Funeral for Italian soldiers: turning point for troops in Afghanistan?

The Taliban killing of six soldiers in Kabul prompts calls for withdrawal. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said there will be no pullout of Italian troops.

Italian Presidency press office, Enrico Oliverio/AP
Seven-year old Martin Fortunato, son of Lieutenant Antonio Fortunato, one of the victims of an attack to an Italian military convoy in Kabul that killed six Italian troopers on Thursday Sept. 17, reacts in front of his father's coffin during the state funerals in St. Paul's Outside the Walls Basilica, in Rome, Monday.

As it holds state funerals for six soldiers killed in Kabul last Thursday, Italy joins other European nations whose public is growing hostile to participation in the war in Afghanistan. The timing couldn't be worse for the US, which is expected to soon ask its allies to send in more troops.

"Bring them home now! How many more deaths do we need?" shouted the crowd, as the six coffins were brought into the Basilica of St. Paul's Cathedral, in Rome. The service was shown live on Italian TV networks and was attended by top officials from the major political parties.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who attended Monday's mass, pledged to withdraw 500 of the 3,100 soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan. But those 500 were sent to temporarily beef up security during the elections and were returning home as planned.

But other members of his right-wing coalition said they want to end Italy's role in Afghanistan: "We sent them over there and they came back dead," said Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League party, who also attended the funeral.

As the Taliban target European troops, the military mission is becoming increasingly unpopular across Europe. A recent Italian poll showed that 58 percent want the troops brought home from Afghanistan now (compared with 41 percent in Britain and Germany). Another recent poll showed 75 percent of Britons and 86 percent of Germans said any request by the US for more troops should be denied.

Britain has some 9,000 troops in Afghanistan, Germany has about 4,000, and France, 3,000.

"Whether it's Germany, Italy or the UK, people are increasingly skeptical of what's the point of keeping the troops there," says Giampiero Giacomello, professor of strategic studies at the University of Bologna. "Governments across the continent are thinking of an exit strategy. To them, it's clear that America's war on terror is not going anywhere, that Afghanistan cannot be transformed into a modern democracy.

"The problem is how they can get out of this without losing face" and undermining an already frayed NATO alliance, says Professor Giacomello.

US-Europe ideological gap closing?

Giacomello says that, ironically, the public antagonism in Europe is growing just when the ideological gaps between US and European policies are closing. "In the Bush era, you had two conflicting doctrines. On one hand, you had the US and the UK, whose idea was to go in Iraq and Afghanistan and get the terrorists. On the other hand, you had Italy and Germany, whose counterinsurgency strategy was to focus on improving the security and the lives of local populations."

In the past months, however, those two doctrines started converging: "The Americans are realizing they cannot shoot everybody. They've learned the counter-insurgency lesson from Italy and other allies. But Europeans are also realizing we cannot just expect to be everybody's friend."

Italy's situation is different from the rest of Europe. Article 11 of the Italian Constitution explicitly forbids the use of war as a means of resolving international conflict. Although Italian troops are occasionally involved in combat missions, authorities have been reluctant to own up to this practice.

"Officially, the idea is that our boys are sent abroad to distribute blankets and medicines, but recently the defense minister has explicitly said we need to be more aggressive," notes Giacomello. "With all the limitations of the Constitution, as long as they are in Afghanistan the troops will have to fight."

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