Norway has published the first comprehensive evaluation of one country’s contribution to the international intervention in Afghanistan. The evaluation was conducted by a government-appointed commission led by Bjørn Tore Godal, a former foreign and defence minister. However, most commissioners were independent researchers. The ‘Godal report’, as it has become known, is a candid and sharp assessment, says AAN advisory board member Ann Wilkens. It finds that only the domestic goal of the mission, to prove Norway a trustworthy US and NATO ally, was fully achieved. It was far less successful in its ‘Afghan’ goals – preventing Afghanistan from lapsing back into being a haven of international terrorism and contributing to state-building. The report includes the first, comprehensive account of Norway’s early talking to the Taleban and its role in peace diplomacy, as well as important insights into applying the Laws of War.
At the time of writing, the report, “A Good Ally, Norway in Afghanistan 2001-2014”, was not yet available in English (an official translation is under way). All page numbers in the text refer to the Norwegian document and all quotes have been translated by the author. The full report in Norwegian can be found here:
A summary in English is available here.
Goals and costs
The Godal report, published in June 2016 evaluating the diplomatic, military and aid-related aspects of Norway’s mission, is an official government document. It is long (over 200 pages), but written in clear and accessible language and richly illustrated with graphs, timelines and photos. It starts with a summary, and already in its second paragraph it delivers a devastating conclusion: “On the whole, Norway has not made a great difference.” (p 9)
The Norwegian intervention was guided by three overarching objectives. Of the three goals, the commission deems the wish to be recognised as a trustworthy supporter of the USA and a good NATO ally to have been the most important one – and the only one to have been fully achieved. The second goal of preventing Afghanistan from relapsing into a haven for international terrorism is found to have been only partially reached, and the third goal – to contribute to state-building in Afghanistan – the commission deems not to have been achieved. In practice, this third goal referred mainly to the Norwegian contribution through a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Faryab, which turned out to be a much more extensive and complicated engagement than originally envisaged.
One explanation offered for this limited outcome is the “partly conflicting goals” of the intervention: military considerations had a decisive influence on state-building and development assistance, with a preference for short-term security objectives, which benefitted local power structures connected with abuse and corruption. The report also points out that the prolonged, international military presence contributed to a feeling among parts of the Afghan population that they were under occupation, which strengthened groups that the military intervention was meant to combat. (p 10)
While the results were meagre, the cost has been high. First of all for the Afghan people – the total number of Afghans killed during the intervention is estimated at “maybe over 90 000” – but also for Norway, with 10 soldiers killed and many more seriously injured. In financial terms, the Norwegian expenditure is estimated at around 20 billion Norwegian crowns (approximately 2.4 billion USD), corresponding to 0.26 per cent of the total international military expenditure and 2.3 per cent of the total international civilian expenditure in Afghanistan. (p 10) As these figures indicate, Norway was a small actor on the ground in Afghanistan – but in Norway, with a little over 5 million inhabitants, the intervention in Afghanistan was one of the largest international undertakings ever carried out.
History of the international intervention
In its first, main part, the report details the history of the international intervention. In the massive literature on this subject, the little over 20 pages of the report stand out as a concise summary of events, with little diplomatic fuzz. The way robust contributions in Afghanistan were welcomed by several European countries as a possibility to compensate the United States for their reluctant positions on the Iraq intervention is clearly reflected: “[Not only for Norway] but also for other European countries, contributions to a NATO-led and expanded ISAF operation presented themselves as a possibility to maintain a good bilateral relationship to the USA without sending troops to the war in Iraq.” (p 26)
The report describes how, already in its early stages, the international intervention was fragmented, due to “lack of coordination between donor countries and Afghan authorities, weak formal Afghan institutions and donors´ need for political visibility.” One example of this was the distribution of areas of responsibility within the security sector to different lead nations. (p 24) Norway was not part of that division of tasks, but it did eventually get involved in one of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) that were established by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) across the country.
The report describes the problems linked to the choice of PRTs as the instrument for ISAF´s expansion: the approach of dividing Afghanistan into different areas of responsibility allotted to different foreign actors with little knowledge of the local political economy and power struggles served to “undermine rather than obtain the goal of building a centrally managed Afghan state.” (p 199) In addition, the military dominance of the PRTs led to a military bias in aid-related interventions. As some countries ploughed considerable development resources into ‘their’ provinces, development in Afghanistan became uneven, often with a preferential treatment for unstable areas. (p26)
The Norwegian armed forces were not in favour of engaging in a PRT, as it was deemed to be an overly extensive and risky commitment. However – under pressure from NATO, as well as the UN – the government still decided take on the task. Under the circumstances, the Norwegian government considered such participation an unavoidable consequence of Norway´s NATO membership. The government was also anxious to support the US and cooperate with the United Kingdom, which wanted to move its troops from the north to the south of Afghanistan. (p 113) In order to minimise risks, the (then) relatively peaceful north-western province of Faryab was selected.
