Spain expected to increase Afghanistan troops after leaving Kosovo

spain-flagMadrid – Spain’s decision to withdraw its peacekeepers from Kosovo was Friday expected to be followed by an increase of Spanish troops in Afghanistan, press reports said.

Spain could increase its contingent of nearly 800 soldiers in Afghanistan with up to 500 more, senior military sources were quoted by the daily El Mundo as saying.

Defence Minister Carme Chacon announced on Thursday that Spain was pulling its 620 soldiers out of the NATO-led KFOR (Kosovo Force), which has 15,500 peacekeeping troops in the former Serbian province.

Chacon made the announcement during a visit to a Spanish base at Istok in Kosovo.

The government deemed it contradictory for Spain to keep troops in Kosovo after the province declared independence in February 2008, reports said.

Spain is one of the few countries not to recognize the independence of Kosovo, regarding it as a dangerous precedent for other potential breakaway regions, including Spain’s own Basque region.

During a recent visit of Serbian President Boris Tadic to Madrid, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero reiterated that Spain opposed the independence of Kosovo.

Chacon flew into an Italian-controlled NATO base, instead of Pristina airport, to avoid any contact with the Kosovo authorities.

Since Kosovo declared independence, Spanish troops have refrained from participating in tasks that helped to build up the new state, such as the establishment of a Kosovo security force.

Spain’s decision to recall its troops annoyed NATO, which would have liked Madrid to discuss it beforehand with its allies, giving them time to prepare for the withdrawal, according to Spanish reports.

Chacon said Spanish troops had “fulfilled their mission” in Kosovo, but NATO leadership feels security is still not sufficient for peacekeepers to leave the region.

However, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer described Spain’s decision as “legitimate.”

Spain was expected to compensate for the Kosovo withdrawal by increasing its presence in Afghanistan, where it has 780 troops as part of the 55,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Such a move would be in line with Spain’s attempts to improve its relations with the United States, which came under strain when Spain pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2004, commentators said.

The relations have begun improving since the swearing in of new US President Barack Obama, who has stressed the need to step up security in Afghanistan.

However, senior European affairs official Diego Lopez Garrido denied a link between the withdrawal from Kosovo and a possible increase of troops in Afghanistan.

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