Vittorio Sandalli: “A year with the Taliban in power, Kabul sinks into poverty but we continue to help”

A year has passed since the Taliban took over Kabul, a year since the Air Force flight KC767 landed in Fiumicino with 74 people. Among them the staff of the Embassy, ​​about twenty former collaborators exposed to the risk of retaliation if they remained in Afghanistan, Italian citizens present in the country. Among them was the ambassador Vittorio Sandalli, who was asked to return to Italy, before temporarily establishing the Italian seat of the embassy in Doha, from which he still operates.

From 1990 to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with assignments in Zambia, Turkey, Mozambique, South Africa. Ambassador to Georgia and Indonesia before arriving in Kabul in 2020, he speaks to La Stampa from Doha.

Ambassador Sandalli, we said goodbye a year ago when we landed in Rome from Kabul on the first flight of the airlift set up by the Defense. I witnessed with you the last day of the Afghan Republic and the takeover of power by the Taliban. Intense days and nights for all of us but especially for the Afghan people. After a year, what is the most vivid memory of those hours?

“The memories are many, connected to the rapid sequence of those events but if I try to isolate a general impression, the memory I have is of the determination, clarity and rigor of the small team of the embassy that with the colleagues of the Defense it managed to face the emergency, evacuate compatriots and Afghan collaborators. If, on the other hand, I look for a specific memory in my memory, it is that of one of our Afghan collaborators at the airport who had worked with us for many years and I remember his tears because he understood that the Afghanistan in which he had believed and for which he had worked was ending ».

How would you describe your state of mind when you leave Afghanistan at such a delicate time?

“It was a really difficult time. You can imagine what my mood was. It was about leaving a country where I had asked to be assigned two years earlier, when it was still hoped that international efforts could lead to an understanding between the warring parties, the Taliban and the Islamic republic, we hoped that after decades of suffering in Afghanistan there was the possibility of a peaceful future. Italy in Afghanistan had sacrificed lives, and had brought progress, development. Just think of what was done in Herat, in terms of social development, education for girls, infrastructure, the Embassy in Kabul had become a reference point for women’s achievements, we organized conferences, seminars with businesswomen, representatives of institutions, with activists of civil society, to take stock of the progress made, the achievements, the prospects we had before us. All these people had believed in us, they were counting on us. And in those moments they were asking us for help as they continue to ask us now ».

In the months preceding the taking of Kabul, how was diplomacy preparing for the definitive withdrawal of military contingents and for the possibility, which has proved increasingly concrete since spring 2021, that the Taliban would reconquer the whole country village after village?

“The Doha February 2020 agreements between the United States and the Taliban provided that, in the face of the commitment of the withdrawal of international troops, the parties to the conflict would engage in a dialogue that had been taking place in Doha, from September 2020. Late, yes, but there was a dialogue going on. A dialogue which, in the expectations of the international community, should have led to an agreed structure that on the one hand was representative of all the ethnic and religious components of Afghanistan, and on the other hand was able to preserve the achievements of the last twenty years, especially in respect of human rights. We supported and encouraged this dialogue, however, especially after mid-April when the withdrawal of international troops was confirmed and with the progressive advance of the Taliban we were ready for all scenarios. By now the collapse, even close to the Republic, was a possibility even if it happened with a speed that not everyone had foreseen ».

Italy has not recognized the Islamic Emirate. The social and economic situation of Afghanistan is getting worse every month. I am thinking of the consequences of economic sanctions on the civilian population, I am thinking of undernourished children, of girls deprived of the right to education, of activists. How can diplomacy move on such an arduous path?

“The concern is very strong, especially with the approach of next winter which will be the second after the regime change and will bring new privations to the Afghan population. First of all, it is necessary to ensure that Unama, the United Nations mission on the ground, increases the pressure on the de facto authorities, i.e. the Taliban government, continuing to support the inclusion of minorities in decision-making processes and respect for the rights of women. The right to education for adolescents is in the interest of the Afghan economic recovery and also the stability of the country. Then we must continue to stimulate the influence of the countries of the region, which, although often animated by divergent and opposing interests, are the first to suffer the consequences of the instability in Afghanistan in terms of terrorist threats, migratory flows and illicit trafficking. Thirdly, we must continue to focus on cooperation on the part of moderate Islamic countries that are able to bring out the contradictions of the intolerant and radical doctrine of the Taliban movement, highlighting how much it damages the interests of the population and the country’s estate. But the first thought is to avoid an even worse catastrophe, and to do so we must continue to support the population in its basic needs: food and health assistance always through the United Nations and counting on Italian NGOs that continue to operate in the field ».

Qual is the way to help the Afghan population despite the sanctions against the Talibn?

“Donors have long been discussing the possibility of extending aid to non-strictly humanitarian sectors, support for education, support for micro-enterprises, agriculture, but all this can only happen when there is progress in terms of inclusion of minorities and respect for human rights and women in particular, unfortunately this progress is not visible at the moment. In my opinion, a contribution to the pressure on the de facto authorities can also come from the Afghan diaspora, for example in Italy it is made up of people who were already in our country before the regime change and those who reached Italy with operations evacuation who are in contact with the residual voices of civil society who are still in Afghanistan ».

Kabul made headlines after the death of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri caused by an American drone.

“The presence and death of Zawahiri in the center of Kabul show that the ties with Islamic terrorism have not only never been interrupted but rather seem to be strengthened”.

Did you expect such rapidity in the Qaedist action and what scenarios does it foresee?

“It was known that the links between Al Qaeda and the Taliban movement continued, close, very close. There are various reports from international organizations, many analyzes on this, plus al Qaeda is linked to a specific component of the Taliban movement. I think that the death of Zawahiri and his presence in Kabul are provoking an internal confrontation among the various souls of the Taliban also because of the fear of the consequences on the already scarce internal legitimacy that the Taliban have that will derive from the further isolation of the country. If in Afghanistan the ultraconservative wing that heads the circle of the Emir in Kandahar continues to prevail, the country is destined to become more and more a refuge and a point of reference for Islamic terrorism ”.

Italy had promised not to abandon the Afghan people. What has been done in these twelve months and what do you expect to be able to do in the future?

“After twelve months I can say that the Afghan citizens who were on duty in August 2021 and their families have all been evacuated, but I also stress that this group is only one of the categories we have addressed, we have continued and we will continue to work to save people at risk. After the regime change we have significantly increased aid for the basic needs of the population, as early as September 2021 and with a further increase at the donors’ conference in March this year. This aid will continue in the near future and even more so in view of the winter. As part of the national plan of the Afghan people, that is the plan that involves various administrations committed to coping with the emergency, we have had particular attention to students. We are in contact with universities that offer scholarships to Afghan students in addition to scholarships allocated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We have continued the evacuations of vulnerable people and people who aspired to family reunification in Italy, it is an effort that we carry out from the Embassy in Kabul relocated temporarily to Doha and for which I am responsible and which manages a mechanism to continue the evacuations first from Qatar then from the other neighboring countries. At the end of July, the first 300 Afghan citizens envisaged by the agreement on humanitarian corridors arrived in Italy and will continue to arrive. It is our commitment ».

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About Banner Leon

Videogames entered his life in the late '80s, at the time of the first meeting with Super Mario Bros, and even today they make it a permanent part, after almost 30 years. Pros and defects: he manages to finish Super Mario Bros in less than 5 minutes but he has never finished Final Fight with a credit ... he's still trying.

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