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NATO’s Man in Kabul

Stefano Pontecorvo spent his childhood in Kabul. Sixty years later, he coordinated the evacuation of 124,000 people before saying goodbye to the city himself.

The Italian diplomat Stefano Pontecorvo at the Kabul airport
The Italian diplomat Stefano Pontecorvo at the Kabul airport on Aug. 25. Stefano Pontecorvo's office

Leaving Afghanistan

For two crucial weeks in August, Stefano Pontecorvo was the world’s eyes and ears inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. And although it wasn’t visible to the global public, the Italian diplomat was also the nerve center of the airlift that took place during those frantic weeks. As NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, he coordinated the evacuation, which began with sparsely filled flights and ended with full ones.

Before the tumultuous end of the Western military presence in Afghanistan, Pontecorvo had spent a year trying to shore up the Afghan government—a frustrating exercise, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani seemed disconnected from reality. International crisis managers will learn invaluable lessons from Pontecorvo’s mission. So will diplomats, because the collapse of Ghani’s government may finally lay to rest the West’s long-standing belief in the power of Western-educated partners.

On Aug. 17, Pontecorvo tweeted from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport that “Runway in HKIA #Kabul international airport is open. I see airplanes landing and taking off #Afghanistan,” and the world drew a sigh of relief, considering that the evacuation’s first couple of days had been exceptionally turbulent. Ten days later, Pontecorvo himself left Kabul on one of the final evacuation flights.

Italian Amb. Stefano Pontecorvo at the Kabul airport on Aug. 25.

The Italian diplomat Stefano Pontecorvo at the Kabul airport on Aug. 25. Stefano Pontecorvo’s office

For two crucial weeks in August, Stefano Pontecorvo was the world’s eyes and ears inside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. And although it wasn’t visible to the global public, the Italian diplomat was also the nerve center of the airlift that took place during those frantic weeks. As NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, he coordinated the evacuation, which began with sparsely filled flights and ended with full ones.

Before the tumultuous end of the Western military presence in Afghanistan, Pontecorvo had spent a year trying to shore up the Afghan government—a frustrating exercise, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani seemed disconnected from reality. International crisis managers will learn invaluable lessons from Pontecorvo’s mission. So will diplomats, because the collapse of Ghani’s government may finally lay to rest the West’s long-standing belief in the power of Western-educated partners.


On Aug. 17, Pontecorvo tweeted from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport that “Runway in HKIA #Kabul international airport is open. I see airplanes landing and taking off #Afghanistan,” and the world drew a sigh of relief, considering that the evacuation’s first couple of days had been exceptionally turbulent. Ten days later, Pontecorvo himself left Kabul on one of the final evacuation flights.

It was the bitter end of a mission that had begun a mere 14 months earlier. “Coordinating with the Americans, I tried to bring the Afghan government to a position that would favor the peace talks,” Pontecorvo told me, referring to the months after he arrived in Kabul in June 2020. “I also tried to further NATO’s work, which included funding and training to train female soldiers and air force crews. We in NATO thought we could help the Afghan armed forces by training and pushing women in combat support roles. We thought these efforts would create real professionalism and would also create a difference between the [Afghan National Army] and the Taliban.”

Pontecorvo talks in Islamabad, Pakistan, on March 4, 2019.

Pontecorvo talks in Islamabad on March 4, 2019. B.K. Bangash/AP

It was certainly a praiseworthy effort. Earlier this year, NATO was still planning to train some 5,000 Afghan women as mechanics, intelligence officers, telecommunications officers, and similar noncombat roles in the Afghan armed forces. Pontecorvo paid regular visits to Ghani, to ministers, and to senior officials. His regular Twitter updates featured photos of him having conversations with such dignitaries in elegant offices.

But by mid-August, Pontecorvo and his staff of 20 had relocated to the airport. I asked Pontecorvo when he realized things were unlikely to end well. Though he hasn’t said anything to the effect, his decision to relocate suggests that at least some officials concluded Kabul was lost days before Western leaders admitted it was.

The move to the airport marked the end of a maddening period. “There had been the endless frustration of ministers and senior officials constantly changing,” he told me. “But by February-March it became clear to me that the president [Ghani] was completely out of touch with reality. And by the end of July, when the Talibs were already taking one district capital after another, he held a one-hour speech to a group of ambassadors. We were expecting him to say something about the peace process or what he was going to do to defend the country. Instead, he focused on the digital agenda!”

Western capitals had thought Ghani, an academic with a long career in Western institutions, was a man they could work with and, better yet, a man who would understand how to build a functioning democratic society. And yet Western policymakers made an error they have made time and again, mistaking developing-country representatives who say the right things at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for promising leaders. To be sure, Afghans had elected the anthropology professor, but Western capitals had been keeping their fingers crossed.


For Pontecorvo, Afghanistan’s failed attempt at modernization was also a source of personal sadness. He grew up in Kabul in the 1960s, the son of an Italian diplomat; when Italy initially decided to buy the embassy building, it was Pontecorvo’s father who conducted the purchase. “The king’s brother was a good bridge player, and so was my father, and that’s how the connection happened,” Pontecorvo said.

The Pontecorvo family, which also included Stefano’s brother and sister, lived at Ansari Square. “There were lots of shops nearby, and I used to go to the bakery on my bike,” Pontecorvo recalled. “You could go to the palace on your bike, and there was a swimming pool by the king’s summer residence that we also went to. That’s how safe it was. And there were lots of international visitors on weekends, especially from Pakistan and other Asian countries. At the time, Kabul was what Dubai is now.”

