On the democratic v autocratic model clash: it’s “an approach that does not belong in the Italian MFA, and that has proven to lead to nothing positive, as the effects of the Ukrainian conflict in the region – with the Central Asian actors engaged in a complex exercise in political balancing – also demonstrate. To build, one must look at what unites and not at what creates distance.”
On the West’s and Italy’s role in Afghanistan. US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently admitted that “horrible” things happened there since the US withdrawal, but he also explained that national interest reasons justify the decision. When talking of Italy’s role, Mr Sequi noted its contribution.
- On its part, Italy helped introduce reforms in the justice sector and contributed to the development of infrastructure, hospitals and water systems. Infant mortality more than halved, the literacy rate of young people has increased, as has the enrolment rate of girls in primary school.
What went wrong. The MFA official noted that two viruses and some paradoxes plagued the Western work in Afghanistan.
- The viruses: the Afghan people’s frustration with the slow progress, the international community’s fatigue, and long-unresolved problems.
- The paradoxes: the differing perception of time on behalf of the Afghans (and the insurgents) and the Western forces, as well as the latters’ failure to provide essential services to the local population – which primed some to side with the Taliban.
On how to fix it. To preserve the progress, “we need to keep the focus on the country. We cannot abandon the Afghan people […] We need firmness, and Italy’s commitment in this regard is maximum. Together with our allies, we are exerting targeted pressure on the de facto Afghan leadership, which so far has produced insufficient results in terms of inclusion, pluralism and the promotion of human rights. In parallel, we ensure the best possible support to the population.
On Italy and the wider Mediterranean. Italy deems the Middle East an “area of strategic interests” relating to “the security and stability of the area” and touching “essential issues, such as access to markets and raw materials and critical resources, the spread of technological innovation, and trade and logistics routes along the key East-West axis.”
- Fostering stability means “settling the Iranian nuclear issue through relaunching the JCPoA; avoiding further antagonism between Israel and Sunni countries and Iran; resolving the conflict in Yemen, for which we have higher hopes today, as well as the crisis in Syria and the very serious situation in Lebanon.”
- Italy has proven to be a reliable partner thanks to its “not having hidden agendas, maintaining moderate and balanced positions, and favouring dialogue.” Its discreet efforts to stabilise and resolve conflicts in Libya testifies to that.
A year has passed since the precipitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In those days, Italy’s government worked tirelessly through its diplomatic structure to get Italians, as well as Afghans who had collaborated with Western forces, out of Kabul, which was besieged by the Taliban.
Heading that structure from the office of the Crisis Unit at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was Secretary General Ettore Sequi, formerly an ambassador to Afghanistan and a special envoy to the European Union. He spoke with our sister site Formiche.net about that dramatic moment, what has happened since then and the prospects for the region.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan admitted that “horrible” things had happened in Afghanistan since the US withdrawal. And yet, he explained that national interest reasons justify the decision. Was leaving the country a good decision? What message did it give the world, analysing it now, one year after the choice?
The message, unfortunately, is not a positive one. But one needs to understand the reasons and the complexity. Western forces indeed withdrew from Afghanistan in a concerted manner based on jointly agreed NATO determinations. And our commitment and presence have indeed been hinged, from the very beginning, on solidarity with the Atlantic Alliance.
When the US decided to leave the country – a decision taken by the Trump Administration, later shared and implemented by the Biden Administration – the Allies, including Italy, could only do the same. In truth, our presence in Afghanistan has been affected by two viruses and burdened by certain paradoxes.
The first virus: the frustration of many Afghans who, after having nurtured great – and perhaps unrealistic – hopes of a rapid future of prosperity and peace, had not perceived concrete improvements in their daily lives (even though, in fact, there had been some).
The second: the fatigue, or weariness, of the international community caused by the slow pace of reconstruction, both economic and institutional, as well as the severe unresolved problems: from drugs to crime, from the Taliban’s offensive actions to corruption and insecurity. We have not found a vaccine.
And the paradoxes?
