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The Last Spaniards in Afghanistan

Spain ends its longest military mission, and its soldiers reflect on that 19-year period

This Article is part of the debate on
Mars & Venus Military NATO Spain

Marisol Hernández
Spanish military personnel bid farewell to their families before departing to Afganisthan in 2013

Lone Survivor, starring Mark Wahlberg, tells the story of a group of American soldiers who have to capture a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. According to Joaquín Aguirre, a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish Air Force, the film, based on real events, is the one that best portrays his memories of this country. He was placed there at different times in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2012, in the Spanish contingent of the Nato mission in Afghanistan. A territory a little larger than Spain, but with a 75% mountainous surface. Aguirre  describes Afghanistan as “the worst country in the world to fly” because of the altitude and the heat.

The Spanish Armed Forces have been there for 19 years. They arrived in Kabul on 24 January 2002. Four months after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, which drove Nato to intervene in Afghanistan in search of Al Qaeda leaders. There was Spanish participation right from the start. Last week US president Joe Biden put an end to this mission. “It’s time for American troops to come home”. His decision has led the Atlantic Alliance to agree on a “safe and coordinated” exit before the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  During this time, 100 Spanish soldiers and two interpreters have died.

The withdrawal will begin on 1 May. Spain is thus leaving Afghanistan, the mission that has required the greatest effort in terms of personnel (27,100 troops) and logistics and in which it has remained the longest. First, an attempt was made to secure Kabul and its surroundings. From 2005 to 2010, the international forces grouped as ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) grew throughout the territory. At that time, a transition period began to end combat operations and hand over the country’s security to Afghan forces. As of 2015, the mission evolved into the Resolute Support Mission (RSM), dedicated to training, advising and assisting the Afghan army.

Under the RSM mandate, Spain keeps 24 military employees and two interpreters in this country. Colonel Alfonso Álvarez is in charge of the unit. His duty will be to put an end to 19 years of military history. In that period, the Spanish army’s experience has been enhanced, particularly in Herat, one of the most complicated provinces in Afghanistan, along with the southern ones.

He arrived in November 2020, not knowing that he would be the last in command. In a conversation with El Mundo, he admits that he is feels “proud”. There is still no exact date for the departure of the Spanish contingent once the withdrawal begins in May. But he believes it will be done “relatively quickly, in about a month, maybe less”. A “neat” withdrawal, following a claim that has prevailed all these years: “We arrived together, we’ll leave together”.

The withdrawal will begin in May, the exact date has not yet been set, but it could take place within a month

Nato is leaving Afghanistan in the middle of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, who have never been totally defeated. These Islamic fundamentalists came to power in 1996 and until 2001 proclaimed the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The protection provided to Al Qaeda served as justification for immediate US and UK intervention, followed by Nato. Twenty years later, the Taliban have continued to carry out attacks in an ongoing offensive against the government. In fact, there are fears among the Afghan population that the withdrawal of international forces will provoke a new civil war.

From Kabul, Colonel Álvarez admits that it is a conflict that “many people predict”. However, he points out that the Doha talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were held precisely to avoid this in the recent Istanbul Conference. “Nato is not abandoning Afghanistan, this is a new chapter, and we are going to remain vigilant,” he explains. He adds that what has been done is to set an exit date, which is “necessary to comply with the ceasefire and subsequent conditions.”

Colonel Álvarez, the last head of the mission, is preparing a special event for the day when it is time to lower the flag.

Over the past 20 years, it has not been possible to stabilise Afghanistan overall, but there has been some development. Lieutenant Colonel Aguirre recalls that his years there were like travelling “back to the Middle Ages”. When he first arrived in Herat, there was no base, just an airstrip and the control tower. They slept in tents. The landscape was totally deserted. It was possible to see herds of camels and sometimes, from the air, a nomadic shepherd, all alone, with nothing around him among miles of sand.

At that time, the Ring Road, the road that circles the 32 provinces of Afghanistan, had not been completed.

Now the change is noticeable, and Colonel Álvarez points out that you can get almost anything in Kabul. You can still see women wearing burqas imposed by the Taliban regime as part of its extreme Islamist policy that prevented women from access to education, freedom of movement and many other rights. However, there are also women in the university or the army. The last representative of the Spanish troops assumes that much remains to be done in a country with high rates of illiteracy and poverty. Still, during these years, Spain has contributed to building a “country structure” in Afghanistan.

Corruption is still a serious problem. Afghanistan leads heroin production worldwide. And there is also a lot of money coming from the support funds of the UN, Nato, the US and the EU. Warlords, drug lords, the Taliban and other terrorist groups still coexist there. But both sources address that the Spanish presence in Afghanistan “has been very important”.

“Our flag has flown alongside those of the rest of the international community, and that is something to be proud of,” says Colonel Álvarez. He is already thinking about the farewell, the moment when flags will be lowered. “I want it to be something to remember. Because 102 people have died during these 19 years of mission, that’s a lot of people, and we need to pay tribute to them. They have lost their lives to contribute to the security of the Spanish people. Right here, somewhere so far away”.

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