In its PRT engagement, Norway applied a specifically ‘Norwegian model’, based on development cooperation principles which aimed to separate military and civilian contributions. Military PRT leaders were tasked to work solely on stabilisation efforts, while aid was channelled through a parallel, civilian structure manned by development experts. The two tracks were supposed to cooperate, but the guidelines for this collaboration remained unclear and the arrangement led to frustration and misunderstandings between the two strands of personnel on the ground, as well as vis-à-vis Afghan authorities and ISAF partners. (p 199) Apart from the period 2005-2006, when the PRT leadership used Norwegian development funds to carry out minor development projects (p. 120), this separation was maintained throughout the intervention – causing increasing difficulties.
When the counter-insurgency policy (COIN) was introduced as the main ISAF approach in 2009, Norwegian PRT leaders were squeezed between national and international guidelines. In fact, Norway applied double standards, approving the COIN approach in the NATO Council, while at the same time preventing its PRT leaders from applying it on the ground. (p 36) While this ambivalence reflected Norwegian principles, the COIN approach in itself is also deemed to have been problematic: “The COIN doctrine rests on a prerequisite which was fulfilled only to a small degree in Afghanistan. An anti-insurgency operation cannot be better than the regime it is meant to support. If the authorities were perceived as a bigger problem than the Taleban, there was not much Western military power could do to persuade the population to the contrary.”
The report comes very close to declaring the Faryab PRT a failure: “In an Afghan national perspective, the Norwegian PRT and the Norwegian model made little difference. … There were several reasons why, in practice, the possibilities to make a difference in Faryab were minimal.” The report lists three such reasons: “Fundamental circumstances linked to Afghan power constellation were difficult. The Norwegian contribution was also small in relation to the size of the province. No coherent Norwegian strategy was formulated, linking goals to means….” (p 136) In its final conclusions, the commission states that, in the future, “Norway should not take responsibility for sizable, integrated interventions (state-building, development and security). Within the framework of comprehensive, international commitments, Norway is best served through the development of special capacity in areas where there is a long-term need and a clear role.” (p 204)
Part two of the report deals with a number of specific themes, some of them of mainly internal Norwegian interest (such as media response and personnel policy). However, two subjects stand out as relevant for an international audience: Norwegian peace diplomacy and the discussion on problems related to international law.
As a country outside the European Union, Norway did not have to adhere to EU sanctions and felt free to take initiatives towards a dialogue with the Taleban at a relatively early stage. At the time, these initiatives were surrounded by the usual secrecy, as well as overshadowed by a host of similar efforts by other actors – so their history may have been written for the first time in the Godal report. (p 138-156) Norway saw its peace diplomacy role in Afghanistan as threefold: to prepare the ground and transmit messages, to mediate between the parties and to promote dialogue between them. (p 138)
Grounded in an earlier project aimed at promoting intra-religious dialogue in Pakistan, direct Norwegian contacts with the Taleban were established during the beginning of 2007. During the first phase of 2007-2010, the Norwegians communicated with representatives of the Quetta shura, which eventually led to a meeting planned in Oslo for 28 February 2010, between representatives of the Taleban and the Afghan government. Among the enlisted participants was Taleban leader Mullah Barader whose arrest in Pakistan shortly before that date may or may not have been linked to the meeting, which in any case did not come about. A renewed effort in August 2010 stumbled on a late cancellation from the Taleban side. After that, Norway stepped back but continued its bilateral, thematic dialogue with the Taleban. In this context, it provided technical assistance in various ways. For instance, Norwegians helped the Taleban to formulate a political platform on election participation and organised a meeting with the UN in Oslo in late 2010. (p 151)
The ‘Quetta track’ was later replaced by the ‘Doha track’, where Norway initially worked in the shadow of German-American cooperation. When the German-American track floundered in 2012, Norway took on a more central role in trying to re-establish the dialogue with the Taleban; in the winter of 2012 and the spring of 2013, Norway, Qatar and the UK were the main go-betweens in negotiations between the US, the Taleban and Afghan authorities. In November 2012, a Taleban delegation visited Oslo and a meeting was held between the Norwegian minister for foreign affairs and Tayyab Agha, the leader of the Taleban political commission in Doha. (p 152) After the problem-ridden official opening of the Doha office in June 2013, Norwegian diplomats continued their dialogue with the Taleban on a bilateral level, again reverting to specific themes, most importantly the position of women, international laws of war, and the Afghan constitution. In parallel, the Norwegian government started to direct more of its efforts towards Afghanistan´s regional surroundings. During 2009-2011 it promoted and partially financed a series of regional dialogue meetings, leading up to the Heart of Asia process. (p 155)
