Page last updated at 14:36 GMT, Monday, 26 May 2008 15:36 UK

An Italian oasis in Afghanistan

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Sarobi, east of Kabul

An Italian soldier notes requests for help  from the locals
An Italian soldier notes requests for help from the locals

The mortar bombs and rockets were laid out in a line as evidence for visiting journalists that the 140 Italian soldiers in the small, isolated base up on the hill and out of harm's way are actually winning.

"They were discovered because local people told us where they were hidden," explained Captain Mario Renna. He says this proves the people of Sarobi, east of Kabul, trust their friendly neighbourhood Italians.

They have even been bringing opium poppies in to be burned - but that's perhaps more to do with a zero-tolerance governor cracking down on opium this year.

Forty nations make up Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and each has a slightly different approach to fighting the counter-insurgency.

"In my opinion things are going quite well here because our patrols, our men are spending a lot of time on the ground," Captain Renna said.

"Every day they are engaging the local leaders, chatting with them, exchanging views and opinions - they are assessing villages to see what their needs are."

And if success is measured by attacks on international forces, things are indeed going well - only one Italian soldier has been killed in an ambush this year.

Common strategy

We take a ride into town. The engine of the armoured vehicle roars into life, the gunner poking his head out of the top hatch loaded his large calibre machine gun and the convoy rolls out of its hilltop fort and heads down the valley.

It is a common strategy among international forces - drive to the bazaar, go on a foot patrol, chat to people, meet the elders, find out what they want and then give it to them, whether it be a new road, a clinic, a school, or in this case a $200,000 library.

Mortar bombs and rockets seized by the Italian troops
Soldiers say they were tipped off about the rockets by local people

It's a beautiful two-storey building - the carpenter was planning the new bookshelves in a reading room with a wonderful view over Sarobi's lake.

A local government administration building is already in use and the new road makes travel through the district from Kabul to Jalalabad and on to the Pakistan border so much more palatable.

But it was hard to read the faces of the turbaned locals in the market - staring at the Italian troops with their stylishly designed uniforms.

One young shopkeeper spoke perfect English: "I think security is much better when the Italian soldiers come here and do their patrols on the streets of Sarobi," he said.

Others were more sceptical, saying only the local police and governor had been given any development projects and the security was fine in town, but bad everywhere else.

But with wheat prices going through the roof the Italian food aid appears to have won over a lot of people, for now at least.

Icons of development

Next stop was a mobile medical clinic in one of the villages - represented by a little red cross on the large-scale map of the district which meets visitors to the Italian base.

Scattered across it are icons representing development - little taps for wells, sacks of food, small bridges, and a couple which took some explaining, but represented veterinary clinics.

An Afghan elder with an Italian soldier
Italian soldiers engage with local leaders on a daily basis

Stomach pain and arthritis were the main complaints at the improvised clinic and pills were liberally distributed while the military officers headed inside for a small shura, or meeting with the elders.

Over kettles of green tea and plates of nuts and biscuits a white bearded man began with gushing thanks and wound up asking if an awful lot more could be done.

It was all noted in a little book with an apologetic "we are doing an awful lot already".

The Italians say that since they slowly started "engaging" with the locals in the winter they have been making a lot of progress.

But local leader Jamil Fedaye said the problem was the short time the soldiers stay here - as soon as trust is built up they leave and new commanders arrive.

Relatively safe

"This is difficult for them because very quickly they change - after five months they go and are replaced by new soldiers. If they come for one year that would be good," he said.

So why is Sarobi perceived as being different to everywhere else and sold as such a success story?

It could be the Italian nature and their engagement with local people, but in reality this area is nothing like Helmand or Kandahar.

There are criminals in Sarobi but the insurgency here is not strong - it is a relatively safe area and what Italian forces are doing is keeping the peace rather than trying to create a stable environment from lawlessness and chaos.

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