Frank Bakke-Jensen has stirred controversy in his role as defense minister on earlier occasions, but this week he was all but being publicly shamed. The target of the complaints: Bakke-Jensen’s decision to campaign for his Conservative Party in his home county of Troms og Finnmark and then spend a day at home in Northern Norway, while Kabul was falling to the Taliban and Norwegian lives were suddenly in danger.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported this week on the contrast between Bakke-Jensen’s priorities and those of other government officials who were scrambling to deal with the crisis in Kabul. Norway joined other countries in closing its embassy on Friday August 13 and launching evacuations of diplomats, other civilians and military personnel. Saturday August 14 and Sunday August 15 were described as “dramatic days” in Afghanistan’s capital, as the extremist Islamists in the Taliban surrounded the city. Norwegian Defense Chief, General Eirik Kristoffersen, had already stated that the “worst” thing that could happen in Afghanistan was in fact starting to unfold.
Bakke-Jensen, meanwhile, was spending his time during the fateful weekend sending out a social media report about the veldig god stemning (very good mood) outdoors “in the sunshine” while campaigning in the northern city of Alta on Saturday August 14. Aftenposten reported that he had no official program on Sunday the 15th, the day Kabul actually fell to the Taliban and when and foreign ministry staff were working night and day to evacuate Norwegians and Afghan personnel whose lives are in jeopardy at the hands of the Taliban. He spent the day in Tromsø, where he lives when he isn’t in Oslo.
On Monday the 16th, however, Bakke-Jensen cancelled an appearance at a major political gathering in Arendal because of the situation in Kabul. Defense ministry officials told Aftenposten he has mostly been in Oslo since then, and he took part in a government press conference on the evacuation program Tuesday night.
Important ‘to show solidarity’
Reaction to his activities when the crisis began was strong, however, also from the government’s former partner, the Progress Party. “As defense minister, you should show that you care and are part of what’s going on,” Christian Tybring-Gjedde, a Member of Parliament and defense policy spokesman for Progress, told Aftenposten. He added that it’s important “to show solidarity” with the soldiers for whom he’s their political boss.
Reds Party leader Bjørnar Moxnes, a Member of Parliament at the other end of the political spectrum from Progress, was also critical: “That weekend was the last chance to get people out before the Taliban took over,” Moxnes told Aftenposten. He claimed Bakke-Jensen’s presence in Alta “is a symptom of a government that’s leaving behind victims in a doomed war.”
Robert Mood, a former Norwegian defense chief and UN envoy in the Middle East, further noted that Norway’s defense minister “has a constitutional and personal responsibility for our military operations, our soldiers and those who have worked for us in Kabul and other areas of Afghanistan. He can’t run away from that.”
Bakke-Jensen refused to be interviewed by Aftenposten, sending instead a short email in which he claimed he traveled “in accordance to the situation,” adding that “technology has also given us tools that make it possible to have good contact with the ministry and the defense department.” Bakke-Jensen also refused to respond directly to the critical remarks made by opposition politicians.
He’s not alone in catching flak over his decision to campaign and spend a day at home in the middle of an international crisis. Denmark’s defense minister Trine Bramsen was caught in a similar situation that same weekend, while Britain’s foreign minnister was on holiday. Most of Norway’s other top politicians including Prime Minister Erna Solberg were taking part in pre-election debates that weekend, and heading for more events in Arendal tied to the upcoming election.
It’s also not the first time Bakke-Jensen has been publicly criticized. Many felt his response to the collision of one of Norway’s five frigates three years ago was not strong enough, he’s refused to be held accountable for a spy scandal that also embarrassed Norway, and he’s consistently warded off complaints that Norway has changed its base policy by allowing far more presence of especially US troops on Norwegian soil.
Questions also continue to fly over Bakke-Jensen’s appointment last December to a six-year term as fisheries director when his term as defense minister ends. It’s an important, well-paid and relatively secure post in Norway, where fishing ranks second only to the oil industry in economic important. Charges of political patronage have flown, not least since Bakke-Jensen didn’t formally apply for the post until six weeks after the supposed deadline for applications, and then suddenly beat out all other candidates.
Critics also pointed to a lack of tradition for naming government ministers to top positions in the government bureaucracy, and how Bakke-Jensen’s appointment initially was shrouded in secrecy since his name never appeared on the public list of applicants. The 56-year-old Bakke-Jensen who was trained as an electrician before going into politics nonetheless will have a powerful job until he’s eligible for retirement at 62.
He did win some support for his priorities during the weekend when the Norwegian government had to quickly and massively address the crisis in Afghanistan. Janne Haaland Matlary, a former state secretary during an earlier center-right government, told Aftenposten that it was “too easy” to criticize Bakke-Jensen “if you don’t know all the circumstances.” Matlary, also a professor specializing in international policy and defense analysis, said she thinks criticism should wait until Bakke-Jensen himself clarifies why he went to Alta and how oriented he was on the situation in Afghanistan. Aftenposten wrote that the defense minister was not, however, willing to offer a more detailed clarification.