The first is what I call the “paradox of the clock.” The West had periodically set dates for the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Those were then postponed from time to time, in light of the precariousness of conditions on the ground and the unpreparedness of the local security forces. Further postponements and the substantial inefficiency of the Afghan police and armed forces have been an unintended confirmation of the insurgency’s mantra: “You foreigners have the watch. We Taliban have the time.”
Many Afghans experienced this situation with great concern. They were still suffering from a kind of “abandonment syndrome,” reminiscent of the sudden cessation of international support after the Soviets withdrew from the country.
The Afghan and international agendas were calibrated according to clocks that beat time differently. Western public opinions were synced with the fatigue of a long, bloody and costly mission; the Afghan government with more local, less pressing times, culturally different from ours. Just as concepts such as parliamentary democracy, anti-corruption, good governance, transparency and accountability of the administration weren’t always perceived in the same way in the West and Afghanistan.
Then there is the “military paradox.” I must say that the Italian military has done an extraordinary job, of which we should all be proud, and has often been held up as a model by the Anglo-Saxon press itself. However, the securitarian component has prevailed, rather than that of “institution building.” And even that of “development” was not sufficiently effective. Not only was it necessary to “win the hearts and minds,” but we also had to win over the population’s “stomach.” Many young Afghans – the so-called Taliban labour force – joined the insurgency in the absence of economic alternatives.
Furthermore, there is the institutional dimension of security, which I deem decisive. It’s represented by the State’s ability to be present at the local level as a provider of essential services, ranging from justice to the police, from public administration to good governance. This was the hardest challenge, and it’s one we have lost.
Back when I was the Italian Ambassador and later EU Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, I tried to explain the importance of providing basic services to the population by always quoting a phrase by General Dalla Chiesa: the mafia develops where the State is unable to provide essential services, such as justice, education or work.
Replace the word mafia with the word Taliban, and we have the result of what happened in Afghanistan. The administration of justice itself, which was completely inefficient, insufficient and corrupt, found extremely fertile ground by the Taliban who would arrive in the villages; decide, on the basis of Sharia law, on cases and disputes, often relating to property demarcation; and carry out the judgement.
In this way, they gave the sense of a parallel control of the territory by an “anti-State”. The insurgency’s support in many areas of the country was not because the Taliban were popular but rather to the exasperation of the population over the absence of justice and good governance and the existence of corrupt public administrators.
All of this fits into an already-complicated picture in itself. A more general remark: after the 2020 Doha agreements, there already was a general perception that Afghan institutions would probably not withstand the impact of the Taliban.
So the balance is negative?
Certainly, the crisis following the withdrawal from Afghanistan must stimulate reflection on the ways, objectives and instruments with which the international community can intervene in crisis areas. Among the lessons to be learnt is the confirmation that Afghanistan presents certain complexities – political, social and economic – that are not common, and in order to tackle them, the instruments of international cooperation, as we have known them over the last two decades, have perhaps demonstrated a limited capacity to make an impact.
Having said this, Afghanistan has somewhat progressed in twenty years of Western presence. And Italy’s significant contribution has made it possible to achieve undeniable results, even at the cost of the lives of 53 military personnel and two civilians, to whom our thoughts and gratitude always go. We helped introduce important reforms in the justice sector and contributed to developing infrastructure, hospitals and water systems. Infant mortality in Afghanistan has more than halved, the literacy rate of young people has increased, as has the enrolment rate of girls in primary school. In twenty years, we have helped shape a generation with a vision of society based on universal values, fundamental rights and freedoms.
Today, however, one year after the Afghan crisis, the news coming out of Afghanistan is negative.
In order to prevent everything that has been achieved from being called into question, we need to keep the focus on the country. We cannot abandon the Afghan people: it is our moral responsibility before it’s a political duty. We need firmness, and Italy’s commitment in this regard is maximum. Together with our allies, we are exerting targeted pressure on the de facto Afghan leadership, which so far has produced unsatisfactory results in terms of inclusion, pluralism and the promotion of human rights. In parallel, we ensure the best possible support to the population.
Certainly, seeing Afghan women parading in the streets of Kabul to assert their rights, even at the cost of their personal safety, shows that some of the seeds planted in recent years have sprouted and, above all, must be protected and defended.
