The Norwegian government doesn’t think the US-led withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan last month was the “extraordinary success” that US President Joe Biden thinks it was. Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide is calling for more “humility” when NATO evaluates how it spent the past 20 years.
Søreide flew to Washington DC late last week for a brief meeting with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. The meeting was called after Søreide, who’d had to close Norway’s embassy in the Afghanistan when Kabul fell to the Taliban, described the situation that quickly flared up as “chaotic” and “unpredictable.” As the situation worsened and a rushed evacuation of both Norwegian personnel and terrified Afghan citizens had to be halted, Søreide repeatedly called the situation in Kabul both “dangerous” and “unclear.”
An official assessment of Norway’s role as a loyal NATO member in Afghanistan had already concluded that one of the few things achieved by Norway during its 20-year involvement in Afghanistan was to prove itself “a good ally” of the US. Then all the time and investment in Afghanistan came to a sudden and bitter end.
The tone was friendly between Søreide and Blinken during their opening pleasantries Friday night Norwegian time, both making it clear they’re on a first-name basis. “We’ve actually spent a fair bit of time together in the last six or seven months, in Brussels, at NATO, on the phone, in constant communication,” said Blinken, according to an official transcript of welcoming formalities before they retired to a meeting behind closed doors. “It’s really a reflection of the fact that our partnership with Norway is one of the most vital and important that we have.”
“We’ve seen that reflected in many places, in many ways around the world,” Blinken continued, “but no more so than just in the last couple of weeks at the airport in Kabul, where Norway led the field hospital that, among other things, took care of those who were wounded in the terrorist attack on the airport.” He concluded by saying he was “delighted to have Ine here today, to talk about, of course, the way forward together on Afghanistan” along with “a number of other issues.”
“Thank you so much, Tony,” responded Søreide, “… and for inviting me at this very critical juncture.” She referred to all that’s happening in Afghanistan and said she was happy “to meet face to face again. As you say, we have done that several times already, but I think we right now need to meet … in person. I think it’s fair to say that what we have experienced together for the past 20 years in Afghanistan has really marked both our nations, and we also need to find a way forward together in Afghanistan and to make sure we stand up for the needs of the Afghan people as well.”
Then they retreated for their meeting without reporters present. The meeting was later summed up by the US State Department in just a paragraph, noting that Blinken and Søreide “discussed the security situation in Kabul and diplomatic efforts to form a coordinated international approach to challenges in Afghanistan.” Blinken was said to have “expressed gratitude for the Norwegian medical providers” at the Kabul airport “who treated over 50 victims of the horrific August 26 terrorist attack in Kabul and for Norwegian contributions to the evacuation of US citizens, our allies and vulnerable Afghan citizens.”
Søreide told newspaper Aftenposten on Sunday, meanwhile, that “I don’t think there’s any doubt that American officials were standing in the middle of a situation that was just as demanding as for all the rest of us (NATO allies). We tried to help each other as best we could.”
Asked whether Biden’s characterization of the withdrawal as an “extraordinary success” was exaggerated, Søreide said “Yes, I would say that. It has to do with what perspective you have.” She also noted that “there’s a difference between what a US president will say in a speech to the American people after a 20-year-long war, and what’s said between NATO allies when the entire Afghan operation will be evaluated.
“The discussion NATO will now launch must have a necessary degree of humility,” Søreide said. “It’s necessary to be open and honest. My clear impression is that the Americans will also contribute that that.”
Unusual US invitation just before the election
It’s by no means clear whether Søreide will still be foreign minister when those discussions begin. Her Conservative Party is seeking a third term in government at next week’s national election but has no majority in the latest public opinion polls.
Aftenposten noted that it’s unusual for the US to invite top politicians for a visit so close to a national election. The US is believed to have felt a need, however, to thank the incumbent Norwegian government for its role in Afghanistan and especially for the field hospital that remained in operation until the Taliban ordered all foreign presence to leave the country by September 1.
“It’s something we’ll never forget,” Blinken told Søreide, with US Vice President Kamala Harris thanking Søreide as well during a phone conversation earlier in the day. The Americans are well aware that a new Labour Party-led government will likely include the Socialist Left Party (SV), which has opposed Norway’s membership in NATO for years.
Søreide nonetheless said Norway and the US will now try to put pressure on the Taliban. The goal is to hinder a reversal of progress made during the past 20 years, especially with regard to women’s rights. As she’s said before, Søreide stressed that the “Taliban is sending some of the right signals, but it’s still too early to say what that will mean in practice.” She’s also noted that Afghanistan will need lots of foreign aid for many years to come, and the Taliban will need some form of international recognition. That gives the rest of the world an opportunity to exert influence.
“But it won’t help if Norway does that alone,” Søreide told Aftenposten. “This must be done together.”