A few days ago, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio, in a video message to the Conference of National Academies of G20 countries, announced that he would chair “a ministerial meeting of the G20 dedicated to Afghanistan, in anticipation of the extraordinary leaders’ summit announced by [Italian Prime Minister] Draghi“. The ministerial meeting was held yesterday, with the participation of UN Secretary Antonio Guterres, as well as thirteen UN agencies, the IMF, and the World Bank. Spain, the Netherlands, Singapore, and Qatar were also invited to join.

Mr. Di Maio during a meeting on Afghanistan co-chaired by Germany and the US
Mr. Di Maio during a meeting on Afghanistan co-chaired by Germany and the US

The situation in Afghanistan proves the need for coordinated and cohesive responses to complex challenges” said Mr. Di Maio, reiterating that “Italy, as president of the G20, believes that this forum is an important platform to enhance the efforts of the international community, with the UN at the forefront in defining a shared and effective approach to address this crisis“.

Italian diplomats have been working since August with the aim of organizing an extraordinary meeting of the G20 dedicated to the Afghan issue. It was not an easy undertaking, given the complexity of the interests at stake, crossed vetoes and China’s reluctance to involve the G20, an essentially economic forum, in a purely political debate.

In fact, as Emanuele Rossi writes on Formiche, Italy is trying to elevate “the Afghan crisis (which has clear security implications and poses foreign policy challenges) into an opportunity for broad dialogue”. What worries Italy are human rights abuses and the risk of terrorism, but also to the economic difficulties of Afghanistan and the refugee crisis, an issue has already created divisions within the European Union.

Mr. Di Maio in Torkham, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan
Mr. Di Maio in Torkham, on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan

A G20 extraordinary meeting on Afghanistan would allow Italy to carve out a leading role for herself with regard to this issue, proving herself able to behave as a middle power and to be a solid partner for the US by offering the support that Washington badly needs at the moment.

At the same time, Italy could close its G20 presidency, so far not particularly brilliant, on a high note. However, the idea of turning the G20 into a forum where to discuss politically sensitive issues is not met with enthusiasm in every capital. Regional rivalries between states like Pakistan and Iran, major players in the Afghan context, and prominent G20 members like India and Saudi Arabia, further complicate matters. Success is anything but guaranteed.

In the meantime, while waiting for the often-slow mechanisms of diplomacy to bear fruit, Mr. Di Maio wasted no time, showing Italy’s interest for the Afghan issue. On 3 September, the Minister left Italy for a 3-day mission to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Qatar, and Pakistan. During his visits to the countries neighboring Afghanistan, Di Maio addressed – as a press release from the ministry of Foreign Affairs states – “the most recent developments and regional stability.” Particular attention was paid “to the issue of Afghan refugees and displaced persons”, fleeing to the territories of neighboring countries now that the evacuation operation managed by Western troops is over.

Mr. Di Maio with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani
Mr. Di Maio with the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani

The visit to Qatar, on the other hand, was an opportunity to “thank the local authorities for the fundamental assistance provided to Italy during the transfer operations from Afghanistan“. The meetings with local authorities also allowed Mr. Di Maio to strengthen ties with the country which the Taliban have chosen as the center of their relations with the international community. In fact, the negotiations that led to the historic agreement between the Taliban and the United States, giving way to the American withdrawal from the country, took place in Qatar. Therefore, Mr. Di Maio’s announcement of the relocation of the Italian embassy in Kabul to Doha is not surprising.

The meeting of G20 foreign ministers held yesterday at the United Nations seems to have reaped the first fruits of Italy’s commitment. Italy is trying to win a place at the table where important decisions are made. A successful G20 meeting on Afghanistan would be a major diplomatic success. It remains to be seen whether Prime Minister Draghi and Minister Di Maio will be able to play their cards well, and especially if circumstances will allow them to do so.