Photo: hjk/Forsvaret

The report of a government-appointed commission tasked with evaluating the Norwegian engagement in Afghanistan was presented to the public on June 6. Entitled A Good Ally. Norway in Afghanistan 2001-2014, the 230 page report is a detailed examination of Norway’s  civilian and military role in Afghanistan in this period. The Commission of ten persons was headed by a former foreign minister and defense minister, Bjørn Tore Godal, and consisted mainly of independent researchers. Two of its members were CMI researchers Astri Suhrke and Torunn Wimpelmann.

The Commission’s mandate was to assess the totality of Norway’s contributions to the international engagement in Afghanistan in 2001-2014, and draw out the implications for future involvement in international operations.

The report A Good Ally. Norway in Afghanistan 2001-2014 describes the overall results of the international engagement in Afghanistan as discouraging. It notes that militant Islamist groups still have a foothold in parts of the country and the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001. Ongoing hostilities continue to undermine the opportunities for economic and social development, threaten to reverse whatever progress has been achieved, and weaken the possibilities for building a stable, functioning, democratic government.

This state of affairs is contrasted with some indicators of the costs of the operation. An estimated 90 000 Afghans and foreigners have been killed. Total international military expenditures are estimated at NOK 4 500 billion and international development aid at NOK 357 billion.

The report finds that the international military presence in Afghanistan from 2001 was legally justified on the basis of the right to self-defence (Operation Enduring Freedom, OEF), had a mandate from the UN Security Council (International Security Assistance Force, ISAF) and subsequently the consent of Afghan authorities. Some legal issues facing the international operation as a whole as well as Norway were problematic, however; these related to the classification of the conflict under international law in its various phases, the use of military force against criminals and the treatment of prisoners.  

The report goes some way towards explaining the limited results of the international mission. It cites the limited understanding among international actors, including Norwegians, of Afghanistan and local conditions, culture and lines of conflict. It also shows how the objectives and approaches employed in the Afghanistan operations at times were internally inconsistent or contradictory. Military considerations drove the agenda for state-building and development aid. The international coalition’s strategy for combatting terrorism and insurgency prioritised short-term security goals; this had the effect of strengthening local power structures that were corrupt and abusive. Moreover, the extensive international military presence generated a sense of occupation among some segments of the Afghan population, thereby strengthening the adversaries of the international military.  

The report concludes that externally assisted state-building – based on large-scale military activities, massive monetary transfers and weak institutions – is extremely difficult. In Afghanistan, a society divided by war and upheavals, it proved impossible.


Norway’s role

Over 9 000 Norwegian military personnel served in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014. Ten Norwegian soldiers lost their lives, and many were seriously wounded. Norway spent roughly NOK 20 billion during this period: NOK 11.5 billion for military purposes and NOK 8.4 billion in aid. This amounted to approximately 0.26 per cent of the total international military expenditures and 2.3 per cent of the total aid contribution. 

Norway’s contribution, the report concludes, did not make a significant difference in the overall developments in Afghanistan in the period under consideration. The situation set clear limits for what Norway could achieve, although it offered some space for independent action that Norway did utilize with some effect. In this regard, the report cites Norway’s policy of maintaining a clear separation between civilian and military activities at a time when NATO was committed to a different strategy, as formulated in a “comprehensive approach” and operationalized in COIN. The report concludes that the principle of separation was well founded in the desire to safeguard development aid projects from the armed conflict, although requiring a level of coordination that was not achieved in practice.

The report is structured around three explicit, overarching objectives that the Commission found were central to the Norwegian engagement in Afghanistan. The first and most important objective throughout was the alliance dimension: to support the US and safeguard NATO’s continued relevance. This objective was largely achieved; Norway confirmed its role as a solid and reliable ally. The second objective was to help to fight international terrorism by preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for such activities. The report finds that this objective was only partially achieved. The third objective was to help to build a stable and democratic Afghan state through long-term development cooperation and diplomacy to promote peace. This objective was not reached. Afghanistan’s formally democratic institutions remain fragile and the war continues, the Commission writes. International and Norwegian aid has produced results in certain areas such as health and education. However, Afghanistan has become one of the world’s most aid-dependent countries, and the aid inflow has contributed to widespread corruption.

