Opinion

Afghanistan, an unfinished mission?

PHOTO/MINISTERIO DE DEFENSA – Recepción del rey Felipe VI en el regreso de tropas españolas de Afganistán

The last Spanish military personnel remaining deployed in Afghanistan returned to national territory on 13 May, after lowering the Spanish flag in Kabul the day before. This marks the end of Spain's participation in Afghanistan, following NATO guidelines. 

The operation in Afghanistan originated in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks. Since then, three missions have been carried out: "Enduring Freedom", "International Security Assistance Force" (ISAF) and "Resolute Support", which is the last one to be executed. 

The Spanish Armed Forces have contributed 27,000 military personnel over the last 19 years to contribute to peace and stability in the eastern part of the country. In addition, they have had to mourn the loss of 102 human lives, including soldiers, civil guards, national police and two interpreters. 

PHOTO/AFP - Soldados estadounidenses forman en la base de Bagram, a 70 kilómetros al norte de Kabul (Afganistán)
PHOTO/AFP - US soldiers train at Bagram base, 70 kilometres north of Kabul, Afghanistan.

The withdrawal of all nations involved in the mission is being carried out in a coordinated and progressive manner, with the goal of completion by 11 September 2021. 

Although the United States has announced the military withdrawal, it has committed to maintaining humanitarian aid in the area. Afghanistan is facing a new scenario in which its future must be decided and it must determine whether the effort made, in terms of material and human lives, has been worth it. 

1. An imminent mission 

The attacks of 11 September  

On 11 September 2001, the United States suffered the largest terrorist attacks in its history, with nearly 3,000 deaths, to which must be added the deaths caused by the consequences of the event (Pozzi, 2019). The jihadist network Al-Qaeda allegedly hijacked several planes and flew them into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. The first attack on the north tower of the World Trade Center took place before 9 a.m. and marked the beginning of an event that shocked the world. 

REUTERS/MOHAMMAD ISMALI - Las fuerzas de seguridad afganas cerca del lugar de un ataque en una base aérea militar estadounidense en Bagram, al norte de Kabul, Afganistán
REUTERS/MOHAMMAD ISMALI - Afghan security forces near the site of an attack on a US military air base in Bagram, north of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Reactions were swift. The day after the attacks, the Atlantic Council, for the first time in NATO's history, invoked Article 5 of the Treaty, which called for a joint response to an attack on an Allied. In this way, support was given to Operation Enduring Freedom, which was the first US response to 9/11. 

In October 2001, then US President George W. Bush announced the deployment of US troops to Afghanistan to try to locate the radical leader Osama bin Laden, along with other terrorists linked to the attack. 

The situation in Afghanistan 

The lack of a democratic and institutional structure meant that the country lived in subjugation and with a distinct lack of fundamental freedoms. Of course, there were no security forces that could meet the needs of the population and respond to their problems in a competent manner. The Taliban controlled the territory, through militias, and served as a protective shield for the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. 

Among the main needs to be addressed were: providing security; fostering a governance structure to bring peace to the area; and training Afghan Security Forces. 

The origin of ISAF

The Bonn Agreement, signed in Germany on 5 December 2001, was a milestone, as it sought to re-establish the Afghan state and find an alternative government for the country, with the support of the UN. The aim was to set up a temporary interim government that could lead to democratic elections. 

As a result, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was forged, which served as an addition to the US-initiated Operation Enduring Freedom. 

ISAF was initially established by the UN Security Council to support the interim administration in charge of the reconstruction of the country after the fall of the Taliban regime. Since August 2003, however, the operation has been led by NATO.

AFP/JOHANNES EISELE - Soldados del pelotón del Fa Alfa 177, cargan una unidad de artillería de 155 mm en la Base Operativa Avanzada (FOB) Kuschamond , Afganistán, el 13 de septiembre de 2011
AFP/JOHANNES EISELE - Soldiers from the 177th F Alfa platoon, load a 155mm artillery unit at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Kuschamond, Afghanistan, 13 September 2011.
Spain's participation 

Spain's mission in Afghanistan has lasted 19 years, between 2002 and 2021. 

