Norway winds down in Afghanistan

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Norwegian military forces are getting ready to pull out of Afghanistan after years of participation in NATO-led operations and several casualties. Norway’s role is already in the midst of major change, while experts worry whether Afghan forces are ready to take over.

Norway has suffered its share of casualties in Afghanistan over the years. PHOTO: Forsvarets mediesenter/Torbjørn Kjosvold

Norwegian soldiers and officers will, in practice, be withdrawn from the front lines around New Year, reported newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday. The withdrawal will be part of the international reduction in forces that have been in Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and try to restore stability and security after decades of war and terrorism.

Latvian forces will replace the Norwegian troops assigned to the military response command at Meymaneh. Its assignment has been to help Afghan security forces to respond to insurgent attacks in the so-called “Norwegian” area of northern Afghanistan.

The area has recently become the scene of far more unrest and intense battles, and there are concerns whether the Afghan forces are ready to assume responsibility for the country’s security from NATO troops pulling out. The decision has been made, however, that NATO forces will withdraw by 2014.

Crown Prince Haakon greeting troops in Afghanistan in 2009. PHOTO: Forsvaret

Norway has maintained around 500 troops on average in Afghanistan, a fraction of those supplied by countries like the US and Great Britain but still relatively large given Norway’s small population and overall military force. Many will remain, but in administrative and command roles, not engaged in active fighting.

The defense ministry’s operative headquarters (Forsvarets operative hovedkvarter, FOH) describes the move as from being active in the field, to a more “strategic” role. The plan will also reduce costs and “wear and tear” on the military at home in Norway.

Asked whether Afghan authorities and security forces will be able to take over, FOH chief and Vice Admiral Haakon Bruun-Hansen chose to be optimistic.

“We can’t compare the Afghans’ military ability with NATO’s,” Bruun-Hansen told Aftenposten. “The Afghans don’t have the western fighting force and won’t have it for the foreseeable future. But we must look at this from the Afghan perspective. The authorities themselves believe they are able to handle the security situation. Right now a new group of cities and provinces is taking over responsibility for their own security.”

Bruun-Hansen added that in Faryab, where Norwegian forces have been active, the Afghan police and military “have become steadily better, also on an organizational basis. There’s now a provincial governor and a security adviser who identify security challenges and tell the police and military how to handle them.”

He said he’s aware that the situation is entirely different in other provinces. He recognizes the possibility of power struggles breaking out after the NATO troops leave. “The various ethnic, religious and cultural groups and interests will position themselves,” he said. “But there’s hope we have helped get a regime in place that can handle that.”

Kristian Berg Harpviken of the peace research institute PRIO in Oslo is far less optimistic. “Today there are very few divisions within the Afghan security forces that are able to operate effectively alone,” he told Aftenposten. “In addition there are questions about their loyalty and the ethical balance. That creates anxiety, both in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries, that forces can be split and become part of a new civil war.”

Former Norwegian defense chief Sverre Diesen thinks the international forces are pulling out too quickly. “I think … that we would have achieved a more successful operation by being there longer,” he told Aftenposten.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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