Spain and Afghanistan

Spain and Afghanistan

Summary: Nearly five years after the defeat of the Taliban and pledges by Western nations to quickly rebuild the country, Afghanistan is still facing acute problems. The growing Taliban resurgence which has claimed nearly 400 lives in May alone and a drugs epidemic that is funding terrorism and fuelling corruption, are making the task of reconstruction much more difficult. As the Spanish Parliament agreed to send another 150 Spanish troops to join the 540 already in Afghanistan, a recent poll showed that although Spaniards massively support humanitarian action in Afghanistan, they are less keen on deploying Spanish troops there.

Analysis: On May 17-18 Spain hosted a major conference on Afghanistan which brought together senior officials from the Spanish and Afghan governments, NATO, the European Union, the United Nations and regional experts. The conference was hosted by Spain’s Foreign and Defence Ministries, Casa Asia and the Elcano Royal Institute. It was projected as a learning process for Spanish experts, academics, government officials and the media so that they could better understand what was at stake and to inspire them to be even more generous to Afghanistan. It also aimed to help convince the Afghans and the wider Muslim world that Spain is a partner in long-term solutions for greater human understanding, just as it is a partner in the nuts and bolts of building schools and hospitals in Afghan villages.

The fear of body bags coming home is increasing the opposition in many European countries to deploying their nation’s troops to NATO, which has taken over a major role in stabilisation operations in Afghanistan. By the end of the year NATO will double its presence in Afghanistan from 8.800 troops to nearly 18.000 drawn from 26 NATO countries. By next year NATO and the US-led Coalition Forces, which also number some 19,000 troops, will merge under a single command.

In Spain there has not been a serious debate about the presence of Spanish troops, but a poll by the Elcano Royal Institute in March 2006 showed that although 79% of Spaniards believed in much greater support for humanitarian action, only 51% supported the presence of Spanish troops in Afghanistan. However, only the commitment of Spanish troops in Afghanistan can preserve Spain’s humanitarian instincts and show the wider Muslim world that it is doing everything to bridge the gap between the two civilisations.

Spaniards often lump Afghanistan with Iraq. However, Afghanistan is not Iraq. Although the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is likely to get worse before it gets better, Western troops have the overwhelming support of the Afghan population, which is not the case in Iraq. For every layer of deception, subterfuge and the lack of international legality which constituted the United States reasoning for the invasion of Iraq, there was a parallel layer of transparency, international legality and massive public support when the UN Security Council, NATO and the European Union sanctioned the removal of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Immediately after the war in Afghanistan was won in December 2001, Western pundits cautioned that Afghans with their xenophobic history would not tolerate a Western peace-keeping force in Kabul for long. Yet five years on, the Afghan government, its newly elected parliament, hundreds of Afghan non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the majority of its people still endorse a foreign military presence on their soil, because they see it as the only guarantee for better security and for the reconstruction of their country.

NATO countries, including Spain, made a commitment to Afghanistan after 9/11 that they would not abandon the Afghans. But Afghanistan took a back seat due to the Iraq war. Many Afghans now fear that Afghanistan will again take a back seat due to Iran dominating the global agenda.

Afghanistan has made dramatic strides in creating a political infrastructure. In short order Afghanistan now has an elected President, a democratic constitution voted in through a national consensus, upper and lower houses of parliament elected in a generally fair electoral process and elected governing councils in all 34 provinces. These gains in one of the most destitute, but strategically important countries in the world are worth protecting.

However, no further advances can be expected with the present state of insecurity and mayhem that exists in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are now killing school-teachers, children and aid workers. Last year the Taliban-al-Qaeda insurgency claimed the lives of 1.500 Afghans and over 100 US and NATO troops. The Taliban’s summer offensive this year –which began in May and was timed to take place just before the beginning of a major NATO deployment in southern Afghanistan– has already claimed hundreds of lives.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda coalition are striking at NATO contingents precisely to try to create a wave of public revulsion in European countries against further troop deployments. The south is also the centre of opium farming and a massive trade in heroin which the Taliban use to fund their movement. This summer, NATO will deploy some 6.000 extra troops to the south and west to combat the Taliban and provide security for reconstruction projects. US forces will remain in the east of the country but here too NATO will take over their responsibilities by the end of the year.

Conclusions: In January 2006 in London, the world’s powers, the UN, the World Bank and the Kabul government signed ‘The Afghanistan Compact’, which sets out the international community’s commitment to Afghanistan and in turn Kabul’s commitment to state-building over the next five years. Spain is committed to play a major role in this renewed commitment.

Spanish troops have been deployed to western Afghanistan. Some 400 Spanish troops are part of a Spanish ‘Quick Reaction Force’ based in the regional capital Herat, while another 150 have been deployed as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to Qila-e-Nau, in Baghdis province, one of the poorest and most neglected parts of the country, where the people have seen none of the benefits of peace.

NATO intends to set up 23 PRTs this year and eventually in all 34 provinces, in order to train local government personnel and provide security for Western and Afghan NGOs. The al-Qaeda-Taliban are prepared for a long war of attrition, which will continue until NATO and US forces show their staying power. Any weakness shown by NATO now will only bolster the morale of the extremists and claim more Afghan lives and ultimately strengthen terrorist groups in Europe and the Americas.

Ahmed Rashid
Pakistani journalist