Norway joined other western allies late Friday afternoon in announcing closure of their embassies in Afghanistan, at least temporarily. The announcement came after the Islamic extremist group Taliban has conquered large portions of the country since the US and NATO started pulling out after 20 years of unsuccessfully trying to stabilize it.
“We hoped for the best, in the form of a politically negotiated solution, and feared the worst,” Norwegian Defense Chief Eirik Kristoffersen told Norwegian Broadcasting NRK on Thursday, “What we’re seeing right now is that the worst is happening.”
At a hastily called press conference late Friday afternoon, Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide confirmed what many expected would happen: Norway is closing its embassy in Kabul and evacuating all personnel. The move comes after US President Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal of all US troops earlier this year. Norway and other NATO allies followed suit.
“There’s been a major worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan that first and foremost affects the civilian population,” Søreide said. “Responsibility for our employees’ safety weighs heavily in this situation.”
Søreide insisted that Norway was not abandoning Afghanistan altogether: “At the same time we will continue our wide-ranging contributions (to help stabilize Afghanistan), and Norway will reopen the embassy in Kabul when the situation allows. Norway’s measures are in line with those now being put in operation by several other countries.” She stressed that Norway “has expressed deep concern over the high level of violence as a consequence of the Taliban’s military offensive, and (Norway) has clearly condemned violence directed at civilians.”
Norway, currently a member of the UN Security Council, “has also taken the initiative so that a unanimous council is sending the same message” condemning the violence. Søreide said Norway would continue to support political processes and pressure both sides in Afghanistan to “contribute to a lasting peace.” Norway also has committed NOK 1.5 billion to the UN Food Program and the UN’s High Commisioner for Refugees, to help them “react quickly in situations such as that now developing in Afghanistan.” Efforts are also being made to still provide humanitarian aid through several Norwegian relief organizations.
Norway has, however, been urging all Norwegians still in Afghanistan to leave the country since last spring. At the same time, Norway has offered asylum only to some of the locally employed Afghans who worked for the Norwegian military and at Norway’s embassy, for example as interpreters. The Norwegian government and its immigration agency UDI has controversially refused to re-evaluate applications for asylum filed by Afghans who earlier worked for Norwegian forces, now feel left behind and fear they’re targets of the violent Taliban.
Søreide defended Norway’s efforts “to take care of” locally employed Afghans, stressing that those still working at the embassy and their families will also be able to travel to Norway “at the same time we bring home our diplomats.” She declined to reveal details of the evacuation for security reasons. Afghan citizens brought to Norway can apply for asylum in Norway, with Søreide claiming their applications “will be thoroughly evaluated.” She also claimed there was “close cooperation” between the foreign ministry and immigration officials in Norway, who already have braced for an influx of Afghan refugees.
Norway is not, however, assuming responsibility for other Afghans who worked for Norwegian troops over the past 20 years but whose applications for asylum were rejected. Søreide claimed their applications had been “thoroughly evaluated” at the time by UDI, which has no intention or political mandate to reopen and re-evaluate their cases even though their lives are now clearly in danger.
Defense personnel remaining, for now
Norway still has several Norwegian soldiers in Afghanistan who run a field hospital in Kabul. Kristoffersen said they have continued to feel safe and their security has constantly been under reevaluation. “We’ve been worried about how the Taliban conquers steadily new areas (of Afghanistan),” Kristoffersen told NRK. Søreide said it was up to the Norwegian defense forces to determine how long the remaining medically-oriented troops can remain in the country.
Kristoffersen, who has served in Afghanistan himself, is among those surprised over how quickly the Afghan civilian infrastructure that’s been developed by western allies like Norway since 2001 seems to be collapsing, including Afghanistan’s own NATO-trained military forces. Søreide, who formerly served as defense minister, denied the 20-year investment of time and money in Afghanistan has become “a total catastrophe,” claiming Norway’s decision to evacuate was rather a recognition of the current situation. She defended the training that Afghan troops have had, noting instead that “Afghanistan is a very large country” with constantly “shifting alliances” within its population.
Kristoffersen also defended the training offered both Afghan military and police forces. “It has had an effect, I have been involved in training Afghan police forces in Kabul and its version of special forces,” he told NRK. “They are still intact and responsible for security in Kabul.”
Neither Søreide nor Kristoffersen would comment on whether they think Kabul itself is about to fall to the Taliban as well. Kristoffersen admitted that development of the Afghan army and police forces in outlying provinces has not been as successful. “They’ve had to surrender to the power that the Taliban has represented over the past several weeks.” The US, which initiated the withdrawal of NATO troops earlier this year, is reportedly now sending 3,000 soldiers to Kabul to help protect its airport during the evacuation of western allies. Only around 650 US troops remained in the country as of this week.
Both Søreide and Kristoffersen claim at least some of the NATO and Norwegian operations over the years have succeeded. Afghanistan lost its reputation as a safe harbour for terrorists after the remains of Al-Qaida were defeated and the Taliban was thrown out in 2001-2002, noted Kristoffersen.
“Then we started the nation-building,” he said, “but it hasn’t succeeded. We see the Afghan security forces collapse in the provinces. We see that the country is corrupt and we see that there hasn’t been any political agreement with the Taliban. So the peace processes around Afghanistan, after the initial battles, have not succeeded.”