Political Defeat – Military Inadequacy! The Swaddling Blanket of Intervention

The military interventions by the West in the Middle East, Afghanistan and North Africa in recent years are examples of bold and efficient use of force resulting in immediate achievement of goals. Saddam Hussein’s military forces were defeated, the Taliban were deprived of their havens and possible massacres in Libya were prevented. The attempts however to build stable democracies in the aftermath of such use of military force have been less successful. Iraq, Syria and Libya are all once again experiencing significant conflict, and the Taliban are back on the advance.

A Norwegian soldier on a mission in the Faryab province, Afghanistan. PHOTO: Creative Commons

These are clear reminders that the use of classical military force – intervention – without a comprehensive approach generates more problems than it solves. Sir Rupert Smith expressed this in his book The Utility of Force, where he demonstrates how the use of military force to solve problems is highly overrated. Colin Powell was famously known to say: “If you break it, you own it” as a warning to politicians who were considering military intervention. His message was that if you intervene, you cannot ignore the resulting responsibility for stabilisation and security. Once you have removed a regime, you become the regime. However, it is equally important to remember that when met with perpetrators of extreme violence, we have only two options – to remain passive and hence become complicit to the violence, or to combat the perpetrators in order to prevent new massacres.

Perhaps we are also on our way to learn that imposing our form of democracy – on our premises – onto other states causes more problems than it solves. Neither does this imply that we should, or can, shy away from the battle to shape our future and decide how to practice our principles in our own countries. Nor can we ignore our responsibility to protect civil populations from attack when the state has neglected to do so, or itself is the perpetrator. In such a battle however, the use of military force and the export of our own system of government is far from the most important factor.

If anything, we should by now have learned that military operations are inferior in importance to the comprehensive whole, but we have not. Despite the fact that the last time our country faced an existential battle for survival was in 1945, we seem to have retained a mentality whereby military operations are our main form of action, and that other means (economic, humanitarian and diplomatic) may continue to play a supporting role.

The battle against causes rather than symptoms; the battle for long-term perspectives to guide short term efforts; the battle against the attackers; the battle against ourselves and the all too simple solutions that build walls, parallel societies and radicalisation; the battle for openness, freedom of speech and of religion, these are all so much more important.



The question may well be asked why today, 15 years after we sent our military in, we are searching intensely for a way to get out of Afghanistan with our honour intact. The situation grows all the more challenging for every month that passes, and it still remains possible that Afghanistan will suffer a new collapse, despite the concerted efforts and financial investments of the West.

Afghanistan has grown accustomed to the comings and goings of foreigners. Persia, India, the Greeks, England, Russia and the Soviet Union – they have all tried to gain control, and failed. In other words, Afghan tribal lords have centuries of experience in adapting to changing foreign players, in exploiting the opportunities these provide and securing a safe position for their eventual departure, regardless their length of stay 10, 20 or 50 years.

If you are searching easy answers, Afghanistan is not the place to look. It all seemed straight forward initially. Subsequent to the attacks in New York on 11 September 2001, the US with the support of their allies launched military action to deprive the terrorists of their havens. It appears that this goal was achieved quickly and efficiently. However, in lack of a comprehensive and coherent effort to reach a well defined goal (End State), we have wasted time running around putting out fires. Not least stimulated by the short term dynamics of domestic politics in the respective ISAF countries; next day’s newspaper headlines and upcoming elections.

Numerous ISAF Commanders have been disgruntled by the fact that the units allocated to them by nations for ground operations remained remote controlled by respective capitals. To complicate matters further governing authorities in these capitals did not deem it necessary to share all relevant intelligence to which they had access.

Hence, preparation and execution of comprehensive operations were ill served, and the lack of cooperation and coordination with UNAMA exasperated the problems. The ability to generate strategic gains from tactical successes were almost non-existing. One classic example of the above are the Norwegian forces in Faryab who advanced into valleys fighting several successful battles to advance, but without any form of follow up by other means. All the Taliban had to do was retreat into the mountains for a few days, then continue as before but with even greater local power, as we failed to provide the villagers with any other alternative.


Norway in Afghanistan

Norway has been one of the most loyal contributors in Afghanistan. Nobody can criticise us for not shouldering our share of the responsibility, and this appeared in fact to have been a principal goal. One mantra has been repeated: to go in together and get out together. As such, the goals of the West and of Norway have broadly speaking been the same.

We can take pride in improvements made to education, health care and infrastructure. In other words, Norway’s achievements in Afghanistan are not quite as disastrous as Anders Sømme Hammer describes them. However, there is plenty of reason for political and military leaders to reflect carefully on our goals, the tools utilised to achieve them and the correlation between these goals. This is a reflection that our soldiers deserve, expect and are very comfortable with.

We have provided Afghanistan with the opportunity to shape a better future for themselves. If, however, we are to prevent a reversal, then we have to be prepared to remain in the country with a lot of personnel and support for yet another generation.

Whether the Afghanistan engagement has been successful as an investment in support for Norway, a nation entirely reliant on NATOs Collective Defense support, remains to be seen. National interests will always come first for the US as well as the other 26 member states of NATO, when a decision has to be made whether to support Norway in a crisis.

It is beyond doubt that Norwegian soldiers and civilians have delivered local successes and performed to the highest standards. They deserve our full respect.

The history of Norway in Afghanistan also comprises new weaponry, improved intelligence, new gear for soldiers and new vehicles, in addition to commanders, soldiers and units with relevant combat experience. All the above are of significant importance for the defence of our own nation.

At the time of writing, there are very little grounds for optimism. The Taliban are back on the advance and there is once again a risk that the central government in Afghanistan may lose control and that the positive changes made will be reversed. A worrying trend is that Afghans appear to be voting with their feet, leaving the country en masse in expectation of a negative development.

The whole situation could naturally have been dealt with in many different ways. We could have followed the example of the Danes and joined the frontline in the south, the Dutch with their more proactive coordination of civilian and military efforts, or we could have invested more heavily in UN contributions and less in NATO operations.

At the end of the day it is far too simplistic to conclude that our endeavour in Afghanistan is solely a political defeat, it is not least an example of military inadequacy. It is our responsibility to provide clear advice, and to ensure that our military strategy and operations support political goals even when these are defective, difficult to understand or change with time.

  • This text is the English version of Robert Mood’s article ‘Politisk nederlag, militær utilstrekkelighet’, published in the edited booklet Norge i Afghanistan [Norway in Afghanistan], by the Norwegian Afghansitan Committee (2016)
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