Italy expands troop presence in North Africa

The Tunisian government is said to have requested Italian assistance in training and military advice.
Sunday 25/02/2018
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano (C) arrives at the government headquarters in Tunis, on January 16.  (AP)
Shifting priorities. Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano (C) arrives at the government headquarters in Tunis, on January 16. (AP)

MILAN - Dozens of Italian troops are to be deployed to Tunisia after the Italian parliament approved a measure to decrease the country’s military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and relocate the troops to North Africa and the Sahel, bringing Italian troop totals to 470 in Niger, 400 in Libya and 60 in Tunisia.

The deployment comes after Tunisian authorities requested Italian assistance in training and military advice but the plan could be jeopardised by a dispute over use of a joint military centre. The Tunisian Defence Ministry said NATO pledged $3.7 million towards a military command centre to ensure border security and help in the fight against terrorism but there have been disagreements over its location and operational use.

Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkrim Zbidi said the ministry “categorically rejected” NATO’s proposal to provide expertise by maintaining presence at the planned military operations centre, the Tunisian Press Agency said.

If the Italians troops go ahead, they would join German, French and Algerian forces offering such help to Tunisia.

“The idea is to prevent a contagion of the Libyan anarchy across the border and into Tunisia,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a commentator on North Africa security and politics. “Algeria, Italy and Germany are quite committed to helping the Tunisian state avoid any kind of collapse as a result of a spillover out of Libya.”

Tunisia still carries the trauma of attacks from militants in 2015 and 2016. On March 18, 2015, militants attacked the Bardo National Museum and 22 people were killed, most of whom were British tourists. In June that year, a tourist resort in Sousse was targeted and 38 people were killed. It was reported as the deadliest non-state attack in modern Tunisian history.

A year after the Bardo attack, the Islamic State (ISIS) crossed from Libya into the south-eastern Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane. The invasion was a wake-up call and Tunisia responded by seeking foreign military aid.

“The incursion into the Tunisian town failed but Tunis and foreign countries saw how real the threat of cross-border operations was,” Harchaoui said. “After March 2016, the response was firm from the Tunisian government along the whole Libya border.”

Italy’s expanded involvement comes under the shadow of elections in March. The largest national issue has been migration, with Italian shores absorbing most of the refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa since the path to Greece was largely shut.

Right-wing and populist groups, many espousing a fervent anti-Muslim sentiment, have thrust the immigration issue into the spotlight. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition, which includes the centre-right as well as a few far-right parties, seems most likely to secure enough votes to form a ruling coalition.

Berlusconi recently announced support for the Italian parliament’s troops decision. The populist Five Star Movement, Italy’s most popular single party, opposed it, saying it would hinder the post-election government from setting its own foreign policy.

“It is clear that Italy’s foreign policy priorities have shifted and managing migration flows from Africa through the Maghreb is now the most pressing issue,” said Riccardo Fabiani, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst with the Eurasia Group. “While remaining loyal to its NATO commitments, Italy is trying to prioritise the issue of migration, which is already a central theme in the current electoral campaign.”

Italian officials claim they are deploying troops to counter terrorism but the focus in Italy is much more centred on migration. This is likely the calculus behind the heavier deployment to Niger and Libya. Many migrants and refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean travel from sub-Saharan Africa through the Sahel and to the coasts of Libya.

Italy’s military presence in North Africa might have to employ a wide lens on the issues they confront though, analysts said.

“Is there any clear distinction to be made between counterterrorism and migration? I don’t think there truly is one,” Harchaoui said. “Both phenomena tend to come hand-in-hand with anarchy. Right now, minds are particularly focused on migration but in 2015-16, the focus was on [the Islamic State] and jihadi groups in general.”

The Italian troops in Tunisia would attempt to help insulate the country from attacks. While in Libya, the Italians’ emphasis is on stopping people from taking to the sea to reach Italian shores. Italy will also hope the deployment in Libya won’t exacerbate tensions between the two countries.

While Italy enjoys steady relations with the Tripoli-based and UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) isn’t as keen on Rome.

The LNA recently improved its standing with the international community, making things for Rome and the GNA more difficult. This was the case last August when the GNA agreed to a deal to have Italian naval vessels off the Libyan coast. Many Libyans, who harbour negative feelings towards Italy after the 37-year colonisation of their country, protested the GNA and displayed posters of Libyan resistance figure Omar al-Mukhtar.

These realities make the situation in Libya fragile. With the domestic situation in turmoil, migration and terrorism may both prove to be major challenges for the Italian troops on the ground.

“One thing is certain: If the overall security situation worsens in Libya, both banes will experience an uptick,” Harchaoui said. “That is the fear.”