Government makes full retreat on troop return from Afghanistan

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Norwegian Defense Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen says she regrets text in the new state budget proposal for 2010, which claims the Norwegian troop deployment at Meymaneh in Afghanistan will be “terminated” from the middle of next year. That’s not right, she says. There will be no troop reduction, and Norway will maintain its military contribution to the international forces in the war-torn country.

Strøm-Erichsen had some explaining to do, not least to opposition politicians in Parliament, after media reports of the surprising budget text. Strøm-Erichsen told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday that she now wishes the line about “terminating” infantry operations at Meymaneh had been deleted.

It was written, she claims, before the situation in Afghanistan worsened and the need for troops became greater. The Norwegian government still aims to eventually replace its soldiers on active duty with troops and officers who instead will concentrate on training, advising and cooperating with Afghan troops, to help them take care of their security needs themselves.

But not now, not yet.Strøm-Erichsen made her 10th trip to Afghanistan just three weeks ago. “I saw the situation there, and that developments had worsened,” she said. “We’re not at the point where we can pull any troops out.”

She said the Norwegian military had hoped Afghanistan’s own military could mount a new battalion at Meymaneh, but that hasn’t materialized as yet.

Even though the state budget was printed just two weeks ago, Strøm-Erichsen apparently didn’t manage to change its original text. “I would have eliminated the sentence about ‘planned termination,” she told Aftenposten , stressing that troop levels will remain at around 500 Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Opposition politicians expressed relief, but remained critical.

“This clarification that Strøm-Erichsen is making is necessary and good,” said the new leader of the Foreign Relations and Defense Committee in the Parliament, Ine Eriksen Søreide of the Conservatives. “We don’t want more tension than necessary regarding our Afghanistan contribution, and believe the government created a lack of clarity with its formulation during the last week.”

Jan Arild Ellingsen of the Progress Party accused the government and Strøm-Erichsen of “double-speak” and suspects her party, Labour, was trying to placate its anti-NATO government partner, the Socialist Left (SV), with its budget text.

SV’s Bjørn Jacobsen denied that, saying he hadn’t even been aware of the text calling for termination of the infantry operation at Meymaneh. He said, however, that the government does want to reduce forces in Afghanistan and bring its soldiers home, as do other countries participating in the operation.