Risks Facing the Spanish Contingent in Afghanistan (ARI)

Risks Facing the Spanish Contingent in Afghanistan (ARI)

Theme: This ARI describes the possible risks for the Spanish contingent in Afghanistan.

Summary: A detailed analysis of the nature of the current and potential threat that the Spanish contingent will have to face in the immediate future is required in the light of increased risks in Spain’s deployment zone in Afghanistan in recent months, the worsening of the conflict in a large part of the country –including the capital, Kabul– and the intensification of terrorist activity in neighbouring Pakistan. The Taliban and al-Qaeda are the principal instigators of these risks, forming a tandem in which local tribes, drug traffickers and common criminals also participate at times. Without entering into open combat against multinational bases or forces, their strategy consists in harassing them via gunfire, explosive devices, attacks and kidnappings. This ARI describes the evolution of these risks for the Spanish contingent in Afghanistan, the behavioural patterns of the terrorists and insurgents, their internal organisation, their main attacks and the effect of the latter on the Spanish and multinational forces engaged in a mission of reconstruction that could become destabilised by the growing risks.

Analysis: The Spanish contingent engaged in the mission in Afghanistan is formed by 690 soldiers, to whom a further 52 were added on 3 October 2007 for training and drilling the Afghan Army. They are distributed as follows: 430 troops at the Herat advanced support base, which includes a deployment of transport aircraft and from where the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) in four provinces are protected; 190 military personnel at Qala-i-Naw, the capital of Badghis province, where Spain leads the provincial PRT; 18 soldiers at the General Headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul; 52 air force soldiers at the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan; and the 52 recently deployed near Herat. As far as the Spanish deployment in the western region is concerned, this commenced in May 2005. The most recent Spanish contingent to be deployed, which arrived on 3 October, will train two units of the Afghan Army at Camp Stone, 15 km to the south of the Spanish base at Herat: two units of the Afghan Army, a logistics group and a base services unit, belonging to Brigade Number 1 of the Afghan Army’s 207th Corps based in Herat. The 52 persons dispatched included teaching staff and other support staff. It is hoped that the deployment of these two Afghan Army units will contribute to increasing the governmental presence in the zone and to reducing the risk faced by Spanish troops.

Since the intensification of fighting between the Afghan forces of order and the Taliban in the summer of 2007, many inhabitants of the Bala Murghab district, in the north of Badghis province, have been relocating to the city of Herat, around 170 kilometres to the south, where Spain has its advanced support base and from where it oversees the security of the PRT in four provinces. They are not moving to Qala-i-Naw, the capital of Badghis –which is the town closest to their province– because they believe that fighting will extend to that locality too. At Qala-i-Naw, there is a base with 190 Spanish soldiers, who are precisely responsible for ensuring security in the zone. This base is also responsible for protecting the reconstruction work of the Spanish PRT working on site to tarmac over 50 km of roads, install 13 ford-crossings, make a local aerodrome fit for use, supply water and electricity, reconstruct the Badghis Provincial Hospital, and provide health care from the Role 2 Hospital.

The provinces of Helmand, Farah, Uruzgan, Kandahar and Nimruz are witnessing the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Taliban and al-Qaeda activists view the provinces controlled by ISAF as the areas most suited to action as the troops deployed there do not combat them with the level of aggression employed by the forces engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom in the south. Taliban activity extended westwards from the spring and summer of 2006. Until then, Taliban activity had been absent from these areas and from the north of the country; remaining limited to the Shindand region, in the province of Herat. The onset of Taliban activities in these zones coincided with the beginning of ISAF expansion into the southern part of the country and then, in the autumn, also into the east. This expansion was authorised by UN Security Council resolution 1510, approved in October 2003, and had been initiated in the northern regions, with an important German military presence, and in the west with Spanish and Italian presence. Spain, which left Operation Enduring Freedom in July 2004, follows rules of engagement designed for a mission of reconstruction.

More recently, Operation Achilles, launched on 5 March 2007 and terminated on 12 April, was carried out by 4,500 ISAF personnel and 1,000 Afghan soldiers in the northern part of Helmand province, in the most southerly region of the west of the country. It was an operation in support of the Afghan police and armed forces to seal off borders in order to prevent the Taliban crossing into the west. Spanish and Italian soldiers –and eventually Norwegian and Portuguese military personnel– were required to provide support for certain one-off actions; which in the case of the Spanish troops exclusively involved medical evacuations.

Against this backdrop, and following the deaths of two Spanish soldiers in July 2006 and February 2007 respectively, when the vehicles they were travelling in were blown up by explosive devices, July 2007 saw the first ambush of a Spanish patrol undertaking a reconnaissance operation. On 24 September, an attack perpetrated at Bala Baluk, 44 km to the north-east of the city of Farah and to the south of Herat, caused the deaths of two Spanish soldiers and their Afghan interpreter. Ten days later, during the night of 3 to 4 October, four projectiles were fired at the Hispano-Italian base in Herat, although they failed to hit the target. In the light of further incidents described below, as at December 2007 it is possible to point to two clear foci for the growing Taliban presence to the north and south of Badghis province, responsible for the latest attacks in the area, including those produced in recent weeks. All of the foregoing, linked to the steady deterioration of security in a significant part of Afghan territory and in neighbouring Pakistan, would seem to point to a worsening of the situation in the short and mid terms.

The threat faced by ISAF contingents deployed in Afghanistan is essentially formed by the Taliban/al-Qaeda tandem, at times joined by certain of the local tribes insofar as any conflict is likely to augment their power and influence. Al-Qaeda has intensified its attacks –and especially its suicide bombings– in all of its zones of action and in the capital, Kabul, where Spain is also present at the ISAF General Headquarters. To date, victims have largely been Afghans, but the attacks also affect the allied contingents.

It is interesting to note how in February 2007, 228 armed incidents were recorded in the south of Afghanistan, 101 in the east, 21 in the west and 11 in the north. Records show that in the zone of Spanish presence most of these occurred in the Farah area, close to the ring road. This is also the most southerly part of the ISAF mission in which the Spanish forces are involved, which is, moreover, the only zone in the west of the country with a Pashtun majority. In the province of Farah, approximately 50 Taliban and 14 Afghan soldiers died during three days of combat from 30 October to 2 November 2007.

In organisational terms, the Taliban function by means of loyalty networks combining the Pashtun tribal dimension and Jihadist ideology. The Taliban Shura (council), presided over by the difficult-to-pin-down Mullah Omar, is probably based at Quetta, the capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan and the city where the direct road to Kandahar starts. It is likely that a second council is located in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. The foregoing does not mean that the Taliban constitute a structured organisation, but rather that they are a conglomerate of players on whom we still lack sufficient information. Indeed, for certain Afghan and foreign leaders, the Taliban do not constitute a centralised group, and it is not possible to put a face to their leaders other than Mullah Omar himself –written orders from whom were intercepted in September demonstrating a degree of administrative revitalisation within the movement– or other leaders such as the now deceased Mullah Dadullah Lang, or the firebrand Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud. The latter agitates the scene in Pakistan from his stronghold in South Waziristan, although he does not neglect the Afghan front. These rebel leaders appear in Jihadist propaganda videos or they become known because of their involvement in the negotiations to free hostages in the increasingly common kidnappings of westerners; but they are no more than intermediary or regional leaders within the Taliban conglomerate.

Everything points to decentralised organisation within the Taliban, as is the case with al-Qaeda, and everything depends on the agreements reached with the Pashtun tribal leaders, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. In any event, and regardless of whether or not the Taliban have organised combat strategies and tactics, we cannot overlook their readiness and vehemence in causing daily casualties amongst foreign troops, the Afghan armed and security forces, and also amongst the Afghan civilian population.