Initially, it participated in Operation Enduring Freedom, with medical support, transport aircraft, ships and helicopters. However, the bulk of Spain's contribution took place during the development of the ISAF operation. 

On 27 December 2001, the Council of Ministers approved the participation of Spanish troops in ISAF, which lasted until the end of 2014. The objective was to fight the insurgency and provide security. 

The first 350 Spanish military personnel arrived in Kabul on 24 January 2002 to fulfil the objectives of this mission that had just come into being. 

Three years later, on 18 May 2005, Spain took command of the Herat base, where it set up a Role 2E field hospital and took charge of the provincial reconstruction team in the town of Qala-i-Naw. 

Spain's participation has adapted over time. Initially, its tasks were focused on ensuring the security of the capital, Kabul, and later, its presence was extended to the rest of the territory to put an end to the insurgency, train and educate the Afghan Security Forces and support the reconstruction of the country's infrastructures. On 5 October 2006, the process of NATO's expansion throughout the country was completed. 

At the end of 2014, ISAF was terminated and "Resolute Support" began, focused on training the Afghan National Army. The current "Galicia" VII Brigade of the Spanish Army inaugurated this new NATO mission. In total, more than 27,000 Spanish military personnel have been deployed to Afghanistan since the first deployment.

Finally, the Spanish flag was lowered in Kabul during an event held by NATO on 12 May 2021. With this, the 24 soldiers remaining in Afghanistan return to Spain.

2.    Farewell to two decades 

NATO's announcement

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced the end of the mission in Afghanistan on 14 March 2021 (Europa Press, 2021). The idea is to complete the withdrawal in a few months, in a staggered manner, and in coordination with all the allies, including Spain. 

The decision came after the announcement by US President Joe Biden, in an attempt to change the country's foreign policy, which is more focused on domestic challenges and those that could pose a direct threat to its security (Mars, 2021). 

Approximately 7,000 components remained in Resolute Support, from a total of 35 different countries. Some have already redeployed all personnel and others are in the process of doing so. 

It is expected to be completed by 11 September this year, just 20 years after the attacks that led to this longest overseas operation in US history. 

PHOTO/MINISTERIO DE DEFENSA – Recepción del rey Felipe VI en el regreso de tropas españolas de Afganistán
PHOTO/MINISTRY OF DEFENCE- Reception by King Felipe VI on the return of Spanish troops from Afghanistan
The last Spaniards 

The last rotation, composed of 24 military personnel and 2 interpreters, arrived at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base (Madrid) on 13 May. On their arrival, they were received, among other personalities, by the King of Spain D. Felipe VI (Ministry of Defence, 2021). 

The last forces contributed belonged to Special Operations, a mission they had been carrying out since 2018, when the Spanish contribution was adapted. 

The Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Civil Guard and the National Police have been involved in Afghanistan, as well as other organisations such as the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development.

The balance of Spain's contribution 

Spain has been involved in Afghanistan from the outset and it is one of the longest missions in history, along with a significant deployment of troops. It has also been adapting to NATO requirements and new challenges.  

During the 19 years in which different rotations have been carried out, the Spanish Armed Forces have done important work, with more than 28,000 patrols, 3 million kilometres travelled and more than 1,400 explosive ordnance disposal missions. 

In total, more than 27,000 soldiers have worked for the reconstruction of the country, the support of the population and the training of the Afghan army. They have even regretted the loss of 102 human lives during the mission. 

The Spanish military have also provided security at Kabul airport and have adapted basic infrastructures to bring electricity and water to homes.

The country that remains

Despite the time that has elapsed, the truth is that the mission's objectives do not seem to have been completed, since the Taliban are still present in the area and Al-Qaeda terrorism has not been completely defeated. 

