Shooting deaths of 3 Spaniards boost pressure on Spain to quit Afghanistan

By Daniel Woolls, AP
Thursday, August 26, 2010

Spaniards rethink Afghanistan after fatal shooting

MADRID — The shooting death of three Spaniards at a military base in Afghanistan has prompted renewed calls for the government to declare the war on the Taliban a failure and join other coalition countries in withdrawing.

With the death Wednesday of two Civil Guards and their Iranian-born interpreter in northwestern Badghis province, Spain has lost 93 troops or police in a deployment that began in 2002 and now features a force of about 1,500. Most of the fatalities came in air crashes, but another nine were in insurgent attacks.

However, the shooting at the base during a training course for Afghan police recruits — and mob violence outside the base after word spread that the shooter had in turn been killed by Spanish officers — seems to have hit a particularly raw nerve.

Spain’s Interior Minister Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba called the shooting a terrorist attack, although he stopped short of blaming the Taliban outright, and Spanish newspapers said flat-out that Spain’s contingent had been caught up in a Taliban offensive against foreign troops and growing resentment among everyday Afghans.

The shooter worked as a driver for the local Afghan police chief, not for the Spanish police as originally believed, and this helps explain how he was able to get onto the base with a rifle hidden in the trunk, the Interior Ministry said.

While the Netherlands this month became the first NATO country to pull out of Afghanistan and other allied countries such as Canada have set timetables for withdrawing, Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has established no such schedule. This year he sent an additional 500 troops in response to an appeal from President Barack Obama, who says US troops will start going home in July 2011.

In Spain’s Parliament, a small but important Catalan party called Convergence and Union signaled a shift away from what has been until now ironclad support for Zapatero’s commitment in Afghanistan.

Its leader, Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, complained Wednesday that Zapatero has for months avoided appearing in the legislature as promised to hold a full-blown debate on the Spanish mission and must do so now.

Zapatero, he said, is handling the conflict “as if the army were an NGO and ignoring the existence of a war that the international community has quite possibly lost.”

The smaller United Left party called on Zapatero to bring Spain’s troops home urgently, saying the allied effort to defeat the Taliban and stabilize the country had achieved nothing.

The conservative opposition Popular Party, which first launched the deployment while in power, appealed again Wednesday to the Socialist government to acknowledge that Spain is mired in a war, not simply taking part in a peacekeeping mission as Zapatero contends.

That’s a way for the conservatives to get back at the Socialists over their criticism of the Popular Party government that sent peacekeepers to Iraq in 2003. The US-led invasion was hugely unpopular in Spain, where many people considered the war illegal because it lacked a United Nations mandate. The Afghan mission tends to have more support. There is no popular outcry to bring Spanish soldiers home.

The conservatives were voted out of power in 2004 elections held three days after terrorist bombings that killed 191 people on the Madrid commuter rail network and were claimed by Islamic militants who said they were exacting revenge for Spain’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The newspaper El Mundo ran a cartoon Thursday showing Obama and Zapatero standing chest-deep in a pool of quicksand labeled Afghanistan and the American leader telling Zapatero, “it is best to sit still, because if you move you sink even more.”

Flag-draped coffins holding the remains of the Spaniards killed in the base shooting were brought back home Thursday. A military band played Chopin’s Funeral March and the national anthem as Civil Guard pallbearers carried the caskets past crying mourners dressed in black.

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