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"Political decisions limited the intervention in Afghanistan"

Interview with the Spanish CHOD on El Mundo journal (Non official translation)
September 1, 2021

Question: Does the return to power of the Taliban call into question such long military interventions, two decades, for the stabilization of a country?

Answer: Indeed, there is no doubt that what has happened calls for a profound reflection. To stabilize a country you need security forces and armed forces that allow the government to establish order. In Afghanistan we started from scratch. It takes time to build up an army. But it is clear that 20 years is too long. We have to study in depth what happened because the Afghan army did not fight. It was not poorly equipped or poorly trained. It had achieved a good level. We have to know and analyze the reasons why they did not fight. We do not know what happened in the last days, what orders they received, what the government did before fleeing. But we do have to rethink the way in which the stabilization process has been carried out. Political decisions have been taken in the NATO framework that have limited the intervention.

Q.- What decisions are you referring to?

A.- In 2014 there was a drastic reduction in the number of military personnel deployed. For example, we went from having 1,600 to a representation of little more than a hundred. The effects of this withdrawal need to be analyzed.

Q.- And isn't it also necessary to introduce in the debate elements that are not strictly military, such as the systemic corruption in the country, which has not been tackled?

A.- This is another of the questions we must study: why have the measures not been taken to achieve this. At the military level there has been a plan, derived from the political directives received, and this has been fulfilled. Perhaps the strategy that has been used throughout these years at a high level does not seem to have been the appropriate one, in view of the result.

Q.- Do you think that, with the decision to withdraw, the US renounces to being the world's policeman?

A.- This is another  big question. We must wait to know the strategy that the new US Administration really defines. How it reacts to this new situation. There is already a competition between two great powers -the US and China-, which makes it impossible to apply concepts such as 'gendarme of the world'. China is already a power to be reckoned with. The whole Western world, the US, the EU... must meditate on what we want to be in the new world scenario that is coming our way.

Q.- To what extent does the crisis in Afghanistan tip this world struggle in China's favor?

A.- It all depends on the measures we adopt from now on. China has leveraged its global power on its status as an economic power. But we also see that it is positioning itself as a spectacular military power. Although its policy has always been defensive, there is no doubt that it is doing so for a reason. It is beginning to have bases in strategic points of the globe, which shows that it wants to have military influence in this new world scenario.

Q.- There are many voices that speak of failure in the withdrawal, but there was no criticism when NATO took the decision in April. And there was already a risk of a Taliban victory.

A.- That risk was detected, but in April there was no thought of a total abandonment of Afghanistan. The idea was to leave a minimum force to provide protection to the embassies that would remain in Kabul, maintain control of the airport and continue with the military support to the Afghan forces from outside.

Q.- The Afghanistan crisis has reignited the debate on a European army - do you see a need for it in the EU's defence efforts?

A.- If the EU wants to be an actor with a certain relevance in the international context, it has to have a force that supports its decisions. If not, it will never be. It is true that in defense matters the EU cannot currently conceive of itself in isolation. As long as the Atlantic Alliance exists, what it must do is to provide a capacity and a force to make this European pillar within NATO much more powerful. But as the EU, in the event that the US or Canada, due to their interests, do not agree on any intervention, it should act autonomously. A scenario that is currently not possible because of the absolute military dependence on the USA. Creating a European army means having a common foreign policy, with everyone sharing the same interests. This political leap has yet to be achieved. But as for Brussels having to strengthen its military capacity, I think there is no doubt about it. That must be one of the great debates as a consequence of what has happened in Afghanistan.

Q.- And, militarily, for Spain, what lessons do you draw from the mission in Afghanistan?

A.- We have complied rigorously and effectively with everything that has been put to us. There is a NATO political directive, which is translated into an operational plan. We were tasked to contribute to the stability and development of Badghis province. Schools were built, a provincial hospital was built. Until the decision was made to withdraw. From the military point of view, the mission we were given was accomplished. Was it the right one to achieve what was politically intended? That is what needs to be studied.

Q.- I am also referring to how you have transformed the Army, what lessons have you learned?

A.- The lessons we have learned from our intervention in Afghanistan are extremely important. The great military, tactical and operational breakthrough in counterinsurgency was learned there. All our evolution to fight insurgency, which is not the same as terrorism, comes from that experience. How to defend ourselves from a situation that at the beginning surprised us and caused us casualties, such as the use of improvised explosive devices, the famous IEDs; the capabilities and the military material that has been generated in the face of it. It has been very important, also for the training of our commanders. For our Armed Forces it has been an extraordinarily useful learning experience for the future.

Q.- Are you optimistic that the Taliban regime will let out the Afghans who have worked for Spain during these years?

A.- I am confident that this will be the case. They have given some signs that they will allow it. But I am more hopeful than optimistic.

Q.- Is the world less safe now with the Taliban?

A.- It is another source of instability. The world now has a multitude of them. In addition to the competition between the two great powers, there is also the power acquired by transnational criminal organizations. The Taliban are at loggerheads with ISIS, which also has a presence in this country. But it remains to be seen what relationship they now intend to establish with Al Qaeda. That a terrorist organization is offered a sanctuary for training can be a danger to international security.

Q.- As CHOD, are you concerned about the destabilization in North Africa, which could lead to the breaking of diplomatic relations between Morocco and Algeria?

A.- For now we know that they have broken off relations, the destabilization remains to be seen. For any country, and of course for Spain, the more stable and safer the countries around it are, the better. Evidently, the rupture of relations is not good news. It is yet another point of instability, which is added to the situation in the Sahel. That is why we have to stabilize this area, so that it does not affect North Africa.

Q.- Should Spain be worried about Morocco's arms race?

A.- Morocco has its own challenges, threats and risks in Africa. This arms race is not directed against Spain.

Q.- Has the evacuation of Afghanistan served to strengthen ties with the United States?

A.- The relationship with the US in the military field has always been good. But these days, the support they have been given with the authorization to use Rota and Morón as arrival points for their collaborators -which is a political decision, not a military one- is another sign of the good relationship that exists.

Q.- Surveys point to a high valuation of the Army, especially after its performance against Covid, but on the other hand, citizens are not very inclined to increase defense spending.

A.- It is a contradiction. To be able to act you need means. We have evacuated 2,206 people from Afghanistan and it was possible because we acquired the new A400M aircraft. If this happened when we had the Hercules, we would not have been able to take out even half of them, due to the characteristics of the aircraft, its load capacity, its speed. If we want to have Armed Forces that really respond to the demands of today's society and, above all, to the ambition of the role that Spain wants to play in the world, there must be resources. Our country has a small Armed Forces. The only way to be efficient is for our means to be technologically superior to those of our adversaries.


Interview with the Spanish CHOD on El Mundo journal

"Political decisions limited the intervention in Afghanistan"PDF - 3266.33 KB