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INTERVIEW

"Every redeployment must be orderly"

Defense Minister Pedro Morenés Eulate talks to EL PAÍS about Spain's plans to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan

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Defense Minister Pedro Morenés.

Data from the latest Center for Sociological Research (CIS) opinion poll seems to suggest that Spaniards don't have a very good opinion of Defense Minister Pedro Morenés (he received a grade of 3.74 out of a maximum 10). But perhaps it's more accurate to say that they don't have an opinion of him at all. As a matter of fact, 70 percent of respondents did not even know who he was.

But that comes as no surprise, since Morenés is a discreet, affable man who dislikes making a fuss, is not a card-carrying member of any party, and never ran for public office. What he does have is a long political résumé as state secretary for Interior, Science and Technology, and Defense. He is well known in those circles, and not just because of his four years in Defense, but also because of his position in various military companies (Instalaza, MDBA), which he assures he is not beholden to, as some members of the opposition fear.

In any case, he will not have many contracts to award in these times of crisis. On the contrary, his main task is to cut all non-essential expenses while maintaining the backbone of the Armed Forces. Like a good Basque - he was born in Las Arenas in 1948 - he prefers to use a tree metaphor: "I don't mind that the tree is not very leafy right now; the leaves will grow back when we can water it again. The main thing is not to get our trees mixed up, whether it's an apple tree or an oak."

Morenés is a man who likes to listen before making a decision. That is why, on April 16, he got together nine former Spanish defense ministers - six of whom were Socialists - for a power lunch. Morenés has also broken a taboo by calling the mission in Afghanistan by its true name: war. This interview took place before his trip to the May 20-21 NATO summit in Chicago.

Spain is not contemplating a scenario of combat missions"

Question. You've said repeatedly that we entered Afghanistan together and that we will leave together, but you've also added that if any ally were to break this commitment, Spain would make its own decisions.

Answer. It's the principle of reciprocity. If somebody fails to honor an agreement, the others will feel free to continue feeling bound to it or not, though I don't think this is going to happen...

Q. Spain has announced that it will reduce its 1,500 troops by 10 percent this year, by 40 percent in 2013, and take the rest out in 2014. Could this timetable be speeded up?

A. It could. It will depend on the pace of transfer of responsibilities to the Afghan authorities and on ensuring that troop safety is not at risk. Every redeployment must be orderly and come with the feeling that the mission has been fulfilled.

We will take all necessary steps to protect the Spanish fishermen who are fishing in Spanish waters"

Q. Will Spain keep its combat troops there until the end?

A. To the extent that it is necessary for the fulfillment of the mission and the safety of the contingent, at a time that could be especially delicate, then certainly yes.

Q. Is Spain ready to participate in a mission to Afghanistan after 2014?

A. No decision has been made yet. Everything depends on Spain's economic and financial situation, which is not good. But there is a will to keep helping the Afghan people.

Q. Spain has been asked to contribute 30 million euros a year to fund the Afghan security forces...

A. We've been asked for a financial contribution - we'll have to see whether we can do it, and what our possibilities are.

Q. What would a Spanish mission beyond 2014 do there?

A. Basically, training and advisory work. Spain is not currently contemplating a scenario of combat missions.

Q. The mission with the second-highest deployment of Spanish troops is in Lebanon. You've announced a reduction of 200 troops out of the 1,050 there, and you've suggested it might not be the last cut...

A. The reduction this year could be of 191 service members. In 2013, with all the prudence the case requires, we could substantially reduce our presence and keep slightly less than 50 percent of what we now have. We'd have to negotiate it with the European partners, France and Italy.

Q. Is Spain ready to send observers to Syria?

A. The foreign ministry is analyzing that. We've received no formal requests here at the Defense Ministry, and the latest situations are not very encouraging.

Q. The EU's Operation Atalanta has attacked a pirate base on the coast of Somalia for the first time. Did Spain participate?

A. Spain is part of Operation Atalanta... It's a coalition, and assuming participation in an action is counterproductive and not very elegant.

Q. Defense is faced with unprecedented budgetary restrictions and is not ruling out taking Spain's only aircraft carrier out of circulation...

A. Spain is going through a very serious crisis and the fight against the deficit has become a strategic goal for Defense for the first time ever. Within that policy we are reviewing the weapons and infrastructure systems that are closest to being obsolete. The aircraft carrier Príncipe de Asturias is nearing the end of its operative life and it's got a replacement, the Juan Carlos I, which doesn't do exactly the same things but almost. Of course it would be better to have both! But we are forced to choose.

Q. If necessary, will the Spanish Navy back up the Civil Guard to protect fishermen fishing in Gibraltar?

A. The government will take all the measures it deems necessary to protect the Spanish fishermen who are fishing in Spanish waters and in their legitimate right to do so.