Italians Want Exit Strategy In Afghan War

From the beginning of its involvement in Afghanistan, Italy's coalition government has avoided using the word "war," stressing that it's a peace-keeping operation. But that left the public ill-prepared for the deaths of six Italian soldiers in Afghanistan earlier this month. More than 55 percent of Italians now oppose the war, and the coalition government has taken contradictory positions on what to do.

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SYLVIA POGGIOLI: This is Sylvia Poggioli in Rome. The death of six soldiers in Afghanistan earlier this month was Italy's biggest single loss in a war that is increasingly unpopular. Their funeral, broadcast live on all major TV networks, was marked by a national day of mourning. It unleashed a nationwide outpouring of emotion, and it also prompted a debate on the mission's future. A poll taken before the deaths showed 55 percent of Italians opposed the troop's deployment. Opposition has grown since.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: This weekend, large crowds of shoppers flock to a new farmer's market in Rome, attracted by low prices. But the economy was not the only concern of Rosela Consorte(ph), a middle-aged Roman.

Mr. ROSELA CONSORTE: (Through translator) I think the troops should come home. They say they're there to make peace, but I'm not convinced they can bring democracy there.

POGGIOLI: That's in stark contrast with a government that has avoided the word war, stressing that it's just a peacekeeping operation. State-run TV went so far as to describe the dead soldiers as angels of peace. Roberto Menotti, a senior research fellow at the Aspen Institute Italy, says this ambiguity has haunted Italy from the start and it's the main weakness of the Italian mission in Afghanistan.

Mr. ROBERTO MENOTTI (Senior Research Fellow, Aspen Institute Italy): So incidents like these reinforce the perception that there's a war out there and we are deeply, directly involved.

POGGIOLI: Mounting popular opposition to the troops' involvement in direct combat has led to contradictions within the ruling coalition. At first, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called for a transition strategy, adding that he's convinced it's best for everybody to get out of Afghanistan soon. Yet he also insisted that Italy will not unilaterally withdrawal its 3,000 troops.

But the Northern League, perhaps the most influential coalition partner, first said it wants the troops home by Christmas. The coalition members have since fallen into line with Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa.

Mr. IGNAZIO LA RUSSA (Defense Minister, Italy): (Through translator) We cannot even discuss the idea of setting an exit deadline. We will all pull out our troops on the day that NATO and the U.N. decide that they are no longer needed there.

POGGIOLI: Retired Foreign Minister Franco Frattini is proposing an international conference to be held in Kabul to shift the focus of the military missions toward reconstruction of Afghanistan. But Menotti of the Aspen Institute Italy says the first task for the Rome government is to get out of the gray area between peace keeping, peace enforcement and combat operations.

Mr. MENOTTI: Yes, have a serious and somewhat dangerous discussion, but also make people understand what is at stake.

POGGIOLI: Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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