centuries in a way that differs from the European concept of the “modern state”, later exported by colonialism, and in which there has never been a central power capable of administering the entire territory inscribed within the (fragile) geographical boundaries. The history is that of a ‘tomb of empires‘, over which the American one is only the last name engraved, which since Alexander the Great has been the crossroads of peoples and armies. It is sufficient to remember that both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were born to fight the invasion of the Soviet empire in ’79.
It would be impossible to deal briefly with the history of this land. It would be impossible to do so even if we consider ‘only’ the last twenty years, when this history has related to the history of a very distant people, both geographically and culturally: the Italian one. Since the beginning of the Western retreat, which ended on 30th August, the media coverage, which was initially very extensive, has systematically decreased. Perhaps, however, it is still worth spending a few words on the Italian commitment in those places. We should take another look in the mirror to understand what this says about us and how it can hopefully help us in the future.
Let’s start by taking it a bit wide. Italy is a member of NATO. It went to Afghanistan to apply Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, following the attacks of 09/11. But this would be overly reductive. Italy is part of the American sphere of influence, not just from an economic point of view. During the Second World War, the United States invaded us, and it maintains about 12 thousand military personnel in our country. It is not we who have decided to be part of that sphere, just as it is not we who can decide whether to leave it. The relationship that binds us to the world hegemon (which has control of all the main maritime routes on the planet, since it controls all the straits through which they pass) is existential. Even if we wanted to administer it, we do not have complete control over “what” our strategy is, how we dispose of our means and how we deal with other states. In these and many other areas, we depend on the approval of our hegemon, and we can only act when we do not collide with his interests.
In the light of this, intervention alongside the United States takes on a different hue. The need that drove us to participate in the Enduring Freedom and ISAF missions was to show ourselves useful, presenting us as helpers with the hope of obtaining credit that would then be translated into recognition. But this did not and could not happen, simply because we didn’t know what to ask for.
Let us try to explain it better by considering two of the many problems afflicting Italy. The first is a ruling class that, for many complex reasons, lacks a vision of the country that goes beyond the political contingency of the moment. The second is public opinion, which expresses that elite. The Italian population, regardless of political colour, is first and foremost elderly. Moreover, it is used to thinking in strictly economic and welfare terms. An example of the effects of this mindset is the government definition, relaunched by the mainstream media, of our presence abroad as a ‘peace mission’. This narrative is far from reality and it serves to make most people digest the sacrifice involved in a mission in which soldiers fight, die and kill. Another example is the very marked focus by both the media and the institutions on women’s rights. This subject will transform Afghan societies from their foundations, as it progresses. It is a subject that is close to us, the product of a centuries-old struggle that still has a long way to go. But it alone cannot determine whether a military presence abroad is accepted. A public opinion that genuinely believes such narratives is necessarily self-absorbed, i.e., towards maintaining its status, and disinterested in topics that may require societal sacrifices such as protecting national interests through the necessary influence of its own country.
These two obstacles, far more complex than can be explained here, have been the short-circuit that has prevented us from gaining anything from our intervention in Afghanistan alongside the United States. After 8.7 billion euros, more than 50,000 soldiers who have followed, and 53 who have never returned, we are unable to make serious quid pro quos because we do not know who we are or even what we want.
We don’t get wider margins to take control of the Mediterranean routes because we don’t realise what is happening there, blinded as we are by phobia about migrant people. We do not ask the US for support for our positions in Europe because we do not understand the dynamics of confrontation with France and Germany. We do not gain prominence in NATO because we believe it is a common defence alliance, and not a system designed to defend US soil.
One could go on. But the important thing is to look in the mirror and realise that withdrawing after twenty years from a theatre in which we had no national interest, where we went to gain favours, we did not get, says a lot about us and the things we should avoid doing in the future. The United States has been clear. After the step of maturity required by the Afghan retreat, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin explicitly pointed out that it is preferable for allies with scarce resources to concentrate on preserving their areas of interest (referring to the British navy’s trip to the South China Sea). As far as we are concerned, this should finally coincide with an awareness of the enormous danger in Libya. An impossible step if there is no self-awareness.