The Norwegian peace diplomacy was related to two of Norway’s overarching goals for its participation in the intervention: to strengthen the relationship to the US and to contribute to state-building in Afghanistan. Again, the goal unrelated to Afghanistan was the most successful. According to the report, high-level US representatives showed interest in the Norwegian initiatives, especially after the Obama administration came to power. Norwegian contacts with the Taleban provided a recurring agenda point in meetings between the Norwegian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jonas Gahr Støre, and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. These US-Norwegian discussions may, according to the Godal commission, have played a part in the emerging US acceptance of a negotiated end to the conflict. (p 151-152) Whether this was the case or not, they did again put Norway solidly on the map of international diplomacy. As a side effect, the report found, efforts in Afghanistan also contributed to the professionalization of Norwegian peace diplomacy and helped develop the country’s understanding of the role of intelligence services in this context. (p 156)
The second goal – the intended contribution to state-building through a dialogue between Afghan authorities and the armed opposition – obviously has yet to materialise. It also remains be seen whether Norwegian representatives have managed to do much with regard to their secondary intention within that goal, i. e. to influence the Taleban when it comes to “humanitarian and political issues, among them women´s rights” (p 138), even if the commission lists such influence as one of the achievements. (p 156)
The Norwegian tradition of standing up for international law was put to test during the Afghanistan intervention, which challenged existing rules on several scores. One example was the legal basis for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) after the establishment of the Afghan transitional government in June 2002, when the situation in Afghanistan no longer involved a conflict between states. The commission criticises the government for the lack of clarification at the time on how it arrived at its conclusion that the legal basis of collective self-defence, as described in article 51 in the UN Charter, was not affected by this change. If, for instance, the commission points out, Norwegian pilots had been taken prisoner, they would not have been able to claim treatment according to the Third Geneva Convention (which applies to international armed conflict). (p161) The commission is also critical of the Norwegian government’s explicit interpretation that the self-defence doctrine applied not only in Afghanistan, but also for operations across the border in Pakistan (where Norway had no government consent). Norwegian fighter planes were engaged in operations close to the border and could easily have been drawn into cross-border operations. (p 159)
Lack of legal clarity also surrounded the Norwegian participation in ISAF, particularly during the initial years: Were Norwegian troops involved in war or just an operation to maintain law and order? Even at the later and more kinetic ISAF stages, the Norwegian government was, according to the commission, unnecessarily reluctant to use the word ‘war’ when talking of the engagement in Afghanistan. (p 161-162) The blurred dividing line between war and policing became particularly tricky when, from 2006 onwards, international forces also started targeting the drug trade as a source of financing for the armed opposition. (p 170-171) Police officers were sometimes tagged on to military patrols with no attention paid to the fact that they, unlike military personnel, had no immunity from judiciary consequences that could have resulted from these military operations. (p 162-164) Another grey zone arose as Afghan interpreters were armed and given uniforms when participating in operations together with Norwegian ISAF troops, as happened from time to time in spite of instructions from Oslo to the contrary. Here also, the commission points out that, had judiciary consequences followed, the interpreters (unlike Norwegian soldiers) would have been unable to rely on the immunity bestowed on combatants. (p 172)
The report points to the treatment of prisoners-of-war according to humanitarian norms as yet another area where Norway´s commitment to international law was difficult to uphold. Individuals captured by ISAF forces were handed over to Afghan authorities in spite of the fact the Afghan National Directorate for Security (NDS) was known to systematically break international rules. Like several other ISAF participants, Norway, in October 2006, signed an agreement with Afghanistan on the follow-up of prisoners’ treatment, stipulating monitoring by Norwegian personnel in order to ensure that prisoners were treated correctly – an alternative made possible by the limited number of individuals involved. When, in October 2011, UNAMA published a report showing that torture was routinely applied in Afghan prisons, ISAF stopped all transfer of prisoners. In its assessment, the commission still underlines the importance of having a formal agreement in place in any future operations with similar problems, but stresses that it should be more consistently followed up than was the case in Afghanistan. (p 169)
The commission´s reflections
In the third and final part of the report, which contains reflections on Norwegian goals and results, experiences and lessons learned, the commission points out that, by and large, the domestic political unity surrounding Norway´s participation in Afghanistan was never seriously challenged, in spite of the fact that opinion polls showed that the population was divided in its assessment of the military part of the engagement. (p 194) When it came to the maintenance of popular support, the growing emphasis on development assistance and state-building during the course of the international intervention played into the hands of the government. An implication that the commission chooses not to elaborate on is that the parts of the intervention most welcomed by the Norwegian population – contributions to state-building, aid to the Afghan people – were, in fact, the parts where results were the worst.
