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Sede del EMAD

"Our intention is not to leave any Afghan collaborator behind"

Interview with the ESP CHOD on ABC journal (Non official translation)
August 23, 2021

Chief of Defence Staff (JEMAD), Teodoro E. López Calderón, talks to ABC for half an hour by telephone. These are the first statements made by a military officer on the evacuation operation, which aims to remove "between 800 and 1,000 people" from Kabul. The admiral general underlines two messages. The first is addressed to the 110 soldiers and 17 national police officers who are in Dubai and Kabul: "I want to thank you for your enormous effort. You are doing a very hard job from the very first minute and with an immense human drama just a few metres away. Each person you bring out is a life with a future".

The second message, on the mission:

"In everything that is in our hands we are going to bring in as many as we absolutely can, as long as we can and in whatever way we can. Our intention is not to leave any Afghan collaborator without getting them out".

-Admiral General, what is the latest news from Kabul airport, where access for the evacuation of the collaborators seems to be complicated?

-The situation has been complicated from the beginning. There is still a huge overcrowding around the airport, which makes it very difficult for our staff to get there. In addition, there are checkpoints set up by the taliban. In the last 48 hours, the problem of the number of people accumulating and impeding movement to the airport gates has worsened. Our people are waiting 24 hours a day, day and night, at the gates. The moment they manage to get close, they check that they are people who are on the lists and they come in.

-A role as a life-saver...

-Of course. A piece of paper, a document issued by the embassy in which they are summoned to go to a door at a certain time. Then these schedules are difficult to keep. But if they are on the lists, they get in.

-And what are the criteria for deciding which Afghan collaborators come, and which family members can come?

-Basically, they are people who have collaborated with Spain during the years we have been there in the different organisations: Embassy, Attaché Office, military forces that deployed, airport.... There are also people who collaborated with some Spanish organisations and who run a special risk because of the activity they carried out. Some have been collaborators of Spanish NGOs that once worked there. Each case is studied on a case-by-case basis. And, on average, first-degree relatives may come. Above all, special care is taken with women and children.

-How many people are on the Spanish government's lists?

-It's a trickle, with a few more appearing every day. It's between 800 and 1,000. Probably, if this goes on, there will be a few more. Evidently the great mass of applications arrived at the beginning.

-There have been images of German helicopters at an airport, other countries have special operations troops on the ground.... Could Spain be prepared to participate in missions to pick up collaborators outside Kabul airport?

-The German helicopter was not in Kabul, but in another city. Right now, this mission is not being carried out. There are two missions: to provide security at the airport, avoiding the penetration of ISIS or taliban people; and the other mission is to extract the collaborators who arrive at the airport and bring them to Spain. We have not been asked to collaborate in the mission of providing security at the airport [the military already there and the reinforcement of marines that the US has sent are in charge], nor are there combat missions.

-The GEO of the National Police and CNI agents are playing a role outside the base?

-No, not at all. No one is acting outside the base. The American and British forces and other countries that still have forces there have established a security zone that affects Kabul airport and the Green Zone. That's it. Elsewhere, no action is being taken.

- Has there been any friction with the taliban at Kabul airport?

-No, there has not.

- How was the operation organised for this mission to pick up embassy staff and collaborators?

-When we began to see that the taliban were moving much faster than we had anticipated, which was at the beginning of this month, we began to plan out of prudence. Then we saw that it was going to become a reality. So we started working on the planning at the beginning of August. At the same time, we began to gather information from collaborators who were supporting the Spanish Armed Forces during the time we were there. On the 10th, a working group was formed, which is now chaired by the Minister of the Presidency, with the participation of all the ministries involved in this work.

- Was there no opportunity to fly directly to Kabul?

-At first we thought of flying directly to Kabul, but when civilian flights were banned, we had no choice but to look for a point from which to airlift to Kabul. Dubai accepted us. And that's where we have our planes ready to fly whenever we have a window allocated to us to land. The demand is very high. They are giving it to us at night. For example tonight [yesterday] there will be another flight. The other part of the operation is to move them from Dubai to Torrejón. First we did it with our A400 aircraft but from now on we will do it with aircraft contracted to Air Europa.

