Italy to expand Afghanistan role

The ascendance of the center-left Romano Prodi as Italy’s new prime minister in the narrow (and contested) April elections will apparently mean at least a phased withdrawal of Italian troops from the US-led mission in Iraq, depriving Bush of one more European ally in his Mesopotamian adventure. It will not, however, mean a withdrawal from the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. On the contrary, Italy may be expanding its troop presence there. From the Pakistan Tribune, June 2:

ROME: Italy, which is pulling its soldiers out of Iraq, will keep troops in Afghanistan and plans to expand their mission, a Foreign Ministry official said in an interview published.

Undersecretary Gianni Vernetti said Italy has 1,356 soldiers in Kabul and Herat, and Italy’s role in Afghanistan will be one of the topics for discussion when Foreign Minister Massimo D’Alema meets with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington on June 12.

“Our presence (in Afghanistan) will be confirmed, or rather expanded,” Vernetti was quoted as telling the daily Corriere della Sera. “Theories about the possible expansion of our mission include customs cooperation. It can be done with (Italy’s) border police.” He didn’t elaborate.

Italian forces had commanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 10,000- strong security forces in Afghanistan until early this month, when the U.K. took charge in a routine leadership handover.

Italian troops were sent into Afghanistan to help with reconstruction after the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2001. Earlier this month, two Italian soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb that exploded while they were on patrol south of Kabul.

Vernetti said Italian troops also would contribute in the fight against drugs. Afghanistan is the source of nearly 90% of the world’s opium, the raw material of heroin.

See our last posts on Italy and Afghanistan.