For the government, on the other hand, a consistent and central goal for its security policy since 1949 has been “to cultivate a good relationship to the USA and to ensure the relevance and strength of NATO.” For Norway’s participation in the intervention in Afghanistan, this goal was, in fact, more important than reflected in the public discussion. Indeed, the report points out, it was the raison d´être for the intervention in Afghanistan: “To appear as a competent partner in Washington D.C. and Brussels was more important for Norway´s decisions than evaluations of the effect that Norwegian contributions might have in Afghanistan.” (p 194) In this context, the Norwegian refusal to send troops to southern Afghanistan involved a degree of risk-taking. However, the commission concludes, it had “no serious or long-term consequences for Norway´s relation to its allies or for Norway´s position in NATO.” (p 196) As the commission speculates, a contributing (albeit unforeseen) factor in the limited fall-out of Norway’s position may have been the gradually worsening security situation in Faryab, which increased the risk for Norwegian troops in relation to those who had accepted more dangerous locations. In addition, contributions from Norwegian Special Forces and intelligence units in Kabul from 2007 onwards were much appreciated and the innovative way in which these units tightly collaborated was particularly noted. (p 196)
For domestic reasons, it was important for Norway to match its spending on the military component of the intervention with funds allocated to development assistance in Afghanistan. This goal was never reached, even though Norway´s civilian contribution was relatively higher than that of most ISAF partners. (1) However, this may have been just as well, since neither the Afghan absorption capacity, nor the Norwegian administrative capacity was sufficient even for the reduced proportion. “Thereby,” concludes the report, “Norwegian development assistance became part of an international picture of large assistance and weak follow-up and control. Gradually, [international] development assistance contributed to an extensive corruption problem. While Norwegian authorities had a clear picture of this, political ambitions to contribute a large volume of assistance were more important than professional evaluation of the consequences.” (p 199)
Reception of the Godal report in Norway
In June 2016, when the report was published, Norway had just engaged with the US to send special forces to Syria – ostensibly with a mandate limited to capacity building of Syrian opposition forces in Jordan. However, it soon became clear that Norwegians would, in fact, also be present inside Syria. In the midst of the discussion caused by this commitment, the publication of the Godal report, by providing opponents of military undertakings in unfamiliar surroundings with solid arguments, further complicated the government´s task to ensure public support. It all made for a lively public debate, more about Syria than about Afghanistan, but, in the end, did not change the government´s decision. Nor did the Godal commission´s call for increased openness around commitments of this kind appear to have had much of an influence on the process.
Not so much for Afghanistan
In altruistic terms, the three Norwegian goals for the Afghanistan intervention are hardly on the same level. In substance, the primary goal – to be a good supporter of the USA and a good NATO ally – is different from the other two goals – to prevent Afghanistan from relapsing into a haven for international terrorists and to contribute to state-building in a war-ravaged country. While it may be good for Norway that the first goal was actually achieved, it is sad for the world that the two other goals did not fare as well. By the same token, it may have been good for Norway´s international prestige that its peace diplomacy with regard to the Taleban brought it positive attention in Washington and other capitals, but one could wish, of course, that more had come from Norwegian efforts. The most successful aspects of the Norwegian intervention in Afghanistan remain those which have to do with Norway, not with Afghanistan.
The report does not weigh the goals along these lines, but it laudably refrains from presenting the number of schools built and clinics opened as achievements justifying a military intervention at astronomic cost. Already on its first page, the report delivers a frank explanation of the failure of the state-building exercise: “To a small degree only has the international engagement, including that of Norway, been based on knowledge of Afghanistan and local conditions, culture and lines of conflict. State-building directed from outside – built on grand military investment, massive transfer of money and weak Afghan institutions – has proved to be a very demanding undertaking. In Afghanistan, a society marked by 23 years of war, it was impossible within the given framework.” (p 10)
Norway, of course, was not the only country that was led into Afghanistan by its own international and security priorities, more than anything else. However, no other country has, so far, had the political courage to analyse just that. This is all the more remarkable as Norway is a small nation with a close-knit population which lost 12 citizens (10 soldiers and two civilians in related attacks) during the intervention. If nothing else, by its own report the Godal commission has set a good Norwegian example.
(1) As mentioned in the first section of this dispatch, Norway spent close to 20 billion NKR (approximately 2.45 billion USD) on the intervention, corresponding to 0.26 per cent of the total international military expenditure in Afghanistan and 2.3 per cent of the total international civilian expenditure in Afghanistan. In monetary terms, 11.5 billion NKR went to the military component and around 8.4 billion NKR was used for civilian purposes.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020