A few days ago, a US air raid killed the Qaedist leader Ayman al Zawahiri in Kabul. Setting aside the mystery around the continuation of relations between al Qaeda and the Taliban, the operation appeared to be a reaffirmation of US operational capabilities, after the Afghan withdrawal had filled the newspapers and left some Western partners in the Middle East region perplexed.
Although disengaged from combat activities, several signs point to the US remaining a present and central player in the Middle East, even competing with the other great powers – China above all, as shown by Joe Biden’s recent Middle East trip (which could be followed by a visit to Riyadh by the Chinese leader Xi Jinping).
What are the strategic interests and dynamics unfolding in the region, and how do these affect Italy’s national interest in one of Rome’s bands of international projection?
More than a reaffirmation of US operational capabilities (about which I don’t think any of us have ever harboured any doubts), the elimination of Al Zawahiri certifies that Washington has no intention of walking away from the fight against terrorism. Not even in Afghanistan. The Qaedist leader’s presence in Kabul was a severe violation of the Doha agreements and the Taliban’s post-August 15 pledge to the international community that they would not harbour terrorists or allow Afghanistan to be used to threaten other countries.
Washington attributes this violation to at least a part, if not all, of the Taliban leadership. Even in the knowledge that we are not dealing with a monolithic entity, but rather an internally fractious structure. In fact, it’s quite possible the rivalries (or even power struggles) between the Haqqani group and the Kandahar Taliban component may not be unrelated to the killing of Al Zawahiri.
President Biden’s recent visit to Jeddah and his meetings with the Saudis and regional leaders indicate a desire to reaffirm interest in the area, after a phase perceived by many Sunni countries as disengagement. That mission marked the relaunch of relations with Saudi Arabia. Still, I believe it should also be read in light of the war in Ukraine: an attempt to bring closer to the West’s sensitivities those countries that have hitherto shown a certain ambivalence with regard to the conflict.
Certainly, the Middle East is an area of strategic interest for Italy, Europe and naturally for all global players. Interests related to the security and stability of the area, but whose repercussions impact the entire international community. They touch on essential issues, such as access to markets and raw materials and critical resources, the spread of technological innovation, and trade and logistics routes along the key East-West axis.
In all these respects, the Middle East – which is rightfully part of the wider Mediterranean, the geopolitical pivot of Italy’s foreign policy – is essential for us. All the more so at this juncture, when the war in Ukraine has called established trade relations and energy supply models into question.
It is a priority market for our exports. It is very important as a destination for our foreign investments, with hundreds of Italian companies operating there and as a source of foreign direct investment in Italy. It is an area that offers immense opportunities in a phase of economic diversification: these countries have the potential to invest considerable resources in sectors that are highly attractive to our companies. I am thinking of the ecological and digital transitions, blue hydrogen, tourism and culture.
The stability of the area is also functional to an effective fight against terrorism – which, regardless of the Zawahiri affair, is by no means an outdated threat – just as it is functional to the fight against trafficking of various kinds, starting with that of human beings, drugs and archaeological goods.
The issue of stability touches many factors: settling the Iranian nuclear issue through relaunching the JCPoA; avoiding further antagonism between Israel and Sunni countries and Iran; resolving the conflict in Yemen, with respect to which we have higher hopes today, as well as the crisis in Syria and the very serious situation in Lebanon.
Italy has a role to play and one that it already plays, not limiting itself to being a trading partner. The country has built its role as a credible political partner thanks to the fact – clearly recognised by the same players in the area – of not having hidden agendas, maintaining moderate and balanced positions, and favouring dialogue. This is achieved by listening to the partners and engaging in dialogue with them, something that not everyone has the will and the ability to do.
The commitment to stabilising the area and overcoming crises begins with our leading role in Libya. Without making too much noise, in a discreet but effective and constant manner, we are committed to fostering dialogue, mediation, stability and conflict resolution between international and regional actors whose conflicts are consumed in the area.
A few days before the withdrawal from Afghanistan, in early September 2021, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio visited Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Qatar and Pakistan. On Formiche.net we recounted that diplomatic tour as a demonstration of Italy’s willingness to deal with the Afghanistan/Taliban issue at the international level, paying attention to the regional framework.
