The War That Wasn’t There? Italy’s “Peace Mission” in Afghanistan, Strategic Narratives and Public Opinion

AFGHANISTAN: MILITARI ITALIANI SEQUESTRANO ORDIGNI A FARAH

(Ansa)

By Fabrizio Coticchia

The military operation in Afghanistan is the most important mission undertaken by the Italian armed forces since the end of WWII. The public opinion supported the intervention until mid-2009. Then, the percentage of approval for the mission dropped considerably. In a paper that “Foreign Policy Analysis” has just released in early view (here gated) I’ve examined different perspectives in order to understand the drop of consensus that occurred in the Italian case.

The aim of the paper (co-authored with Carolina de Simone) is to investigate the features and evolution of the main strategic narratives adopted by political leaders to interpret the Italian military involvement in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2011. The research stems from the perspective suggested by Ringsmose and Børgesen on the key role of strategic narratives in the understanding of the variations in public opinion support towards military operations. The questions this study seeks to answer are: how have politicians crafted strategic narratives on the Afghan mission? How have these storylines influenced public opinion during the conflict?

The level of support towards the operation in Afghanistan collapsed after the mid of 2009. A first supposition related to this drop deals with the correlation between mounting casualties and the fall of public approval. The issue of casualty intolerance has been repeatedly used in the literature to explain the loss of popularity of military operations. Other possible interpretations are related to the traditional approaches in public opinion literature that focus on the impact of the “fatigue” towards a protracted conflict, the scarce policy success of the mission or the dramatic changes of aims and conditions of the intervention. Then the paper compares the above-mentioned views with the “strategic narrative assumption”. According to such perspective, the type of (ineffective) narrative adopted by the Italian governmental actors plays a prominent role in understanding of the decline of support in 2009. Has the disproportionate gap between the storyline, based on the traditional values of peace and multilateralism, and the war-torn reality on the ground, affected the level of public approval? Or have the ways through which narratives were built in 2009 played a more important role?

The preliminary findings of this study confirm the relevance of strategic narratives to interpret the attitudes of public opinion. No significant correspondence between casualties and support emerge, while the results reveal that the ineffective and inconsistent way in which a well-established and shared strategic narrative (centred on peace and multilateralism) has been modified is the key variable for understanding the collapse of public approval. The strategic narrative crafted by governmental actors after 2008, which aimed at explaining the change of approach on the ground, has proven unsuccessful. This failure can be weighed against the main features of a “strong narrative”, such as those identified by Ringsmose and Børgesen: the strategic narrative of the Italian government showed lack of clarity, incoherence, inconsistency, and inability to prepare the public for dramatic events.

The paper, which relies extensively on empirical data such as polls and interviews, illustrates that cultural variables were crucial in order to understand Italian military operations abroad. A shared strategic culture based on the frames of multilateralism and peace remains embedded in Italian public opinion. Without a coherent and appropriate (alternative) strategic narrative, the attempt to shift from traditional conceptual references, even when the context of the intervention requires adopting new frameworks, is doomed to fail. This is exactly what happened in the case of ISAF.

Here below the abstract:

Factors as culture, values, and symbols are crucial to understand the evolution of the Italian foreign and defense policy. However, scholars’ attention to such variables in the study of Italian defense policies still leaves many gaps. Since the end of the Cold War, Italian troops have been constantly engaged in military operations abroad spreading a “peacekeeper image” of Italy in the international arena. The goal of this work is to investigate the features and the evolution of the main strategic narratives adopted by political leaders to interpret the Italian military involvement in Afghanistan. How have politicians crafted strategic narratives on the Afghan mission? How have these story lines influenced public opinion during the conflict? Has the disproportionate gap between the storyline, based on the traditional values of peace and multilateralism, and the war-torn reality on the ground, affected the level of public approval? Or have the ways in which narratives were built in 2009 played a more significant role? In order to answer these questions, this paper relies on polls, content analysis of parliamentary debates, and public discourse analysis (2001–2011).

If you are interested in strategic narratives look also at here, here, here, and (in Italian) here.

 

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