Rhetoric as Required

Norway has borne «its share of responsibility», Grete Faremo said i 2010. She was Defence Minister in the period when politcal rethoric chaged from helping Afghanistan to making the Afghans help themselves.
Photo: Torbjørn Kjøsvold/Norwegian Defence

From “the pre-emptive defence of Norway”, to “conflict resolution and peace”, even in the event of “war-like actions”, Norwegian politicians have adapted their rhetoric on Afghanistan as required by circumstances and public opinion.

From day one, the Norwegian government has been enthusiastic in its support of intervention in Afghanistan. But over the years many different reasons have been put forward to justify Norwegian involvement. If one considers the period from 2001 to the present day as a whole, the only phrase that has remained set in stone is “a clear UN mandate”. Apart from that, it is possible to identify changes in the reasons put forward to justify Norway’s military presence in Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan to support the United States

When the United States declared “war on terror” in the wake of 11 September 2001 (9/11), the Norwegian government was quick to show its support and loyalty. Both the prime minister and the foreign minister declared that there was an “obvious right of self-defence” and that “the whole world” now stood “united”. Rhetoric citing 9/11 supported Norway’s subsequent participation in the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom and later the NATO-led ISAF mission.

In 2001 and 2002, the United States’ right of self-defence, and NATO’s obligation to provide collective self-defence, were important parts of the reasoning in support of Norwegian involvement. Afghanistan should not become “a breeding ground for international terrorism”, and the Taliban, as a mute and generally uncooperative regime, were seen as partially responsible. The conflict was presented as a struggle to defend our values and the democratic nature of our society, which was under threat from international terrorism. This was a battle against evil.

The Taliban regime had been toppled and its members put to flight by the end of 2001. But the battle continued, now as “a pre-emptive defence of national security”, to quote the Norwegian defence minister, Kristin Krohn Devold, at the beginning of 2003. This pre-emptive defence strategy focused on security, the dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction, and the existence of dangerous terrorists with the means and opportunity to perpetrate further terrorist attacks. In October 2001, Thorbjørn Jagland stated that the aim of the conflict was to fight “all forms of terrorism” at “all possible levels”.

In addition, Norwegian military involvement was also intended to assist in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. With the backing of an “unambiguous UN mandate”, both the country itself and peace would be rebuilt. Supported by gruesome stories about the oppression of women, brutality and oppression, the conflict was presented as a war of liberation, with Norway’s contribution “being to support peace, human rights and democracy”, as prime minister Bondevik put it in a speech in 2004.

To prevent terrorism

Since 2001, the arguments put forward have tended to refer to the struggle for peace and reconstruction, as compared to the situation in 2001 itself, when the conflict was presented as a struggle against terrorism, evil and oppression. Prime minister Bondevik also suggested that Norway’s military involvement concerned “prevention and deterrence” (2002) and that the aim was “to prevent new terror attacks” (2001). Seen in light of Jagland’s description of the conflict as a battle against “all forms of terrorism”, it may appear that this battle lacked a definitive ending point.

In 2005 there was a general election in Norway. The terror attacks of 9/11 were now more distant, and Norway’s military presence in Afghanistan was not a controversial issue among the Norwegian public. In the election campaign, however, new justifications for Norway’s involvement were presented. A new argument made reference to the “heroin problem”. Norwegian foreign minister Jan Petersen (2004) asserted that a weak government in Kabul that was not capable of “controlling opium production” would “affect us, yes, even threaten us”.

This type of problem was undoubtedly closer to home than the issue of terrorism and nation-building in Afghanistan. It is natural to think that in an election campaign it is easier to gain support for this type of argument than for “pre-emptive defence”, which may seem distant and largely irrelevant to most people.

To help the Afghan people

In 2005, a new “red-green” government (a centre-left coalition) was formed. The arguments advanced to support Norwegian involvement now entered a more “humanitarian” phase, in which the terms terrorism, pre-emptive defence and self-defence disappeared from the discourse.

“A clear UN mandate” continued to be the main foundation of Norway’s involvement, but now the Afghan people were to be given development aid, with the aim of improving health services, school attendance and infrastructure. In political rhetoric, a military presence became an essential precondition for social development. Even Kristin Halvorsen, leader of the Socialist Left Party, supported this point of view in a speech to the party’s national congress in 2007.

Under this new policy, the soldiers were not intended to engage in armed combat, and were stationed in Afghanistan’s more peaceful provinces. When shots were exchanged nonetheless, and soldiers were even killed, a debate raged as to whether or not Norway was at war. The government referred to “war-like action” and maintained that it was necessary to maintain a military presence for security. In 2007, however, defence minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen wrote that Norway was in Afghanistan “to contribute to conflict-resolution and peace.”

In order to withdraw again

Beginning in 2010, the political rhetoric changed again. Now politicians were arguing that the time was ripe for the Afghan people to take responsibility. In 2010, defence minister Grete Faremo said that Norway had borne its “share of responsibility”. There was no longer talk of achieving the “minimum standard in relation to security, democracy and development” that Strøm-Eriksen had spoken of in 2008. Now the emphasis returned to the original goal, that of preventing Afghanistan from becoming “a sanctuary for al Qaeda and the training of terrorists”. In 2012, Strøm-Erichsen, who was then in her second term as defence minister, described this task as completed.

Today the security situation in Afghanistan continues to be precarious and the Taliban are on the offensive. ISAF forces have been withdrawn, and Norwegian involvement is limited to “training” and “building competent security forces” in Afghanistan. In 2015, defence minister Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide wrote that “Afghanistan has gained a foundation for further development. In the course of recent years, the country has experienced significant development in the areas of health, education and infrastructure.” So although the original goal has been achieved, a goal that strictly speaking had been achieved as early as 2002, there is a need for further military engagement in order to prevent Afghanistan from “reverting to being a sanctuary for terrorists”, to quote Eriksen Søreide in 2014, in order to emphasize the need for continued Norwegian military participation in NATO’s training operations for the Afghan army.

  • Pia Bergmann is a political scientist, and this text is based on her MA dissertation ”Derfor er vi i Afghanistan!” En analyse av norske myndigheters begrunnelse for engasjementet i Afghanistan 2001-2013” (University of Oslo, 2014)
  • This text was first published in Norwegian by the Norwegian Afghanistan Comittee: “Retorikk etter behov” in Norge i Afghanistan (2016)
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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