The report examines in depth three central components of the Norwegian contribution:

(i)  the Provincial Reconstruction Team that Norway lead in Faryab province in northern Afghanistan from 2005 until 2012, and civilian aid programs in the province, including substantial support to the education sector;

(ii) the joint activities of the Norwegian Special Forces and the Norwegian Intelligence Service in Kabul, including their role in building up the Afghan Crisis Response Unit (CRU), and

(iii) active Norwegian diplomatic efforts to promote a political solution to the conflict, including early efforts to establish contact with the Taliban and pursuit of high level contacts in 2009-07.

The report finds that Norway’s diplomacy in this area, as well as the activities of its Special Forces and intelligence service, were of particular importance in strengthening Norwegian relations with the US.


Policy recommendations

The two concluding chapters of the report discuss the policy implications of the Afghanistan mission for Norway. These range from general strategic guidelines to administrative reforms. Among the principal recommendations reproduced in the report’s Executive Summary are:

  • Future Norwegian involvement in conflict zones and vulnerable states will be part of an international operation in which others will set the overall framework. In principle, Norway will always be free to choose not to take part. Such a choice may be difficult, however, if requests to participate come from NATO, the United States, or the United Nations under Chapter VII. The trade-offs entailed in making a choice must be publicly acknowledged and form part of a full and open public discussion.
  • Interventions involving regime change, as in Afghanistan, are resource-intensive and generate more conflict. Successful state-building during armed conflict is difficult, if not impossible to achieve. International engagement in state-building must therefore be based on inclusive political solutions or negotiated settlements.
  • Attempts to reach a negotiated settlement to a conflict must begin early. Norway has experience with such dialogue, and is open to conducting talks with all parties. Norway therefore has a special responsibility to foster such initiatives.

The report is as yet only available in Norwegian. An English translation will be prepared.

-2015 was in many ways a very bad year for Afghanistan, and now, half way through 2016 things are not looking bright. The security situation is extremely serious. It is telling, and really quite tragic, that the US have just further reversed their announcement of withdrawal by 2014. Instead, it says it will expand their military operations in the country. There is also a dramatic economic crisis as a result of the aid and military economy having been reduced dramatically, says Torunn Wimpelmann.

Your particular field is gender politics. What are the main lessons learned from the international effort in relation to women’s rights?

-The international effort has focused a lot on formal frameworks and getting in place laws, policies and conventions. This is understandable because these kinds of interventions are easier to achieve than social change. However, it is clear that these formal changes have their limits. To put it a bit simply, it is relatively easy to push for a law on domestic violence, but when women have limited economic autonomy and are subject to social control they are dependent on the support of their families and so the law is difficult to implement.  Many women will not be able to benefit from such laws in practice. However, there is a new generation of feminist activists emerging in Afghanistan and I think we will see more grass root driven social change in in the future, at least in those areas which are somewhat stable. And of course, the change of government in 2014 have in some ways created a different climate in the capital- there is  more high level support for female visibility- which, symbolic as it may seem, matters.

The Norwegian government has reoriented aid to fragile countries like Afghanistan. What is the most important lesson from Afghanistan?

-It is extremely difficult to ensure that aid is put to good use in a situation like this. One cannot underestimate the importance of devoting enough human resources to administration and follow up of projects. I think it is better to have fewer projects well carried out than to decide on a high level of aid when its usefulness cannot be ascertained. In today’s Afghanistan we must not lose sight of the importance of projects carried out by local and small non-governmental organisations even though they may be more labour intensive to follow up, at least when measured by aid dollars spent.