Indeed, on Tuesday 22 June, the United Nations envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, denounced before the Security Council the advance of the Taliban, having regained territory and, specifically, 50 of the 370 Afghan districts (Riaño, 2021). The group has also set its sights on taking over the main provincial capitals. 

Nor is there a full and strong government left in the country capable of dealing with the problems that currently persist in the territory, many of which are entrenched. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, ranks 142 out of 167 countries in terms of democracy, with a score of 2.97 out of 10 (Economist, 2020). It thus remains among the most authoritarian countries in the world. 

Despite the military withdrawal, the US has pledged to maintain humanitarian aid and contribute to the country's development. However, withdrawal could represent a major setback and jeopardise the progress made over the last 20 years. 

PHOTO/MINISTERIO DE DEFENSA – Recepción del rey Felipe VI en el regreso de tropas españolas de Afganistán
PHOTO/MINISTRY OF DEFENCE - Reception by King Felipe VI on the return of Spanish troops from Afghanistan

3. Glory and honour 

Tribute to those who gave their lives 

Spain has lost 102 compatriots in Afghanistan. Of these, 96 were military personnel, belonging to the Armed Forces; 2 civil guards, 2 national police officers and another 2 interpreters. 

The Ministry of Defence organised a tribute to all the victims on 28 June at the Army War College, which was presided over by the Minister of Defence, Margarita Robles. During the ceremony, the hymn "Death is not the end" was sung and a wreath was laid as a sign of respect and remembrance to all of them, while their names were read out.  

Aránzazu Magro, widow of Captain Javier González Hernández, said a few words on behalf of all the relatives who have lost their loved ones in Afghanistan. "There they lived their last moments, their last days, their last experiences, but it was what they liked. Each of them died in different circumstances, but they had something very important in common: serving Spain," he said during his speech (Defence, 2021).  

PHOTO/MINISTERIO DE DEFENSA – Recepción del rey Felipe VI en el regreso de tropas españolas de Afganistán
PHOTO/MINISTERIO DE DEFENSA - Reception by King Felipe VI on the return of Spanish troops from Afghanistan
The first woman to die on a mission 

Each of the deceased has left a story written about the mission. Their lives were spent in the pursuit of a more just world and trying to help a country find peace. 

The Cross of Military Merit with Red Distinction recognises individuals who have performed acts of bravery during armed conflict or military operations. Afghanistan is a clear example of the dedication of soldiers who lost their lives to save the lives of others. 

Private Idoia Rodríguez Buján, 23, who was awarded the award posthumously, lost her life on 21 February 2007 in Afghanistan. She became the first woman to die on an overseas mission. 

She was due to return to Spain that same day, but asked to extend her stay for a few more days. Her life was cut short forever when the vehicle she was travelling in hit a device buried by insurgents. She who had always saved the lives of so many, as a health worker, lost hers forever. 

4.    Conclusions 

Spain has contributed significantly to the development of the mission from the outset and in the three operations carried out over the last two decades: "Enduring Freedom", ISAF and "Resolute Support". 
Spain's contribution has been adapted to the needs and demands of the mission in Afghanistan, up to the moment of military withdrawal. 
The withdrawal of troops is taking place at a time when the country has not achieved stability and everything that has been built up to now could be put at risk, given a possible advance by the insurgents. 
Despite the fact that one of the objectives of the Bonn agreements was to move towards democratic representation, the country maintains an authoritarian government structure, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit. 
Afghanistan has been one of the missions that has lasted the longest and cost the Spanish Armed Forces the most lives, as 102 Spaniards have died in the territory since 2002. It was in this scenario that the first female soldier to die in an overseas operation lost her life. 

FFelipe Pulido Esteban
Graduate in Journalism
Master in Professional Multimedia Journalism
Collaborator  Área Defensa Nacional Sec2Crime

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