Spain’s commitment to the NATO’s ISAF mission in Afghanistan has been consistent if modest in terms of mission aims and resources deployed. The Spanish government has walked a fine line between assuring a sceptical public at home that Spanish troops were deployed on a ‘mission of peace and reconstruction’ while simultaneously rejecting any accusation from its NATO partners that Spain was operating according to substantially different Rules of Engagement (RoE). Ultimately they have satisfied neither. A growing number of Spaniards believe that the government has not been forthcoming on the true nature of the Spanish mission in Afghanistan while US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been infuriated by the Spanish reluctance to take the war to the Taliban, complaining bitterly of national caveats that limited cooperation between Spanish and other ISAF troops.
In the past Spain has consistently not sought regional command in Afghanistan, refused to deploy in the south and generally preferred to concentrate on reconstruction and logistical duties rather than assuming a combat role. For most of the period between 2005 to 2009 Spain has contributed just under 800 soldiers to ISAF, fulfilling a logistical role in Herat Province under the Italian-led Regional Command West as well as making up part of the Italian-led Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and providing two Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLTs). Spain has disbursed EUR 136 million in aid to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2005 and pledged a further EUR 150 million at the London conference in 2006 to be spent from 2006–2010.
In 2005 Spain sought to take over one of the ‘least problematic’ Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in the north, but found that the UK and Germany would not relinquish these and was therefore obliged to accept the ‘last option’ of leading the PRT in Badghis Province in the north-west of the country. As recently as last summer the Spanish Commanding Officer in Badghis, Colonel Emilio Saravia-Griera, observed that the role of a PRT is not to take the offensive against the insurgency but to concentrate on reconstruction. However, in a region starved of sufficient ISAF and Afghan troops, the deployment of combat troops who are given instructions not to take the fight to the Taliban has caused some resentment among other ISAF contributors. Elite combat troops such as Spain’s Parachute Regiment could easily have been detached from the PRT and given separate duties while still providing protection to the PRT as required. Since 2007 ISAF and Afghan troops have rapidly lost control of most of Badghis.
Most Spanish aid in Badghis has been spent in the relatively secure areas around the provincial capital of Qala-e-Naw, where a minority of the population is concentrated. There is an institutional reluctance among Spanish development officials to put in place an ‘integrated approach’ to stabilisation projects in these areas, allowing the military to supervise and implement projects where their civilian counterparts are unable to do so due to the high threat level. If Spain is to truly wage ‘war amongst the people’ as instructed by ISAF Commander, General Stanley McChrystal, it will have to find an efficient civil-military working model to provide relief within areas most affected by the insurgency.
Spanish Minister for Defence, Carmé Chacon, recently announced that Spain would consolidate its troops in Badghis. This new strategy envisages increasing Spain’s military deployment to over 1500 troops, many of whom will undertake additional combat duties. Spain is also building a new military base in Badghis for the permanent deployment of an Afghan National Army (ANA) 600-strong battalion or kandak, which will be mentored by a Spanish Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLT).
The new Spanish strategy is both welcome and overdue. Badghis, linking the south and west of the country to the north, is of great strategic importance to the insurgency. The US is unlikely to deploy sufficient troops to Badghis in 2010 – most reinforcements will be sent to the south and east of the country. Badghis is Spain’s fight. It is now up to the Spanish government to provide the necessary resources to prevail there.
Ed Burke is a researcher with FRIDE, providing political and security analysis on the Middle East. He has also undertaken research on civil-military relations and stabilisation in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This article is based on a policy brief entitled "The Unfulfilled Potential of Spain’s Foreign Policy" and published by FRIDE.
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