Losing the “War We Cannot Afford to Lose”

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Losing the “War We Cannot Afford to Lose”

21 Settembre 2009

What the Italians are really doing is fighting a tough war against tough enemies and their “splitting the troops strategy” is not only brave, but is also paying off. And this strategy is risky. It goes without saying that if there were more troops on the ground everything could be easier. The insurgents would have to plan their attacks more carefully and their suicide bombing missions. That would take them more time and time is everything in this war.

When six of our Italian compatriots lost their lives in Kabul after the attack of September 17th, the total number of Italian soldiers who died in Afghanistan since 2004 was raised to 21. According to various sources, ten Afghan civilians also died in the explosion which left another 55 people injured. 

The Italian soldiers are staying in the Herat province of Afghanistan for a “peacekeeping mission,” but the truth is that our soldiers are fighting in there. They are fighting a very hard daily battle against the insurgents and they are calling on every bit of experience they have and giving all they can in this struggle. The Italian foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, told TG1 that “Italian soldiers have paid a high price for the freedom and the security of Afghanistan, Italy and Europe. We must stay the course in order to show everybody that the Italian pride is still high”.

According to NATO Secretary General, Ander Fogh Rasmussen, this is “a great tragedy. Italy is giving a big contribution to the ISAF mission in Afghanistan.” The Western world leaders regard Afghanistan as one of the hottest spots on earth right now. This mission is the most important military effort that the international community is involved in, and every head of State from Obama to Sarkozy, is putting his reputation at risk in this war.

Nevertheless, this Afghan mission seems not to be at the center of attention of the media as the Iraq war was. Afghanistan is, in fact, a war that everybody is fighting but nobody is thinking of. Compared to Iraq, this country is much bigger and its territory more impenetrable. Significant internal divisions and tribal sectarianism make this scenario a nightmare for every army. Ask the Russians.

The "International Security Assistance Force" was created to guarantee a safe environment for the Afghan Authority in Kabul, established under the resolution 1386 of the UN Security Council. Even though it was born as a Multinational Mission, it soon became a UN affair, but the main “official” goals for the Italians remained the same: maintaining the security of the Mission Command and disarming mines and explosive devices.

These are just the official goals, though. What the Italians are really doing on the ground is quite different from just disarming mines and it cannot be spoken of – by any stretch of imagination – as a peacekeeping mission. Our commanders made a brave decision by splitting their contingent in several different Battle Groups in order to better control the territory.

For example: clearing the highway 517, which connects Farah to the Ring Road that runs around the whole country, is one of the main objectives of the Italian military. “Before our arrival on last March, the 517 was practically closed. It was impossible to pass from there because that road was under the insurgents’ control” said Lieutenant Colonel Rodolfo Sganga (Commander of the Battle Group South) to L’Occidentale.

After a few months of gun battles and assaults, the road is now usable even though not yet completely safe. The Italians have also won the battle for Bala Morghab (112 miles north-east of Herat), a city that was under the control of Taliban forces not long ago. One of the main strategies of the NATO mission is to reunite the cities of Herat and Mazar-I-Sharif, where the German army is stationed. But the insurgents have always depended on that road – the Ring – for their smuggling activity with Turkmenistan.

We do not only need more soldiers. As the Afghan Army is involved in every single thing the foreign troops do, more military trainers would also be highly welcome, not to mention weapons and military vehicles.

Approximately 300.000 (plus the Iraqi Security Forces and contractors) coalition troops were deployed to win the war in Iraq, a country of 440.000 sq km, with an estimated number of 375.000 Saddam’s soldiers and 70.000 insurgents, plus the Mahdi army. Afghanistan is a much larger country with its 652,000 sq km and the Western coalition is facing roughly 53.000 insurgents with 221,000 men on the ground (100,000 of which are poorly equipped and trained Afghani soldiers).  

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that the US is going to deploy at least another 3000 troops in Afghanistan. Our Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa told the press that the additional 500 Italian soldiers, sent over to Kabul for monitoring the Presidential election, were possibly going to stay.

It is something, but still not enough. General McChrystal is not positive: "clearly the insurgency is serious right now. It has spread geographically, it has spread in intensity in certain areas, and its ability to coerce or control parts of the population has increased,” he told ABC news not long ago. We are losing “the war we cannot afford to lose” and the public opinion does not even know.