UPDATED: Norway’s new defense minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, spent the weekend visiting Norwegian troops in Afghanistan and evaluating whether to extend their mission. Søreide later indicated that Norway won’t be completely pulling out of Afghanistan any time soon, much to the dismay of some opposition parties in Parliament.
Even though Norway has withdrawn many of its troops as the current NATO-led operation in Afghanistan winds down, around 200 Norwegian soldiers remain in Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, working as special forces and helping train and support the local police. Søreide has visited Afghanistan on several earlier occasions but this was her first trip as defense minister, and she traveled with Norway’s new defense chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen.
“It was important for both of us to visit our soldiers n Afghanistan as early as possible,” Søreide said, calling their operations “still among the most important and most demanding that the military carries out.”
Bruun-Hanssen claimed that Norwegian soldiers have made an “impressive contribution” in Afghanistan over the past 12 years, “and we now have a responsibility that this contribution will be followed up.” A major topic of conversation with Søreide during the weekend revolved around what Norway’s future contribution to Afghanistan would be.
The NATO-led ISAF operation will wind down next year but probably be replaced by a smaller NATO-led training and mentoring mission. Norway’s contribution to that mission is now under evaluation, and Søreide seems inclined to keep sending Norwegian soldiers. “I don’t see that it’s very likely that we will contribute with something completely different from today,” she told news bureau NTB.
That set off some protests in Parliament on Monday, from parties that are anxious to pull out of Afghanistan entirely. While the large Labour Party seems to support Bruun-Hanssen’s plans for follow-up forces, the Christian Democrats want to limit Norwegian participation in any new NATO operation, the Liberal Party supports a full evaluation of Norway’s involvement and the Socialist Left (SV) wants to end Norway’s engagement in Afghanistan as soon as possible. Labour’s support, though, would give the new conservative government the backing it needs to extend deployment of Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan.
“It’s important to carry on the work, and in cooperation with our allies, we will find the best way that Norway can contribute,” said Bruun-Hanssen. “I have therefore put forth several alternatives to the ministry, with a choice of gathering our forces in northern Afghanistan, in Kabul or a combination thereof.”
Søreide said Afghanistan was at a crossroads, with pending agreements between Afghan authorities and the US and with NATO currently being fine-tuned. The US looks likely to keep 15,000 troops in Afghanistan through 2024, and with elections in Afghanistan looming next year, Søreide thinks the next six months “are important for Afghanistan’s future.”
She said it was too early to say exactly how Norway may contribute after 2014, and that her ministry was discussing Bruun-Hanssen’s alternatives. She said that Norway’s new conservative government would also maintain the NOK 750 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan that was approved by the former left-center government.