Saturday, September 25

Spaniards who have passed through Afghanistan for the last 20 years speak: “You could see it coming, but the pain is enormous”

At dawn this Thursday, the first plane with workers from the diplomatic corps who remained in Afghanistan after the return of the Taliban to power landed in Madrid. After the return last May of 24 soldiers still stationed at the Camp Morehead base, on the outskirts of Kabul, the arrivals last morning are part of the last Spaniards from Afghanistan, hastily evacuated along with locals who for years have collaborated with the Spanish troops and cooperation, and their families, who are in danger from the victory of the extremists and the deterioration of the political and military situation. But before them, thousands of Spaniards have been linked in one way or another to the country during the last two decades of presence of the international community.

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Among them, the 27,000 soldiers who have rotated through Afghanistan fighting the insurgency and helping its reconstruction in the most costly mission in the lives of the Armed Forces in the democratic period, with a total of 102 deaths in accidents and attacks. But also officials, aid workers or reporters who now witness with pain the collapse of the fragile structures of a country in which, despite the hints of progress, corruption continued to be widespread and local satraps consolidated in power, often with the tolerance of the United States, which invaded the country in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks.

“I am tremendously pessimistic, it was something that could be seen coming, although the pain is enormous. The Afghan people are used to surviving and will do it once again, but my perception is that there is going to be a new descent into chaos,” he says, paraphrasing Ahmed Rashid – famous Pakistani analyst – the aid worker Ignacio Álvaro Benito, who was in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2010 working at the International Organization for Migration and at the Spanish Agency for Development Cooperation (AECID), where he coordinated the mission in Badghis, one of the poorer and more remote provinces. “It is a very complex country, with a difficult security context after decades of conflict, including a six-year civil war and five years of Taliban extremism. But I have seen real and substantial changes,” he says.

AECID contingents launched various reconstruction and development programs in Badghis with projects on education, water and sanitation, health, gender, agriculture, rural development, infrastructure … The mission lasted seven years, between 2005 and 2013. According to the data that the Government offered at the time, schools were built for 20,000 children or health infrastructures for 150,000 people. The harvests of more than 30,000 families were also improved. Álvaro Benito, however, believes that the withdrawal and handover of the reconstruction process to the local authorities was hasty. “Afghanistan was like a traumatic newborn,” he illustrates.

Constantino Méndez, who was Secretary of State for Defense between 2008 and 2011 with the socialist Carme Chacón as minister, also highlights this development aid work. “The international community ended up being convinced that behind a risky military operation there should be a relevant cooperative effort that could change things,” he says. In the Spanish case, this task would not have been possible without the work of the 27,000 soldiers who rotated through Afghanistan in almost two decades of mission, in which they were dedicated to advising, instructing and providing logistical support to the Afghan Army, but also to carry out escort work to keep humanitarian aid safe from ambushes.

“It was a pretty tough experience. It was rare that they did not shoot us when we went out to deliver supplies, medicines or blankets. They did it with the typical AK 47 from the top of a hill, although we went in armored and semi-armored vehicles. Depending on the area of ​​influence – whether it was a Pashtun or a Taliban – they received you with applause or stones, ”recalls a military man who spent six months in Afghanistan in 2011 and asked not to be identified. “Despite everything, we Spaniards enjoyed preferential treatment from the Afghan police and the civilian population. We have come to have friends there, I feel a great regret ”, says this corporal, who traveled to Afghanistan at the age of 35, leaving his wife and a newborn daughter in Spain.

Precisely from 2009, explains Méndez, the old BMR (Medium Armored Wheels) of the eighties and nineties were exchanged for new equipment to face the threats of improvised explosives. “We had disembarked without the adequate equipment and a huge effort had to be made to equip a new military base that would give us the security that we did not have,” says the former number two de Chacón, who traveled to Afghanistan twice in his nearly four years in defense. The first, in April 2008, in that famous visit in which the minister reviewed the troops seven months pregnant. The second, in June of that year, with the now King Felipe VI.

