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Spanish operation to evacuate Afghan collaborators from Kabul due to end on Friday

The government has committed to ‘not leave anyone behind,’ but the efforts to get all personnel out will now be a race against time

Defense Minister Margarita Robles greets an Afghan evacuee at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base on Wednesday.
Defense Minister Margarita Robles greets an Afghan evacuee at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base on Wednesday.Iñaki Gómez (Ministerio de Defensa/EFE)
Miguel González

Spain’s ongoing operation to evacuate refugees from Kabul has a little under 48 hours to go. Government sources have stated that tomorrow, August 27, is the deadline to conclude the evacuation of Afghan nationals who have worked with Spanish authorities and armed forces during the nearly two decades that Western forces were present in the country. The operation is now a race against time, and government sources have committed to “not leave anyone behind,” echoing the words of the foreign affairs minister, José Manuel Albares, speaking earlier this month.

Spain will be bringing the operation to an end given that the United States will be making use of Kabul airport from this weekend to repatriate its own citizens (around 1,500) before September 1, as well as the nearly 5,000 troops that have been controlling the airport since August 15, when the Taliban entered the Afghan capital.

The question remains, however, as to whether two days will be sufficient to evacuate all of the Afghans who have worked with Spain and as such are now at risk of reprisals from the insurgents. The Spanish embassy in Kabul identified nearly 600 people – including translators and staff such as cooks or drivers – who worked with the Spanish mission, as well as their relatives. By Wednesday, 1,242 evacuees had arrived in Spain, of whom 1,040 have requested international protection. But many of these refugees worked for the US or the European Union, meaning that a significant number of Spain’s former collaborators remain in Afghanistan.

The US, United Kingdom and Australia have warned that there is a ‘high risk of a terrorist attack’ outside the airport

These former personnel are not just facing the difficulties of traveling to Kabul from Bagdhis province, in the west of the country, which is where Spanish troops operated until 2013. They are also having problems entering the airport itself, given that the access points are now controlled by the Taliban.

The US, United Kingdom and Australia have warned that there is a “high risk of a terrorist attack” outside the airport from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) group, and have called on their citizens to stay away from the area. This is making the evacuation effort even more difficult.

Government sources stated that they are making all the efforts possible to evacuate the Afghans whose lives are at risk after they worked with the Spanish authorities. The defense minister, Margarita Robles, however, has been more pessimistic. “Many people are going to be left behind,” she warned earlier this week. Robles was on hand at the Torrejón de Ardoz air base on Wednesday to receive 292 evacuees from Kabul. They were first flown to the United Arab Emirates on a military aircraft and then to Madrid on a commercial flight.

There are currently 60 Spanish troops at the airport in Kabul, including a special forces team. They have been leaving the perimeter in an attempt to grant access to the Afghans on the list put together by the Spanish authorities of evacuees. Their mission is also to support the flights of the A400M military planes that are being used by Spain for the operation. Passengers on those flights are having to sit on the floor of the aircraft so that the maximum number of people can be airlifted out of Kabul at a time.

Troops in Dubai

The Spanish ambassador in Kabul, Gabriel Ferrán is also in the Afghan capital still, accompanied by his deputy and the 17 police officers – most of them from the GEO special operations group – who provided protection for the embassy there. Their return, which is likely to take place on Friday, will mark the end of Spain’s presence in Afghanistan. The Spanish armed forces count on another unit of 40 troops in Dubai, which is serving as an intermediate staging post for the operation between Kabul and Torrejón de Ardoz.

In addition to offering Madrid as a hub for Afghans who worked with the EU, last weekend, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez spoke to US President Joe Biden and committed to receiving as many as 4,000 Afghans who have worked with American authorities in recent years. Flights to evacuate these people are likely to continue on Friday, and once in Spain they will be transferred to the US-Spanish military base at Rota, Cádiz. They will stay there for a maximum of 15 days, according to an agreement reached on Monday between the Spanish secretary for foreign affairs, Ángeles Moreno, and Conrad Tribble, the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Spain. In total, Washington has proposed the temporary housing of 25,000 of its former Afghan collaborators in European bases (in Germany, Italy, Kosovo and Spain).

English version by Simon Hunter.

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