Spain commits more troops to Afghanistan in overture to Obama

While the increase in soldiers is modest, the government is showing support for Obama's shift of strategy in Afghanistan – and, more broadly, for the administration itself.

MADRID – The Spanish government is not wasting time when it comes to mending relations with the United States. It is expected to announce a boost of its troop levels in Afghanistan to more than 1,000 from its current 778 to reinforce NATO’s presence there ahead of presidential elections in August.

The increase would be mostly symbolic, but it illustrates the length to which the socialist government of President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is going to rekindle relations that fell to a deep low under the previous US administration, when former President George W. Bush refused to meet Mr. Zapatero after he withdrew Spanish forces from Iraq in 2004 because the invasion lacked a UN mandate.

Spain is hoping the turnaround will resonate in common policies from climate change to relations with Latin America and Muslim countries.

Spanish Defense Minister Carme Chacón confirmed the move upon her arrival Friday in Strasbourg for the 60th anniversary meeting of NATO. She didn’t confirm the exact numbers, but said that Mr. Zapatero would disclose details Saturday. Spain’s mainstream media, however, is quoting unnamed government sources as saying Afghanistan will become one of the biggest contingents, close to its Lebanon peacekeeping force of 1,100 military personnel.

The announcement will be a nice ice breaker when Zapatero and President Barack Obama conduct their first official meeting next week during a European Union-US summit in Prague. On the agenda are Latin America and climate change, Spanish officials have said. Spain could also be useful in approaching Muslim countries, especially in its increased proximity to countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Libya, and Morocco.

Many Spanish companies, including such names as Iberdrola, Abengoa, and Acciona, are leaders on green energy, especially wind and solar power, and many are hoping to increase their already significant role in US plans to boost renewable energy output. Spain's influence in Latin America is also significant, with Spain having more leverage than the US in countries like Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, and Ecuador.

Mr. Obama and Zapatero have already met – on the sidelines of London’s G-20 summit on Wednesday. Spanish press said the informal conversation between both leaders included talk of an official visit to Spain, as well as discussion of their shared love of basketball and jogging.

“My impression of [President Obama] couldn’t be better. The US and the world in general are experiencing a time of great hope,” Zapatero told the Spanish press after meeting his counterpart.

Spain was the first European country to formally announce it would increase its troops in Afghanistan following Obama’s request, although others are expected to follow. Both in Spain and beyond, the politically unpopular move is seen as compensation for its decision last month to withdraw its 620 soldiers from Kosovo because Spain has not recognized its independence, as most NATO allies and European countries have.

Zapatero swept to power in 2004 under the promise to withdraw from Iraq only days after an Al Qaeda-linked attack killed almost 200 people in Madrid. But Spain’s Afghanistan deployment never came into question, as it was part of the NATO operation, which was approved by the UN.

Spain’s diplomatic efforts started long before Obama’s election and were directed at the upcoming star. Zapatero praised the candidate and the man, with some columnists questioning his diplomatic wisdom in endorsing a candidate. High-level bilateral contacts resurfaced almost immediately after the US president was sworn in.

Madrid is also strongly backing Obama’s strategic shift in Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos said Spain supports promoting a “a great green Marshall plan for Afghanistan,” which entails a greater nation-building component to balance the military mission. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the foreign minister for his support.

It is unlikely, though, that Spain will be willing to commit more combat troops, as the Pentagon has requested from its NATO allies. Like the rest of continental Europe, most Spaniards don’t support a military solution and want an exit strategy that allows Afghanistan to reestablish control over its own affairs.

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