In terms of the cross-border Afghan-Pakistani scene, connections between the Taliban and the Pashtun tribes are complex and do not always run smoothly. In the last few months, much has been said about Taliban reprisals against Pashtun tribal leaders in the sanctuary formed by the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) for not willingly offering facilities to the Taliban/al-Qaeda duplex. The agreement signed last autumn by president Pervez Musharraf’s regime with a number of tribal leaders in the FATA would have had this aim, an effort similar to that which in Iraq has led some Sunni tribal leaders in Al Anbar province to oppose foreign al-Qaeda members, but one which is being fiercely combated  by the foreign Jihadists, who have supported young Taliban leaders based on Pakistani territory –such as Sirajuddin Haqqani and Anwar ul-Haq Mujahed– opposed to the influence of the older and more conservative tribal leaders based in Quetta. However, although the concept of the tandem is referred to when describing the main threat facing ISAF troops, we must not overlook the fact that there are differences between the Taliban and the al-Qaeda network. For example, al-Qaeda does not employ the Taliban technique of negotiating the release of foreign hostages, whether for money, or for the freeing of imprisoned individuals; and neither does it seek to achieve international recognition along the lines of the attempts of the Taliban movement prior to 2001, when it tried to join the United Nations (UN) and added to its case by prohibiting opium poppy production.

The members of the armed groups laying siege to Spain’s forces in the west of the country are diverse. On the one hand, there is the Taliban component, formed by individuals belonging to the movement, and on the other hand, there is the tribal component, whose participants combat sporadically or permanently in their region of origin, and who may be loyal to de facto Taliban rebel leaders or to groups that might be more correctly identified with banditry. In the latter, although dotted with anti-western influences fed by Jihadism, we could include Reza Khan, who murdered the Spanish journalist Julio Fuentes and whose death sentence was carried out on 8 October 2007. In tribal terms, the region of Herat is dominated by Ismail Khan, a warlord who retains a good part of his militia and who, although he has not carried out attacks on the Spanish and Italian contingents, constitutes an armed instrument presently at odds with –and likely to remain so in the future– the effort to strengthen the Afghan State and its central Government in Kabul. A further two participants can be linked to both of these components, each of them within the spectrum of the al-Qaeda network and with solid links to it or simply obeying its dictates: the foreign Jihadist combatants and the hired mercenaries. Of the first, the best prepared are likely to be based in Pakistan –where recruits are instructed–, ready to participate in specific operations on Afghan soil; and amongst whom we must include those who cross the Iranian border from Syria and other places; and hired elements recruited in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan for specific actions. Nationals from a range of countries as wide as Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, different Arab countries, Turkey and the Xinjiang area of China (the region Jihadists refer to as East Turkestan) stand out amongst the 5% to 10% of the foreign Jihadists engaged in full-time combat in Afghanistan against the Afghan and international forces throughout the country. In organisational terms, the aforementioned mercenary contracts are normally signed between March and April and end in November. They are effected in the refugee camps in Pakistan and also amongst Afghans living in depressed areas of the country, and they are of high economic interest, since a Taliban combatant can earn between US$5 and US$10 as opposed to the US$2 or US$3 paid to police officers and soldiers. [1]

Despite President Karzai’s announcement in December 2004 of a personal Jihad against drugs, production has actually risen in recent years, raising the interest of both tribal leaders and warlords and for the Taliban and Jihadist elements. The southern part of Helmand is prominent in production, with 45% of all Afghan opium being produced there –a figure that rises to 70% if account is also taken of the provinces of Uruzgan and Kandahar, which are also in the south–. The zone of Spanish presence is also a producing region –although not one of the main ones– and its border with the Islamic Republic of Iran forms one of the drug’s exit points onto the international markets.

