Norway will be maintaining its troops in Iraq, just as it faces allies’ requests for more troops in Mali and patrol vessels in the Persian Gulf. The latter has been turned down so far, as the defense department also faces myriad demands at home and prepares for new leadership.
The requests and demands come amidst criticism that Norway’s defense capability remains understaffed and under-equipped. Newspaper Aftenposten noted on Thursday they also come at a time “when the security and political outlook hasn’t been so difficult for many years.”
Defense budgets have been boosted significantly in recent years. The aircraft, submarines, artillery, tanks and defense systems needed to secure the enhanced capability needed, however, won’t be in place for another five to 10 years.
On Wednesday the defense department (Forsvaret) announced that the process to replace Norwegian defense chief Haakon Bruun-Hanssen is underway. Bruun-Hanssen has held the post since November 2013, longer than most of his predecessors, and he’ll turn 60 in early July. That’s the generally accepted retirement age for the post of forsvarssjef, but he’ll stay on until his successor is in place.
Aftenposten reported a long list of potential replacements, all of whom must have the rank of major general, rear admiral or higher. Prime Minister Erna Solberg reportedly is keen for the process to result in Norway’s first female defense chief, with Major General Tonje Skinnarland topping Aftenposten’s list. Skinnarland, a 52-year-old former fighter jet controller, has won respect as head of the Air Force, has operational experience and has served in both the Balkans and the Baltic, along with being King Harald’s top military adjutant.
Another top candidate, however, is General Major Eirik Johan Kristoffersen, a former member of Norway’s special forces who rose to help lead an intelligence battalion, has battle experience himself and has won the military’s highest decoration, the War Cross with Sword. He’s also headed the home guard (Heimevernet) and currently is head of the Army.
The defense department noted that a total of 22 people have high-enough ranks to be evaluated. Several will be called in for interviews over the next several weeks before the top administrator in the defense ministry, Arne Røksund, and his committee will send their recommendation, after a “broad and thorough process,” to the defense minister, the rest of the government and ultimately the monarch. The goal is to make a selection later this spring, so that the prevailing candidate can prepare to take over in August.
Norwegian soldiers, meanwhile, will only leave a US-run drone base in Iraq if asked to do so by the Iraqi government, even though other top Iraqi politicians have asked all foreign troops to leave the country. Norway has had around 70 soldiers in Iraq since 2015, as part of Norway’s participation in a US-led coalition against the mostly defeated by potentially resurgent terror organization IS. Norway maintains that its troops are in Iraq “by invitation of the Iraqi government,” and that no formal request to withdraw has arrived.
The situation in Iraq turned dramatic earlier this month when the US drone sent to assassinate Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad came from the same Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq’s Anbar province where the Norwegians are stationed. That led to an Iranian missile attack on the base, but no Norwegians were reported wounded or killed. The US later had to admit that the attack did cause extensive damage and injuries.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide has been under criticism for refusing to condemn the US’ liquidation of Soleimani. Søreide, on behalf of the Norwegian government, has merely expressed “deep concern” over “developments in the relationship between the US and Iran,” and called events “dramatic and unpredictable.” Even though Søreide did “strongly condemn” an attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad that led to the killing of Soleimani, and the attack on the base where Norway’s toops are based, she stopped short of condemning the deadly attack on Iran’s general, asking only for an “explanation” from the US that has been slow in coming.
“We have been very clear that we don’t know the background for why the US chose to act, and that’s what we and other allies have asked the US for more information about,” Søreide said last week. The UN, however, has claimed the liquidation of Soleimani was illegal, and the leader of Amnesty International in Norway agrees.
“Norway must of course strongly criticize the murder (of Soleimani),” declared Member of Parliament Audun Lysbakken of the Socialist Left party (SV). He and several other MPs from the Greens and Reds parties support the the UN’s call for an investigation. Søreide, who consistently refers to the US as Norway’s “most important ally” despite lots of political differences, has refused to criticize the US or its president that gave the order for the liquidation, Donald Trump. News bureau NTB reports that new Norwegian troops attached to Norway’s Telemark Battalion are also packing and ready to head for Iraq in February.
No vessels to Hormuz
Norway, meanwhile, continues to turn down US requests for naval vessels to patrol the Straits of Hormuz and Persian Gulf. The US first asked for help from Norway and several other countries last summer, to hinder Iranian attacks on merchant shipping traffic in the area. “We have not evaluated that we can contribute with anything down there in Hormuz,” Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen told newspaper Klassekampen. “We are actually quite well engaged both in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we’re in place in the Baltics. So we think we’re heartily contributing already.”
Norway is also being asked by France to send more troops to Mali in West Africa, to to fight Islamic insurgents. France wants to increase western military contributions and some Norwegian newspapers have editorialized in favour of contributing more to the fight. Norway has contributed with military transport and some personnel in the UN’s Mali operation since 2013.
Challenges at home
Norway also has military demands and problems of its own at home. A recent report claims the military is unnecessarily expensive, with Norway too often agreeing to purchase more expensive and advanced weapons than needed. The country’s huge purchase of new F35 fighter jets continues to be criticized as well, and some MPs have criticized how a state auditor general’s probe into the F35s has been withheld from public review. The Reds Party suspects the goverment is more concerned with shielding the military and itself from more criticism than in security aspects of the report.
Norway’s defense is also operating at reduced capacity since losing one of its five frigates in a collision and more recently having trouble with its new naval logistics vessel KNM Maud. Aftenposten reported during the Christmas holidays that Maud hadn’t been able to sail until “serious deficiences and errors” in its construction are corrected. The vessel was just put into service last year, only to be hit with the order against sailing five months later.
The major military exercise “Cold Response” will still take place in Northern Norway in March, however, with defense forces from the US, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Great Britain participating. The US, however, recently signalled that it’s pulling 3,000 of its soldiers from the operation because of the “security policy situation” at present. Nearly 19,000 soldiers had been initially registered, meaning around 15,500 will actually take part.