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Why the US might move some troops and its African Command in Italy

Last week, the Pentagon announced that nearly 12,000 troops will be withdrawn from Germany. The move will take “months to plan and years to complete”, and the whole matter can still be rethought if the US November elections will bring about a change in the administration.

Nonetheless, some countries in Europe are hoping to be on the receiving end of this change, as 5,600 US troops – as well as important US operation commands – are to be relocated elsewhere in the Old Continent. US secretary of defence Mark Esper hinted that Italy and Belgium would be among the prime candidates.

Moving major operations nearer to Brussels makes sense when attempting to strengthen the links between the EU and the US while considering NATO. Then again, Italy does have its strategic perks, chief among which is the peninsula’s position in the Mediterranean Sea and its proximity to North Africa, which is currently a hotbed of pressing and delicate international dossiers.

If US contingents were to be transferred in Italy, the Americans would enjoy increased capabilities around Europe’s South-East, including the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East and even the Black Sea. Italy, on the other hand, would nudge the increased assets towards its own interest in and around the Med, which include energy, regional stabilisation (Libya, Tunisia, the Sahel) and migrant routes.

Additionally, Italy would reinforce NATO’s Southern flank, something that defence minister Lorenzo Guerini has been insistently pressing for. The US has several military bases and its Sixth Fleet in Italy, although only a few assets in the South contribute to NATO operations such as Sea Guardian.

The Allied Joint Force Command (JFC) base near Naples is one of the three military commands of SHAPE, the body leading NATO’s European operations with headquarters in Casteau, Belgium.

Given the presence of JFC and all the reasons listed above, Naples is likely to prove a strategic choice to host the US African Command (AFRICOM), the 1,000-troops-strong division of the US military dealing with communications and operations in the African continent.

AFRICOM has been based in Stuttgart, Germany, since 2008, albeit on a temporary basis. However, The Pentagon has indicated that the operation’s HQ will be transferred. Should it end up in Naples, it would strengthen Italy’s centrality in the context of US and NATO operations in Africa.

Marco Bertolini, Italian general and former commander of strategic and international operations, has written that the increase of US forces in Italy would correspond to “a change of [Italy’s] role in the military power games in the Mediterranean, abandoned until now to Turkish and French initiatives (not to mention countries outside the Alliance).”

Ambassador Stefano Stefanini, senior advisor at ISPI and diplomatic advisor to the former Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, concurred with Mr Bertolini and underlined the value of reinforcing NATO’s Southern flank, in line with the Alliance, Italy and the US’ objectives. He also mentioned the added bonus of steering clear from increasing tensions with Russia, something that both Italy and the US are not keen on.


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