MPs debate lessons from Afghanistan

The Norwegian government and Members of Parliament (MPs) finally took time in the New Year to study and debate Norway’s lengthy participation in the war in Afghanistan. Most agree, at least, on one conclusion from a critical report by experts last year: Norway proved itself to be a good and reliable ally of the US, which led the war effort.

Norway has spent more than 14 years and NOK 20 billion on its involvement in Afghanistan. Parliament is now assessing a critical report about how goals for creating stability and democracy were not met. PHOTO: Forsvaret

The report itself otherwise mostly blasted Norway’s participation in Afghanistan, which was officially aimed at fighting terrorism and the Taliban in the area. The Norwegian government spent 14 years and NOK 20 billion on military operations and foreign aid in Afghanistan, where 10 Norwegian soldiers were also killed and many others badly wounded. The report claimed that proving itself as a good US ally was the only goal that Norway actually met.

Other goals, like routing out the Taliban and generating peace, stability, democracy and economic development were not met, according to the report that was handed to the government last summer. Afghanistan remains plagued by major social problems and frequent terrorist attacks, with the first-half of 2016 one of the most difficult until now, according to Liv Kjølseth, secretary general of Afghanistankomitteen, a Norwegian humanitarian organization running long-term projects and emergency assistance in the country.

‘Crushing’ assessment
Kjølseth and her colleague Helen Aall Henriksen call last year’s report on Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan a “crushing” assessment that most Norwegian politicians have tried to ignore or simply set aside. The Labour Party, which held government power for eight years during the height of Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan, is now in opposition but unlikely to criticize how it handled Afghan issues from 2005 until 2013, when the current Conservatives-led government took over. The Conservatives, meanwhile, seem reluctant to criticize Labour since they granted the US’ requests for participation in Afghanistan when they held power before Labour took over in 2005. They now hold power again and have claimed that the situation in Afghanistan has improved enough that the government can justify sending rejected refugees back to the war-torn country, no matter how controversial that practice is.

Kjølseth, Henriksen and Lt Col Tormod Heier, a researcher at Norway’s defense college (Forsvarets høyskole), have all complained that Norwegian politicians have been much too secretive about their participation in military operations overseas and reluctant to address and assess the shortcomings of the Afghanistan effort. Kjølseth told newspaper Dagsavisen this week that “it’s never been more difficult to work in Afghanistan than it is today.” She claims the lack of self-criticism has “been almost total” among Norwegian politicians, “and we’re especially calling for more open debate before Norway involves itself (again) in war areas.”

Arne Strand, a senior researcher at Christian Michelsens Institute, agreed. “I had hoped for more evaluation and public debate,” he told Dagsavisen. He stressed that “very much” in the report is highly relevant today, given Norway’s current involvement in Middle East wars and conflicts.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende, shown here on a trip to Afghanistan in 2014, has promised more aid to help push through new democratic reforms. They have yet to succeed. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

“The most important lessons from the engagement in Afghanistan, both for (Norway’s) political and military leadership, is that they must present a clear framework for what the Norwegian forces are supposed to do and not do,” Heier told Dagsavisen. He also called for much more openness and public debate over intervention abroad, and over how Norway’s dependence on its alliance with the US influences its military participation.

Ministers in Parliament
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide and Foreign Minister Børge Brende of the Conservatives appeared in Parliament to finally address Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan. Brende admitted that Norway’s ambitions have been too high, and largely agreed that Norway has only partially succeeded in hindering terror and helping to build a stable and democratic Afghan state.

Brende claimed it was nonetheless correct for Norway to participate in the efforts to do so, and he stressed that Norway’s alliance with the US remains of critical importance. “It’s easy to forget the shockwaves that the attack on the US on September 11, 2001 sent through the whole world,” Brende said. “Norway had a formal obligation in accordance with the NATO pact and a moral obligation to stand by the US’ side after the terrorist attacks in 2001.”

Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide (center), eating waffels with Norwegian troops in Afghanistan right after taking over her post in late 2013. At right, Defense Chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Stephen Olsen

Søreide also pointed to the attacks on the US as the catalyst for Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan. She noted that a majority in the Norwegian Parliament “believed it was right to stand together with our ally in that situation.” She stressed that the initial goal was to make sure that Afghanistan would no longer become a haven for terrorism. Leaving Afghanistan without also contributing to its rebuilding and stabilization “would have been irresponsible,” Søreide said.

Both Brende and Søreide claimed that it thus was “correct” for Norway to go into Afghanistan, and stay there for so long. “It was correct that we engaged us in 2001 and it is correct that we still engage ourselves today,” Søreide told Parliament.

Søreide and Brende also claimed it was “important and correct that we take the lessons from Afghanistan further.” Søreide thanked the government-appointed commission that prepared the critical report, and which will now be debated in Parliament. She promised that Norwegian veterans of the war in Afghanistan will be “followed up,” that more efforts will be made to attend to their needs and that more attention will be paid to civilian and military cooperation in international operations. She claimed there already was better cooperation between Norway’s defense and foreign ministries and agreed that every overseas operation should have an exit strategy. She hailed Norway’s special forces and intelligence-gathering services as “the two success stories” in last year’s otherwise critical report. Søreide claimed that Norway’s defense department “itself sees the need for more efficient learning from experience, and is continually improving its procedures.”

Skeptics abound
Others weren’t so sure. Leaders of Norway’s smaller parties in Parliament were especially skeptical, with Liv Signe Navarsete of the Center Party (which ruled with Labour from 2005-2013) remarking after Brende’s and Søreide’s briefings that “there was a lot of defense over what they had done and little about what they’d learned.” Bård Vegar Solhjell of the Socialist Left (SV), which also ruled with Labour, said it took much too long to start a peace process in Afghanistan and complained that neither Brende nor Søreide addressed whether it’s possible to stabilize Afghanistan. Trine Skei Grande of the Liberals said that it was at least “good that they admit that the reason we went into Afghanistan was because we’re members of NATO.” NATO is now led by the former Labour prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, who was most responsible for Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan during his eight years at the helm.

Jonas Gahr Støre, the current Labour leader who served as foreign minister under Stoltenberg and experienced a terrorist attack while in Kabul himself, told news bureau NTB that one important lesson from Afghanistan is that there are no military solutions for such conflicts, while political solutions are complex. “It’s not any easier when it’s a big military engagement involving many states,” he said.

Lt Col Heier, of the defense college, also is concerned that Norway’s current operations in the Middle East suggest that some of the reasons for going into Afghanistan are already being repeated. “The main reason we’re there (in Iraq and Syria, for example) is also that we want to be a good ally of the US,” Heier told Dagsavisen. Mistakes cited in last year’s report are also being repeated: The government’s current operations in Iraq and Syria, Heier notes, were decided upon behind closed doors and with little public debate. The decision to join the fight against terror group IS now was made in much the same way as the decision to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“Where the US leads, Norway follows,” Heier told Dagsavisen. “Being engaged in a war against tribes, clans and militias can often make things go from bad to worse. And that’s a mistake that western forces make again and again.” On Wednesday by the way, Brende was off on another trip to Jordan, Israel and Palestinian areas.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund