KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Italy's prime minister pledged Sunday not to abandon Afghanistan as his country pulls out its troops, saying Rome will "transform" its support but not leave altogether.
Mario Monti met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Italian troops during the visit. Italy currently has about 3,500 troops in Afghanistan, most in the west of the country, and those are scheduled to leave by the end of 2014.
Monti told reporters that the pullout will not mean a break in his country's commitment. "We look forward to 2014 as a year of change but not as a year of rupture. Italy, like most other countries, will transform its support for Afghanistan, but will by no means leave Afghanistan alone," Monti told reporters in the capital city of Kabul. He noted that he and Karzai signed a partnership agreement in Rome in January for ongoing economic and development support.
Monti also said that he hoped the Afghan presidential election the same year will give the country a reason to celebrate progress. The previous presidential and parliamentary polls were marred by fraud and many Western governments are looking to the upcoming presidential vote for signs of whether the Afghan government is worth funding.
On his side, Karzai repeated a call to remove foreign observers from an election watchdog group that monitored fraud in previous votes. Karzai said putting foreigners in such a place of power threatens Afghanistan's national sovereignty.
It was this fraud monitoring panel — called the Electoral Complaints Commission — that identified nearly a third of the ballots cast for Karzai in 2009 as fraudulent, and the foreigners on the panel were seen as the driving force behind that decision.