KABUL – A deadly bombing caused Italy to become the latest nation to question its role in Afghanistan on Friday, highlighting the pressure facing dozens of militaries confronting a protracted war — and an Afghan government ill-equipped to handle its problems alone.
Final election results from last month's presidential vote are weeks away at best and violence is on the rise — demonstrated by the explosion that killed 10 Afghans and six Italian soldiers on one of Kabul's main roadways. The bombing prompted Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to call for a "transition strategy" to allow the Afghan government to do more for its own security and decrease international troop levels.
The Italian deaths were the country's greatest single loss in the war. Another Italian official called for troops to be out by Christmas.
This is already the deadliest year for NATO troops in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion that ousted the Taliban, with more than 300 deaths. The summer has been particularly bloody as thousands of U.S. troops poured into insurgent strongholds in the south and Taliban mounted campaigns of violence around last month's election.
In Afghanistan, NATO's Italian chief of staff said many governments are discussing force reductions, but only within the scope of normal planning. Maj. Gen. Marco Bertolini said the Italian deaths do not diminish his country's commitment, insisting the government and military "share together the strong will to accomplish our mission" and that no NATO forces are threatening to withdraw.
"We are having discussions in Italy. I know that also in the other countries there is the same. But until now, at our level, I must be sincere, we haven't received any decrease in terms of commitment by anyone," Bertolini said. "There are contingents that probably could be reduced or withdrawn in the future, but I must recognize that everybody continues to be fully committed."
Afghanistan's president reiterated that his government is far from ready to take on insurgents alone.
The Afghan army is "still not ready to the extent that it would take on the whole responsibility," Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in an interview with CNN broadcast Thursday. "That's why the international community is here, to engage and struggle against terrorism and also to build the Afghan forces."
In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mark Wright said the U.S. values Italy as a partner in the Afghanistan war, where Italian troops play an important role in the country's west. He said Italy's contribution "has been extremely valuable and we hope to continue working with them."
But the Afghan partnership with international forces has been full of tension. At a press conference Thursday, Karzai found himself alternately chastising German forces for making a major mistake in calling an airstrike that killed civilians and insisting that Germany is a "good friend" to Afghanistan.
Karzai also upbraided the top U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan for bringing up the possibility of a run-off vote in a private meeting ahead of the election.
Italy has already planned to bring home between 400 and 500 extra soldiers it had sent to beef up the contingent for last month's elections, but with results of the fraud-tainted vote still uncertain four weeks later, it is unclear how soon they can leave.
Preliminary results of the Aug. 20 election show Karzai winning a second term with 54.6 percent of the vote, but monitors have said suspect votes could send him below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a run-off. Winter snows that make much of Afghanistan inaccessible until spring could push a second round back months.
Bertolini said the extra troops will stay until the election process is finished. Italy currently has about 2,800 troops in Afghanistan.
Few Italian officials appeared to be calling for a direct withdrawal, but a poll taken last week — before the attacks — already showed that a majority of Italians wanted the soldiers back.
In the United States, which has committed 68,000 troops by year's end, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee demanded recently that no additional troops be promised until more has been done to train and equip Afghan security forces.
Recent polls in the U.S. have shown waning support for the war and President Barack Obama said this week he will postpone a decision to send more troops until he has finished a broad assessment of military, diplomatic, civilian and development efforts.
Last week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier advocated laying the foundations by 2013 for an eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan, but stressed that he did not envision that as a deadline and offered no specific date.
Both he and Chancellor Angela Merkel have backed the idea of increasingly transferring responsibility to Afghan forces, naming that as a condition before a German pullout could be considered.
The country's unpopular mission in Afghanistan, where it has more than 4,200 troops, was put in the spotlight by a German-ordered airstrike near Kunduz in which civilians appear to have died earlier this month.
Still, only one of the five parties in Germany's parliament, the opposition Left Party, advocates withdrawing now from Afghanistan. Any German military deployment requires prior parliamentary approval.
Italian government and military officials agreed that Italy must have some sort of long-term commitment, but it was unclear if that meant military forces or a transition to a civilian approach.
Berlusconi said his government remained committed to defending democracy in Afghanistan, "which is still very far from being a modern and civilized country."