They are a domestic police force, but they are doing their jobs in countries hundreds and thousands of miles from home: Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon, Palestine. They get so many invitations — pleas, really — from countries emerging from conflict, or descending into it, that they must turn some down. They are Italy’s Carabinieri, and their unusual mix of law-enforcement talent and military capability may often be a better answer than traditional troops to today’s not-quite-wars.
Visitors to Italy are often confused by the peculiar setup of the country’s law enforcement. The municipal-based Polizia performs routine police work, chasing burglars and investigating thefts. The Guardia di Finanza, operating under the Ministry of Finance, handles smuggling and financial crime. And the Carabinieri? They are what one might call Italy’s special police, in charge of investigating particularly complex crimes and keeping public order under difficult conditions. If, say, a mass riot broke out after a Roma-Lazio game, the Carabinieri would be trusted to restore order. When mafia bosses are apprehended, the arrests are often carried out by Carabinieri officers; last year, they pulled ‘Ndrangheta boss Giuseppe Giorgi from a secret compartment behind his fireplace.
Crucially, the Carabinieri are also trained soldiers; they serve under both the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior. “They have an almost unique background, being a military force tasked with domestic security, law and order, police and investigative work,” noted Stefano Stefanini, a former ambassador of Italy to NATO and former security advisor to Italy’s president. “Control of the domestic territory is their basic responsibility. They bring this expertise to the international stabilisation missions, whereas other countries’ armed forces are often ill-equipped to deal with civilian tension and unrest.”
Indeed, the Carabinieri play a crucial role in international stability-projection. “Their dual identity has allowed the Carabinieri to take part in Italian military missions abroad both as a combat unit, as a Military Police unit, as a specialized anti-riot crowd control unit, and as trainers of the indigenous police forces and security units in a crisis area,” General Claudio Graziano, Italy’s Chief of Defense, told me.
That unusual combination has made the Carabinieri popular among countries emerging from armed conflict. Unlike UN peacekeepers, they can both train local police forces and help maintain public order. Currently some 500 Carabinieri are on foreign deployment, serving as part of 33 missions. In Afghanistan, 30 Carabinieri are training and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces, the Afghan National Police, and the Afghan National Civil Order Police. In Iraq, Carabinieri have trained 13,000 police officers in the past two years. When ISIS was destroying historic sites, Italy took the lead in the UN’s Blue Helmets of Culture initiative and dispatched troops from the Carabinieri’s Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.
Perhaps even more significantly, some 160 Carabinieri serve as part of international Multinational Specialised Units in Bosnia and Kosovo, helping maintain public order, patrolling sensitive areas, and assisting the return of refugees and displaced persons. They focus much of their effort on the divided city of Mitrovica, where one UN peacekeeper was killed and several others were injured during riots in 2008.
The Kosovo incident and the Blue Helmets of Culture illustrate why the Carabinieri are so useful: they’re a police force and a military one alike, a security hybrid that can be used for a wider range of tasks than an ordinary soldier or police officer. “Even 11 years ago, [then-UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan was impressed by the capabilities of the Carabinieri,” said Mark Malloch Brown, a deputy UN Secretary-General under Annan, who subsequently served as Britain’s Minister for Africa, Asia, and the United Nations. “They represent a shift from traditional monitoring to keeping security within failing states. Quasi-military policing is often needed.”
Sadly, that need is increasing. While UN peacekeepers are still a major global presence – currently some 90,000 blue helmets from 123 countries are serving on 15 peacekeeping missions – they have been plagued by scandals such as Haiti’s 2010 cholera outbreak, which originated with Blue Helmets. More importantly, in many cases Blue Helmets’ peace-monitoring mission no longer works: there’s simply too little peace to monitor. In 1995, UN peacekeepers posted to the town of Srebrenica were disastrously overrun by Bosnian Serbs who proceeded to rape or kill thousands of local civilians.
A force of 160 Carabinieri won’t deter well-armed forces intent on mass murder, but they’re better suited than regular Blue Helmets to maintain order. “Their success reflects the state of peace-keeping today,” said Malloch Brown. “There’s more state breakdown; we’re back to a pre-1989 world, but the two dominant states have been replaced by a larger number of regional actors, which has led to more instability. Just look at Yemen. One might call the Carabinieri a precursor towards a different kind of peacekeeping.”
By extension, the Carabinieri’s overseas efforts benefit Europe. “They’re instrumental in reducing the capability of jihadist groups to promote attacks in Europe,” said Laura Quadarella Sanfelice di Monteforte, a professor of counter-terrorism at the University of Rome Unicusano.
Indeed, after cuisine and fashion, the Carabinieri may be Italy’s most important export. It’s hardly surprising that NATO’s three-year-old Stability Policing Centre of Excellence is located in Italy, as is the NATO Security Force Assistance Centre of Excellence. The Carabinieri even run a training center-cum-think tank of their own, the 13-year-old Center of Excellence for Stability Police Units (CoESPU), where they teach colleagues from other countries.
The Carabinieri have also played a key role in developing NATO’s new Stability Policing Doctrine, which will be tested during Sweden’s large VIKING exercise this month and subsequently presented to NATO commanders. “We’re trying to affirm a new vision named stability policing,” said Graziano, referring to Italy. “It means having units capable of carrying out police-related activities to reinforce or temporarily replace local police forces. That helps restore and uphold public order and security, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights.” Stability operations are also likely to feature prominently during the alliance’s 2018 summit this July.
Gen. Graziano is willing deploy even more Carabinieri. “I’m really proud that the Carabinieri’s professionalism and capabilities are recognized worldwide, and we are ready and eager to offer to our allies and partners this distinctive ‘specialization of excellence’,” he told me.
But part of the centers’ objective is for other countries to develop Carabinieri-like capabilities – because unlike cuisine and fashion, Carabinieri export is a financial burden to Italy. “Whenever there is the dual need of post-conflict domestic stability and of empowering local authorities and forces through specialized training, the Carabinieri are in great demand,” noted Stefanini. “Their success is their problem, as Italy finds it difficult to meet requests for Carabinieri deployment abroad.” That need may well include an eventual post-conflict Syria, which would be a particularly complex peace-enforcement mission.
Indeed, the Carabinieri shouldn’t be an exclusively Italian product. “Other countries should institute similar programs to the Carabinieri,” said Malloch Brown. “But even if you had five times as many Carabinieri, it wouldn’t fix the security situation. There isn’t a whole lot the Carabinieri or the rest of the international community can do about the breakdown of the international order.”
Unfortunately, that is the stark reality. Even more reason, then, to give Italy credit for their special police force’s crucial international role, far beyond the arrest of Mafiosi. With cuisine and fashion, the world has been extremely active in copying Italy. Let’s do the same with the Carabinieri.