After five years in Kabul, in 1965 the Pontecorvo family moved to Islamabad. Young Stefano was 8 years old, and by then there was an Italian school at the Italian Embassy compound in Kabul, run by Italian priests. Once every two months, Pontecorvo’s mother drove to Kabul from Islamabad with her boys so they could attend a week of Italian school, taking an Islamabad-based girl and the girl’s mother with her. “Islamabad-Peshawar-Khyber Pass-Jalalabad-Kabul,” Pontecorvo said. “A six-hour drive. Two women, three kids, no problem whatsoever. It was the safest thing in the world.”


When Pontecorvo returned to Afghanistan in 2020, he could only move around Ansari Square—indeed, any part of the city—in armored cars, accompanied by bodyguards. Today, the Italian Embassy stands empty, as do other Western embassies in Kabul.

And now Afghanistan has a new leader, acting Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund. He will certainly not say the right things in Davos. Do Westerners make the mistake of assessing developing countries’ leaders using the same criteria they use for their own leaders? I asked Pontecorvo, who has also served as Italy’s ambassador to Pakistan. “We often forget that these countries often have elite cultures,” he said. “We need to work through the elites, some of whom are quite illuminated, and not work against them, which is what we’ve been doing. We have to recognize that leadership comes from having been born into a particular family or tribe.”

Ghani, a respected academic and World Bank official though he was, lacked that strong platform at home. Pontecorvo tried to encourage him to work more closely with the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation. “I have a lot of respect for old leaders in countries where leaders die young, because that means that they have a lot of influence and resilience. … In Afghanistan, it’s the Abdullahs, the Hekmatyars, the Karzais, and so on; people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds,” Pontecorvo said, referring to the reconciliation council’s chairman, a powerful former warlord, and a former president, respectively. “We had some moderate success convincing them to work with the president. The problem was that he wouldn’t listen.”

Western policymakers continue to mistake developing-country representatives who say the right things in Davos for promising leaders.

It is hardly surprising that many Afghan soldiers saw little point in laying down their lives for Ghani. And Ghani is not the first president of Afghanistan about whom Afghan soldiers have made such a judgement.

In 1985, Soviet soldiers serving in Afghanistan took the radical step of writing to the Kremlin mouthpiece Pravda, accusing it of disinformation during Moscow’s Afghan war: “There were two letters from the crews of a tank and a helicopter. These are reproaching Pravda for writing untrue accounts: you recently described a battle in which Afghan warriors supposedly fought heroically, they say, but in reality—‘we were the ones fighting and everything was completely different [from your report],’” the Soviet official Anatoly Chernyaev noted in his diary at the time.

36 years later, it was that same reality that forced Pontecorvo and his staff to prematurely ensconce themselves at the airport, where they would work and sleep (about two hours per night, I’m told) until they, too, left the country. “We were supposed to go to the airport on the 18th, but when places like Herat and Kandahar started falling I thought it was prudent to move to the airport already on the 14th,” Pontecorvo told me.


During the evacuation, which began the next day, Pontecorvo and his staff had three tasks: keeping the airport open, coordinating the countries’ evacuation flights, and getting NATO citizens and the Afghans most at risk out of the country.

Pontecorvo at the Kabul airport on Aug. 25.

Pontecorvo at the Kabul airport on Aug. 25. Stefano Pontecorvo’s office

Keeping the airport open was a fiendishly complex task, one that involved civilian flights, military flights, and the armed forces of NATO member states ranging in size from the United States to Lithuania. It also involved the allotment of slots by the hour. And while the U.S. Army did the lion’s share of security, according to NATO statistics its European allies conducted a respectable 40 percent of the evacuation flights—and there were an average of 120 such flights each day. “In the morning and the afternoon every day, we had coordination meetings for the ambassadors,” Pontecorvo told me. “Plus, we set up an operational cell that collected information about who had flights going out, how many seats they had available, and where they were going.”

Countries processed would-be passengers’ documentation with relative speed, especially considering the long delays usually associated with consular matters. “That helped us get from almost empty flights in the first days to completely full flights a few days later. As a result, we managed to evacuate 124,000 people in 14 days,” he said. Should NATO or another multilateral organization ever have to conduct a complex airlift again, the lessons from the coordination cell will prove extraordinarily useful.

When Pontecorvo left on an Italian air force flight, he did so knowing that NATO hadn’t been able to get everyone out. “We evacuated everyone on NATO member states’ first and second priorities,” he said. “But things shouldn’t have ended this way. Everyone made mistakes, but most of the responsibility lies with President Ghani. Had he not been hanging on until the last moment, things would not have ended in this way.” Indeed, one might ask what would have happened if Afghanistan had instead had a president for whom soldiers saw a point in sacrificing their lives. Getting the country to that stage was, of course, the mission of the international presence for so many years—and yet it remained elusive until the very end.

As for Pontecorvo, when he left on that final Italian flight from Kabul, he did so with a heavier heart than if he’d been a mere NATO emissary rather than a man who’d spent a happy childhood in the city. “It was very emotional,” he told me. “It was a life cycle closing.”

He still keeps an Afghan phone number, for the Afghans who contact him needing help to leave the country.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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