- Will it be a long operation?

-We don't have a time estimate because it is impossible to know how events will unfold from one day to the next and almost from one hour to the next. But, of course, as long as there are people who have asked us and the US is there, giving the necessary protection to do the flight operations and the entry into the airport, we will continue to do it. Our goal is to bring in and save as many lives and families that have been associated with us.

-In the first few days there was criticism of a slowness in landing in Kabul. What do you have to say?

-There is no sense in that criticism. There are countries like the UK and Germany that had forces there. They already had the operation. Spain has had to deploy from scratch [the last Spanish soldiers returned in May]. In addition, we have had to obtain diplomatic authorisations to be able to use the Dubai airfield or all the overflight authorisations, and that takes time. I think it has been done in absolutely record time considering that there was no Spanish military presence there. Were those who had it able to act a little earlier? Well, yes, but we are talking about a 24-hour difference. If it is said that it took us a long time, it is because we don't know the details of the difficulty of carrying out a deployment of this type.

- How many military personnel are involved in this operation?

-Between Kabul and Dubai we have 110 military personnel. The specific weight is with the Air Force, through the crews of the 31st Wing (flight and maintenance), but the EADA (Air Deployment Support Squadron) has a very important role in the Dubai terminal and with the National Police in Kabul in the mission dedicated to managing the entry of Afghans into the airport. There is also a Cimic unit from the Army's Information Operations Regiment No. 1 and a medical unit (Umaer). In addition to these, there are 17 police officers there. All of them are being dealt with.

-Spain lost 102 lives in the war in Afghanistan and two translators also died. Some 27,100 soldiers were deployed in places like Badghis, Herat, Kabul and Mazar i Shariff. Was it worth it?

-I'm talking about the armed forces. The military that went there did so in order to fulfil a specific mission that was assigned to them in the respective operational plans. I think it is clear that those forces carried out the mission in a comprehensive manner, with enormous efficiency and demonstrating - there are the 102 deaths, the wounded and maimed, which must also be taken into account - a spirit of sacrifice that meant that we carried out the mission, as we were ordered to do for 20 years. About the final result? That is not a military issue. It is a political and diplomatic issue that I will not assess, of course.

-But something must have been done wrong during the last 20 years...

-I don't want to go into assessments that are not my place. What I do say is that we have fulfilled all the missions. And we have carried out the orders we have been given.

- How is it possible that the Afghan army collapsed in such a way? In just eleven days...

-This is another issue that needs to be studied in detail. Well, you can make quick and unqualified assessments. I think it is clear that we need to know what happened. We would have to know what orders the Afghan army received, how these days unfolded and see the underlying causes. What I have to admit is that we had not assessed it in this way. The Afghan army had training, preparation and military capabilities. So there is no easy explanation for what happened. Unless there is something we need to analyse.

- Couldn't the departure of the collaborators have made some progress, given that the taliban began their offensive in May?

-I repeat, the calculations that all countries had made were that this was not going to happen at the speed that it did.

- Was there a rush by the United States?

-It is not for me to comment on that.

-There is a similar operation in Iraq: the Iraqi army is also being trained and provided with equipment, weapons and vehicles. Will lessons be extrapolated there?

-We need to learn lessons from Afghanistan for all missions. Analyse it critically. The good and the bad. But Iraq is not a similar situation. They are two very different scenarios. In Afghanistan, an army was created almost from scratch. The internal tensions are also different. But the mission in Afghanistan has to be analysed at all levels.

-The victory of the taliban in Afghanistan will have consequences in other scenarios. There is already talk that it will boost the morale of jihadist groups in other theatres. For example, Mali, where Spain plays an important role. Are you worried?

-The effects of all this remain to be seen. But it can obviously have consequences in many other scenarios due to a certain weakness in deterrence capacity. But making a direct extrapolation could lead to errors.

-This influx of Afghan families in an A400M Air Force aircraft is already part of the 'Spain brand'...

-Now I'm not thinking about whether it is a 'Spain brand', but it is true that it is a brand of the Spanish people, who show solidarity. And we, who are part of it, are also part of it. We are supportive because of the education we receive in our homes.

Crisis in Afghanistan // Interview with the ESP CHOD