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Afghanistan: This Condor Shouldn’t Fly

Why was the choice of “codename condor” for parts of the Afghanistan historically insensitive?

May 28, 2002

Why was the choice of "codename condor" for parts of the Afghanistan historically insensitive?

Condors are vultures and can be found in the high areas of the Andes of South America and in the Sierra Mountains of California. They are the largest birds of prey with a wingspan of up to 10 feet.

In view of their impressive size and majestic flight patterns, condors might seem to be a fitting symbol for a ruthless campaign to wipe out terrorism. From a historical perspective, however, that does not seem right. Enter “Legion Condor.”

During the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, the Nationalists under Francisco Franco fought to oust the left-wing government of Manuel Azaña, but soon realized that they would need logistical support.

Their opponents, the Republicans, had tremendous fighting spirit and were supported by Stalin and the so-called International Brigades, mainly consisting of anti-fascist idealists from all over the world.

While France sent official help to the Republicans, Great Britain was reluctant to get involved. Doing so might have jeopardized peace in Europe and Britain’s economic interests. Among others, the British Rio Tinto company owned vast copper deposits in Spain.

British business and the Conservative Government under Stanley Baldwin, and subsequently Neville Chamberlain, feared that a Republican triumph would lead to a nationalization of foreign companies in Spain.

Franco, in turn, received help from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Since the Nationalists lacked anything resembling a powerful air force, Hitler discretely provided first airplanes — and later full-fledged squadrons, including pilots, engineers and galore. All of them were officially “volunteers” and wore no German uniforms. Neither did the planes have German markings. The air squadrons were known as “Legion Condor.”

Hitler’s support for his soon-to-be fellow fascist dictator, however, was not without self-interest. The Führer had much greater things in mind than just enabling a mutinous Spanish officer to overthrow the Spanish government. In fact, the Spanish Civil War was something like a dress-rehearsal for Germany’s air force.

It was in Spain where the feared Stuka bombers developed tactics for the start of World War II. It was also a German Legion Condor pilot, Adolf Galland, who experimented with what would soon be called “carpet bombing.”

A year after the Spanish Civil War ended, the German Luftwaffe made deadly use of the techniques and tactics acquired in Spain. In what was to become a defining period for British history, Germany launched carpet bombings over London, which came to be known as the “London Blitz.”

Why does all this matter? If anything, the British are famous for their sense of tradition. They also take pride in their history, especially in the fact that they made it through the London Blitz. Their excellent military historians are also distinguished.

In that context, it is surprising that apparently no objections were raised about using the code name “condor” for the current campaign in Afghanistan. Given that the present global war against terrorism resembles the fight against Nazism — as U.S. President Bush pointed out in his address to the German Reichstag on May 23, 2002 — one might have expected a more appropriate code name from the British.

Some might say that it is all the Americans’ fault. It is their war — and they lead the coalition forces in Afghanistan. Yet, what is true about “condors” for the British is true for any American with a sense for history as well. For the Americans, Operation Condor popped up in the annals of history as the name of an intelligence gathering operation by South American governments back in the 1970s. The aim of these investigations was to eliminate Marxists — and the CIA was rumored to be heavily involved.

In view of the allied efforts in Afghanistan, it is to be hoped that this version of “operation condor” will bring better results for global peace and democracy than its dubious predecessors.