SPANISH ARMED FORCES

Spain to withdraw troops from main Iraqi base this summer

The Defense Ministry is also planning a complete exit from Afghanistan at the end of this year or the beginning of 2021

A Spanish soldier at the Gran Capitán base in Bismayah, Iraq.
A Spanish soldier at the Gran Capitán base in Bismayah, Iraq.@emad_md

At the end of July, Spanish troops will be withdrawn from the Gran Capitán base in Bismayah, which is Spain’s most important base in Iraq. Before the coronavirus pandemic, 350 out of Spain’s 530 soldiers in Iraq were stationed at the Gran Capitán base. The base is one of the Building Partner Capacity (BPC) centers run by the US-led international coalition in Iraq, which is tasked with training Iraqi security forces. According to military sources, troops are being withdrawn because the base has completed this mission.

The Spanish Defense Ministry is also preparing to withdraw soldiers from Afghanistan by the end of this year or the beginning of 2021, before the 14-month deadline for complete withdrawal of US and allied forces comes to an end, as set out in the deal struck between the United States and the Taliban.

Since February 2015, when the Spanish flag was first raised at Gran Capitán, Spanish troops have trained 17 brigades of the Iraqi Army and 10 brigades of the Iraqi Federal Police – more than 50,000 people in total.

During a videoconference to mark Armed Forces Day on Saturday, the head of the Spanish contingent in Iraq, Colonel César García del Castillo, told Spain’s King Felipe VI that the mission had completed several phases and that the “Iraqi Armed Forces are getting better every day in their level of training and are approaching the definitive defeat of Daesh,” in reference to the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). King Felipe VI of Spain, who visited the Bismayah base in January 2019, congratulated the colonel for “the success achieved.”

Since February 2015, Spanish troops have trained more than 50,000 army troops and police officers in Iraq

Training of Iraqi security forces was interrupted on January 3, after the Iranian General Qasem Suleimani was assassinated by a US drone. The Gran Capitán base, as well as others belonging to the international coalition in Iraq, was attacked in retaliation in mid-March. But no Spanish soldiers were injured in the rocket offense, which was organized by a local Shiite military group with ties to Tehran. The spread of the coronavirus across Iraq prevented the base from continuing the training program, which led Spain to temporarily withdraw 200 soldiers.

Military sources say that the base has completed its mission and that a new Spanish contingent will be sent to Iraq to collect material from the site and prepare to return the facility to Iraqi authorities.

Spain’s Task Force Toro will continue to operate in Iraq after troops are withdrawn from the Bismayah base, which is 45 kilometers southeast of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. This group is made up of 80 members of the army’s airborne force Famet, which operates three Chinook helicopters and three Cougar transportation helicopters at the Taji base, located 30 kilometers from Baghdad. Spain will also continue to have special operatives to train and assist Iraqi security forces in Baghdad and Al Taqaddum, with 40 and 70 troops at each site respectively. The three Chinook helicopters will have to return to Spain to be upgraded, meaning that Spain will have fewer than 200 troops in Iraq, a little more than one-third of the force at the beginning of the year.

Spain had been willing to transfer its troops from the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve to NATO’s Mission Irak (NM-I) to “support and stabilize” the Iraqi government. But the mission, which already has a handful of Spanish troops, has pushed back its ground deployment, and Spain has decided to withdraw most of its troops from Iraq and postpone further contributions to the allied operation to a future date.

Afghanistan

The Defense Ministry is also preparing to withdraw Spanish troops from the NATO mission in Afghanistan by the end of this year or in early 2021. This would not be a unilateral withdrawal given that Spain is following the “together we arrive, together we leave” principle as agreed to by the 39 countries taking part in Operation Resolute Support.

However, the deal struck between the United States and the Taliban on February 29 sets out a 14-month deadline for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. In other words, a complete withdrawal by May 2021. “Logically, we are not going to wait until the last moment,” explained sources consulted by EL PAÍS.

The first Spanish soldiers arrived in Afghanistan 18 years ago, in January 2002. This mission has suffered the highest number of armed forces casualties, including the 62 victims on UM Airlines Flight 4230, known popularly as the Yak-42, which crashed in 2003 in Turkey, killing all passengers and crew on board. The work of Spanish troops in training Afghan security forces was interrupted weeks ago by the coronavirus crisis, which led Spain to temporarily withdraw half of its 65 troops. Now the Defense Ministry is planning a complete and definitive exit from Afghanistan.

English version by Melissa Kitson.