Central Asia is a region that’s magnetising different interests due to its potential and geopolitical role. European players and the US, but also Russia, China, Turkey and Iran are acting there. We could probably say that it’s one of the stages of the clash between models, the democratic and the autocratic, that mark global affairs. Considering the model that the West has left as a memory after the Afghan engagement, what is the current challenge in the area as elsewhere?
The Afghan crisis is a single tile in the broader Asian mosaic. In this complex picture, there are and have been attempts to influence regional powers and neighbouring countries – the second dimension to be considered. Around Afghanistan, there are states that, with different forms, intensity and modalities, try to influence its society, politics, economy and security, and are being influenced in turn. The chronic weakness of Afghan institutions and the extreme fragmentation of power within them encourage these dynamics. Then there is the issue of ethnic solidarity between groups that are homogeneous yet separated by a border, such as the Tajiks or the Pashtuns themselves in Pakistan or the Shia minorities on the border with Iran.
On the one hand, various regional actors are interested in gaining control over Afghanistan or part of its territory in order to alter the balance in Central Asia to their advantage or prevent their opponents from doing so. On the other hand, the various Afghan factions may be tempted to resort to the support of external sponsors, be they states or transnational terrorist organisations, in order to gain access to resources that are essential to ensure their survival or increase their chances of success in internal conflicts.
This is a very risky mixture, as is the geopolitical value of Afghanistan, which is a crossroads between the Middle and the Far East, the Indian subcontinent, and Europe. Hence the importance of stimulating inclusive initiatives, starting with the G20, by leveraging the existence of a tangible shared interest of the international community in the stability of the country and the area.
There are serious potential transnational threats that could arise from the new Afghan scenario: a resurgence of organised terrorism; a flow of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers; a surge in opium cultivation and opiate trafficking. On top of it all looms a massive humanitarian emergency for the local population, already exposed to the consequences of drought and severe shortages of food supplies and health care. These crucial issues must confront the international agenda for Afghanistan.
Having said this, talking about a clash of models is an approach that does not belong in the Italian MFA and that has proven to lead to nothing positive, as the effects of the Ukrainian conflict in the region – with the Central Asian actors engaged in a complex exercise in political balancing – also demonstrate. To build, one must look at what unites and not at what creates distance.
Beyond these considerations, which are the guiding principles of Italian diplomacy, in Afghanistan, all the main international players end up agreeing on the priorities to be pursued, regardless of the different approaches and tones used in their stances. And this is certainly positive because it facilitates the pursuit of objectives through coordinated action. We all believe that an effective fight against terrorism is essential; that we must avoid the socio-economic collapse of the country to avert a new humanitarian catastrophe; that the country achieve at least minimum security standards, for example, to avoid uncontrolled drug trafficking; that at least basic human rights be guaranteed, starting with those of women, girls and ethnic groups, who cannot be marginalised by Afghan society.
Over the past year, Italy’s action – also thanks to its annual chairmanship of the G20 – has been strongly focused on the effort to extend the discussion on the Afghan crisis and the debate on a strategy to tackle it to the widest possible level of international coordination. Minister Di Maio’s trip, which you mentioned, was aimed at recognising and stimulating the role of the countries of the Central Asian region with respect to the Afghan crisis. The countries primarily affected by the effects of the fall of Kabul – think of the flows of Afghan refugees to Pakistan. And at the same time, without countries coordinating efforts, the goal of a stable Afghanistan can never be achieved, precisely because Kabul also needs integration in the region, both economically and in terms of infrastructure.
The minister’s mission helped to open a further channel of dialogue, a new strand that empowered the countries in the area and led, less than a month ago, to the important conference in Tashkent, whose main themes were precisely the security and economic and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. It was attended by regional actors and neighbouring states, the main international organisations, the US and European countries, including Italy, and also a representation of the de facto Afghan authorities.
The conference confirmed the international community’s substantial unity of views on the priorities to be pursued and the expectations regarding the living conditions of the Afghan population and developments in the country.
And this is certainly a good starting point.