General Tactics and Specific Attacks
Attacks are normally sporadic and do not follow a fixed pattern; thereby obliging the international and Afghan forces to be on continuous alert. The number of attacks has risen, but there has still not been a massive attack along the lines of that which had been expected for the “spring offensive” in 2007, but which never happened. As mentioned above, the Taliban normally suffer high casualties during their attacks –at least from a western perspective– but in a warlike and prolific society like theirs this is something that is not questioned. They move about in small groups, on motorcycles carrying two people who perpetrate waves of attacks using AK-47 guns, grenade launchers, mortars, rockets and other light arms. They also use off-road vehicles –the classic image of the Taliban in 2001–, and bigger groups for carrying out larger-scale attacks are sometimes formed by using both the latter and the former. When western forces arrive at the scene of a Taliban attack, the perpetrators usually disappear rapidly, since they are fearful of their enemies requesting aerial support –something they perceive as their biggest threat–. Undertaking or calling for an aerial attack is not an easy decision, but it is usually required where there are no reserve forces on the ground to come to the aid of the attacked forces. For the NATO forces, air attacks are considered a last resort in view of the risk of producing civilian casualties. They are used more often under the umbrella of Operation Enduring Freedom. Indeed, the large numbers of civilian casualties produced during the air attacks executed over the last few months have been the subject of bitter complaints by President Karzai, as well as of criticism on the part of the allies, particularly Spain and Germany.

On the ground, Taliban and al-Qaeda elements mix into the civilian population –aware of the ISAF forces’ fear of causing civilian casualties during air raids. They enter peoples’ homes and thereby ensure that any air raid against them will involve the sacrifice of civilian lives. This approach is also being employed in Pakistan in the combats between the Pakistani armed and security forces and Taliban and al-Qaeda elements based in the FATA. However, sooner or later this tactic might return to haunt the Taliban –although less so the al-Qaeda members– because it puts civilian lives at risk, as do the indiscriminate attacks. Indeed, protests on the part of the civilian population and the Afghan authorities are growing, and this is something that the Taliban and al-Qaeda will have to take into account, because alongside their extreme severity –even in the eyes of the highly conservative Afghan tribal communities– it might lead to them losing the support of some tribal leaders. This ‘insurgence’ against the tandem was first noted in 2006 in the Pakistani FATA. It is similar to what occurred in the traditional Jihadist sanctuaries –such as Al Anbar province– and it is a phenomenon that US forces have attempted to generalise (Anbar awakening). While for al-Qaeda Jihadists the loss of civilian lives is acceptable in a holy war such as they hold theirs to be, and is even perceived as positive for rousing the population and ensuring opposition both to President Karzai’s regime and foreign forces, Taliban and tribal elements will be obliged to take account of the resentment of the communities suffering significant loss of life within their planning.

Events are developing in this way especially in the Taliban and al-Qaeda strongholds, that is to say in the southern provinces of Afghanistan; but it could extend to the zones of Spanish presence if they become trapped in the dynamic of violence described, given that the modus operandi of the Jihadists is similar everywhere. As an example, there have been between 30 and 50 deaths in the southern province of Ghazni as a result of the attacks on the joint western and Afghan forces from 4 to 5 September, while on the 25 and 26 of the same month 169 fatalities occurred as result of operations executed in the provinces of Uruzgan and Helmand. Although it is difficult to verify the real number of deaths on the Taliban side, since their elements usually disperse after perpetrating an attack and western leaders generally estimate deaths after they have secured aerial support, or they are sometimes given figures by the Afghan authorities that usually point to –especially in the last few months– an increasing number of civilians amongst the dead, the operations do cause a high number of victims from a western standpoint. Even so, the Taliban regeneration capacity is also high given the constant recruitment of combatants via the two ways described above.

In their attacks against convoys of both the multinational and Afghan forces, the Taliban and al-Qaeda use classic anti-tank mines and, increasingly and with growing effectiveness, improvised explosive devices (IED). Of the four fatal attacks suffered by the Spanish Army , three in Afghanistan –in July 2006 and in February and September 2007– and one in Lebanon in June 2007, three were committed using IED and the fourth with an anti-tank mine. Experts believe that the type of IED used is only subject to the limits of the human imagination, and there have been cases of pipe bombs, fire bombs, vehicle bombs and projectiles delivered from an IED, which are known as Explosively Formed Penetrators (EFP). Of course, they all come in a series of types, ranging from simple to more complex, and they are constantly evolving.