Only the Spanish military mission has had a cost of more than 3,500 million euros. The first 350 Spanish soldiers arrived in Kabul on January 24, 2002, four months after the 9/11 attacks. In 2005, under NATO command, Spain took over the bases in Herat and Qala-i-Now, in the west of the country. The bulk of the withdrawal took place between 2012 and 2013, although the total withdrawal did not come until last May, already as members of the much smaller Resolute Support operation. The Armed Forces carried out 28,000 patrols and carried out more than 1,400 explosives disposal missions. And 102 soldiers were killed: 62 in the Yak-42 accident in May 2003; 17 in the Cougar helicopter, in August 2005; and another 23 perished due to rollovers or improvised explosives by insurgent groups.

There were also dozens of injuries. Among them, Corporal Iván Ramos, who was blown up in an accident with the Lince armored vehicle with which he was escorting a short distance from the Herat base on April 13, 2011. He broke 17 bones and had to be removed a kidney and spleen. The Community of Madrid initially recognized him as 65% disabled, but he had to fight for years for Defense to take on its consequences and grant him a corresponding pension. He even went on a hunger strike outside the ministry. “I have always asked for the right thing, neither more nor less,” he says.

Ramos had been in the Legion for more than a decade, but he was temporary, like 87% of the troop and seafaring staff. And, after the accident, he was fired and was not relocated to another position adapted to his situation, as he insistently claimed. Now, he also sadly experiences the latest events in the country. “After all the effort, the lives lost … The Afghans are going to be left lying like cigarette butts,” he laments.

“Matter of time”

Despite the considerable resources expended in these two decades – including human lives lost, the Afghan victims number 130,000, of which 70,000 were civilians – recent events have shown that the Government of Kabul has been unable to maintain control of the country after the departure of Western troops. “The current situation shows the weakness of what has been created in the last 20 years and that the entire system has been based on a great lie that we have wanted to believe. It is something that has been seen for a long time, it is not an event that nobody expected. There was a government with feet of clay and we all knew it was a matter of time, “says journalist Pau Miranda, who has known the country for two decades through his work as a reporter and aid worker. He lived in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2002, just after the invasion; He returned for another season in 2009 and a third from 2016, when he stayed for another three years.

Miranda insists that the international presence has not prevented corruption from being widespread and politicians and officials known for their abuses have consolidated in power. “It is true that corruption was not born in 2001, but it is not the same to be corrupt in a poor country than in one in which millions are raining,” he asserts. “We gave supplies and medicines to figures who can be assimilated to what we would call the mayor here, but in reality they were the Lords of war that they commanded with their law in each town, “says a corporal who was part of the Spanish contingent.

Álvaro Benito admits that at first the AECID also had some “problem” with the local contractors who were commissioned to develop infrastructures or different jobs, although the “mutual trust” with the local personnel and the rest of the Afghan population did not take long. in setting. “It must be understood that it is a country with great complexity where it was also necessary to empower its local authorities, with very low self-esteem after decades of conflict,” says this expert.

The sources consulted also acknowledge the failure of the supposed objective of “democratization” of the country. “The Afghans have not trusted what we were selling them as a democracy,” says Miranda. In the last presidential elections, in 2019, the turnout was less than 20%. Then Ashraf Ghani, an anthropologist and former World Bank employee backed by the United States, who fled Afghanistan as the Taliban arrived in Kabul, was re-elected. He is now a refugee in the United Arab Emirates. Nor did the foreign military presence prevent Afghanistan from remaining in recent years one of the worst countries in the world for women, even though the return of the Taliban now threatens to deteriorate their lives even further. At the end of 2014, with the withdrawal of the bulk of the foreign troops at the end of the UN mandate, most of the international press also disappeared, says Miranda. The consequence? “The level of control fell,” he assures.

Méndez, away from institutional politics, also admits that the objectives of reforms and modernization of society have not been met in Afghanistan. “The military objective, however, was the simplest. It was half achieved that the country was not a terrorist base, but in the reform of the State very little progress was made and the improvements in human rights are very fragile. Tomorrow it can become to the cave. We did what we had to do as an international community, but surely we were not clear about the terrain in which we were working. We were in the middle of a failed state of enormous complexity. The feeling now is very negative, “he sums up.

Álvaro Benito is also “extremely pessimistic”, who in recent days has not stopped receiving calls and messages from locals with whom he coincided in his years as a cooperative in the country, who ask him if he can do something for them. “Many are desperate and fear retaliation,” he says. “There we have left friends, interpreters … they became very good friends with Afghans and it is very hard to know that for having collaborated with us they have risked their lives and may lose it,” adds the military man who asks to remain anonymous.