The first attack against the Spanish contingent occurred on 8 July 2006, in which one soldier was killed, and on 13 November a suicide attack perpetrated from a vehicle that exploded as the patrol convoy of the Spanish Quick Reaction Force passed, causing light injuries amongst the soldiers. On 21 February 2007 a soldier from the Quick Reaction Force based in Herat was killed when the armoured vehicle he was driving ran over an anti-tank mine, probably a TC-6, 7 km from Shindand, on the road between this city and Farah. On 15 March, members of a Quick Reaction Force convoy observed an explosion approximately 200 metres ahead of them which blew up a motorcycle carrying two Afghan civilians driving in the same direction as the convoy, which had presumably been the real target of the bombers. More recently, on 24 September, another attack against Spanish troops caused the deaths of two soldiers and their Afghan interpreter. It employed an IED formed by between 3 and 10 kg of explosives, which were remotely activated by means of a 62-metre electric cable triggered by a motorcycle battery. Lastly, on 2 October an Afghan police convoy being escorted by Spanish troops to Bala Murghab –a town under Taliban siege at the time– suffered an attack in which one police officer was killed and several injured. No Spanish soldiers were killed or injured in the attack, since they were at a safe distance from the Afghan vehicles. Having become tragically notorious in the Iraqi theatre, this type of IED attacks are increasingly featuring in Afghanistan, leading Spain –whose contingent has already suffered several IED attacks as we have seen above– to create in September 2007 a counter-IED International Institute (Centro Militar Internacional de Investigación de Artefactos Explosivos Improvisados); this is ample evidence of the importance that Spain’s armed forces attach to these lethal devices. [2]

In the ambushes, explosive attacks are not combined with attacks on columns because ISAF forces have greater firepower than the Afghan military and police units, and they are also able to request air support more quickly. For this reason, it is very difficult for ambushes to be fully concluded in these cases. The Afghan patrols –both police and military– with less available firepower and hampered by greater difficulties when it comes to obtaining air support, are usually attacked in bloody ambushes. To date, for the same reasons described above vis à vis ambushes, neither have there been assaults or attempted assaults on the bases of the multinational forces. In fact, in this respect we can only list the launching, on 11 October 2007, of four 107 mm projectiles which landed 500 metres from Camp Arena, the main Spanish base in Afghanistan, which is located in the city of Heart, and which also houses Italian soldiers. Suicide attacks commenced in the country in 2005. At first, they were perpetrated by foreign terrorists given that suicide did not form part of the Pashtun style of fighting. However, of late Afghans have increasingly been perpetrating suicide attacks, and indeed they now account for between 60% and 70% of the total. Generally speaking, the Afghan suicide bombers are young people recruited in the refugee camps who have spent time at radical madrassas (Koranic schools) in Pakistan. Lately, a higher degree of technical expertise has also been observed in the preparation of both car bombs driven by suicide bombers and bombs tied to the body.

We shall now provide a non-exhaustive list of the suicide bombings perpetrated both in the zone of greatest Spanish presence in the province of Badghis and throughout the country –because we must not forget that there are also Spanish military deployed in Kabul, where these attacks are frequent–. On 14 November 2006, a suicide bomber attacked a Spanish convoy 120 km to the south of Herat, causing injuries to seven soldiers in an armoured vehicle. Different explosives were used (at least one large calibre artillery projectile, between 105 and 155 mm, grenades, ammunition and guns). On 31 August 2007, a suicide bomber exploded a car bomb at the access to the military part of Kabul International Airport. On 29 September 2007, also in Kabul, a suicide bomber dressed in an Afghan army uniform got onto an Afghan army bus and detonated the bomb he was carrying, killing 28 people. On 2 October 2007, a terrorist blew himself up on a public transport bus in Kabul, killing 11 people. On 6 October 2007, a suicide bomber killed five Afghan civilians and an American soldier on the road between Kabul and the International Airport. Lastly, we have to mention the bloodiest suicide bombing that has occurred in Afghanistan to date: it happened in the city of Baghlon on 6 November and 75 people were killed, including six members of the Afghan parliament and 59 schoolchildren.

Although to date suicide attacks perpetrated in the zone of Spanish deployment –with the exception, of course, of the contingent stationed at the General ISAF Headquarters in Kabul– have been few in comparison with those that have occurred in other regions, we should not forget the existence of the precedent of the attack on 14 November 2006, in addition to the suicide attacks suffered in recent years by components of the neighbouring Italian contingent. Nor should we overlook the fact that the suicide bombing perpetrated on 6 November 2007 in the northern city of Baghlan is evidence of the terrorists’ desire to hit with force in any part of the country. In considering future developments, hostage-taking is something that must be taken into account, given the frequency of kidnappings of foreigners over the last few months on the part of both the Taliban and certain local tribes. The individuals taken hostage by tribes are normally used as a bargaining counter to resolve disputes affecting them or to free imprisoned members of the tribe in question; employing the same logic observed in the frequent kidnappings of foreigners in the Republic of Yemen. On other occasions, the tribe hands over or sells the hostages to the Taliban and this completely changes the situation, because the latter either uses them to attempt to secure the release of imprisoned elements, threatens to assassinate them, or actually does assassinate a number of hostages in order to exert pressure. In March, an Italian journalist, who had been kidnapped in the southern province of Helmand, was freed in return for –at the very least– the release of six Taliban prisoners. In July, two German engineers were taken hostage in the centre of the country: one of them was immediately killed and the other was freed in October alongside five Afghans, following the release of four Taliban prisoners at the end of September. The group of South Korean missionaries taken hostage and of whom the majority were later freed –23 were held, of whom two were murdered during captivity– enabled the Taliban to demand and secure a commitment from Seoul to withdraw its contingent from Afghanistan. Although the kidnappings have largely been of civilians, we should not rule out potential military hostage-taking. In regard to Spain’s troops, a precedent –given their proximity– is the kidnapping of the two Italian NCOs and their two Afghan companions, in Herat on 22 September. They were freed on 24 September in an ISAF military action in which nine of their captors died. We can also mention the capturing –further away– of approximately 300 Pakistani soldiers, eight of whom were officers, by the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who held them at his stronghold at south Waziristan, eventually freeing 211 of them on 4 November in return for the release of 28 Taliban. On 7 October at the same stronghold, members of Mehsud’s group killed over 200 Pakistani soldiers; a show of strength and evidence of his daring that could serve to inspire other activists both in Pakistan and in Afghanistan.

Conclusion: Ambushes using mines and IEDs in the first instance, as well as suicide attacks and hostage-taking from bases, and the possible capture even of military personnel are evidence of the level of danger which Spain’s troops are facing and will continue to face in Afghanistan.

In view of the state of opinion observed amongst the allies at the recent NATO Defence Ministers meeting, at Noordwijk (the Netherlands) on 24 October, there would not appear to be much evidence to suggest that the forces in Afghanistan are likely to significantly increase or that relevant changes in the theatre of operations are likely to be implemented. At a time when the situation both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan is deteriorating, with bloody and frequent terrorist attacks in both countries, military actions against the combined threat posed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda would nevertheless appear to require increased resources and more decided and firmer participation on the part of all the allied countries, as opposed to the à la carte participation which has prevailed until now.

Furthermore, we should no longer delay the elimination of the aforementioned players from the Pakistani sanctuary; although the political and security conditions prevalent in Pakistan today do not invite optimism in this respect, at least in the short-term. No one should forget that only a guarantee of improved security in regard to the threats described here will make it possible to accelerate the economic and human development that we all desire for Afghanistan.

Carlos Echeverría Jesús
Lecturer and Doctor in International Relations, UNED

[1] José Luis Calvo, ¿Por qué empeora la situación en Afganistán?, Athena Intelligence Occasional Paper nr 14, 4/IX/2007, p. 5, www.athenaintelligence.org.

[2] See the very complete report by Fernando M. Mañas & Javier Jordán, Los artefactos explosivos improvisados (IEDs), Athena Intelligence Occasional Paper nr 19, 17/VIII/2007, p. 13, www.athenaintelligence.org.