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The situation in Afghanistan and Norway’s engagement in the country

Address to the Storting, 5 June 2014

'As this year draws to a close, we will be on the threshold of a new era in Afghanistan. The international community’s engagement through the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will cease. New forms of cooperation will take its place', Foreign Minister Børge Brende said in his address to the Storting on 5 June 2014.

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Mr President,

As this year draws to a close, we will be on the threshold of a new era in Afghanistan. The international community’s engagement through the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will cease. New forms of cooperation will take its place. 

Let me briefly remind you why we became engaged in Afghanistan 13 years ago. The terrorist attack on the US on 11 September 2001 was an attack on our values, and it threatened our collective security. It called for a collective response. The international community had a collective responsibility to make sure that Afghanistan could no longer be a hotbed of international terrorism, and we have succeeded in this task.  

I would like to extend heartfelt thanks to all Norwegian personnel, both civilian and military, for their contributions. In particular, I would like to pay tribute to and remember the Norwegians who have lost their lives while serving Norway in Afghanistan.

One thing is certain: the international effort in Afghanistan, both military and civilian, has been enormous. Nevertheless, we must dare to ask ourselves if anything could have been done differently. When the ISAF mission ceases at the end of 2014, the time will be ripe for an overall evaluation of our efforts in Afghanistan. Just as importantly, we need to establish how we can make the best possible contribution in the time ahead. Now that the Afghans themselves are taking over responsibility for their country’s security, our efforts will to a greater extent be focused on supporting civilian development.


Mr President,

In April, the first round of the presidential election and provincial council elections were held in Afghanistan. The elections gave cause for hope, and demonstrated a high level of political engagement among the population. The candidates took part in televised debates. All over the country, women and men flocked to election meetings. They defied the Taliban’s terrorism and threats against all those who supported the elections.

More than seven million Afghans – over half of those entitled to vote – went to the ballot boxes in the provincial council elections and the first round of the presidential election. This is not simply an increase compared to the elections in 2009; it is election participation on a par with that seen in many mature democracies. Over seven million voters refused to be intimidated. And young people, who make up the majority of the electorate and represent the future of Afghanistan, also took an active part in the elections.

Even though they weren’t perfect, the elections were genuine. The preliminary reports from both Afghan and international observers indicate that election fraud occurred, but on a smaller scale than in the presidential election in 2009. In some areas, the security situation prevented people from voting. Lives were lost.

Even so, the Afghan people took ownership of the election. The Afghan security forces performed their tasks well. The people of Afghanistan should be commended for the way the election was carried out. 

The second round of the election will soon be held. When the new president and government are sworn in, this will be the first transfer of power from one elected president to another in the history of Afghanistan. It will also demonstrate that Afghanistan has taken another step on the way towards becoming a country run by elected politicians, rather than by warlords, tribes and clans. This gives grounds for optimism, although we must also be prepared for setbacks.


Mr President,

At the NATO Summit in Lisbon in 2010, the ISAF countries and Afghanistan agreed on a gradual transfer of responsibility for Afghanistan’s security to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. At the time, opinion was divided as to whether it was wise to set a date for the end of the ISAF mission.

Today, we can conclude that NATO’s decision in 2010 was right. Once a deadline had been set, a clear plan was drawn up for transferring security responsibility and for building up the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that a decision on when to end the ISAF mission should probably have been made even earlier.

Many people feared that the Afghan security forces would be unable to keep the insurgents at bay. This has proven to be wrong so far. There are no clear indications that the insurgents have strengthened their position.

Afghan ownership of the process and Afghan solutions are becoming a reality. Last summer, the Afghans took over security leadership in the country. The withdrawal of ISAF forces is well under way, and will be completed by the end of the year.  The ISAF mission is now focusing mainly on advising and training Afghan security forces. Norway will maintain its agreed contribution to ISAF until the end of the year.

Although the ISAF mission is coming to an end, the international community will not leave Afghanistan on its own.

NATO will continue to have a presence in the country – providing that Afghanistan’s next president signs the necessary agreements with the US and NATO. President Karzai has chosen not to do so has chosen not to do so before he steps down after his second term as president. This has given rise to considerable uncertainty about the international military presence in Afghanistan. However, the two remaining presidential candidates have both stated that they will sign these agreements quickly.

The planned new NATO mission in Afghanistan, ‘Resolute Support’, will not be a combat mission. Its sole mandate will be to assist in training the Afghan national security forces. The Government’s aim is for Norway to participate in this new mission, but it will of course consult the Storting before committing Norway to this. The Minister of Defence will say more about this in her address.

The fact that President Obama has now outlined the plans for the US military presence in Afghanistan in 2015 and 2016 has made the picture clearer, for both the NATO allies and the Afghan authorities.


Mr President,

Norway intends to be a long-term development partner for Afghanistan. We have committed ourselves to this in the strategic partnership agreement signed between our two countries in 2013.  

Norway has pledged NOK 750 million annually in assistance to Afghanistan until the end of 2017. In 2013, Afghanistan received the second largest allocation of all our partner countries. Since 2001, Norway has provided a total of more than NOK 7.6 billion to Afghanistan.

Norway’s development assistance to Afghanistan focuses on three areas that are crucial to the country’s future. The first of these comprises good governance, democracy and human rights, which are a prerequisite for all development. Norway is providing NOK 102 million over three years for electoral assistance, in accordance with the Government’s ambition to support democracy and human rights. We are also supporting Afghan and international institutions working to promote human rights in general and women’s rights in particular. Promoting women’s rights and combating corruption are two objectives permeating all our long-term aid. 

The second priority area for Norwegian assistance is education. This is in line with the Government’s broader efforts in this field, as outlined in the white paper on global education and development policy that will be presented shortly.

The third priority area is rural development. Norway has programmes for political, social and business development in rural areas in Afghanistan. The agricultural sector provides the basis for the livelihoods of the majority of the population and accounts for most of the country’s value creation.

Our ambition is to make Norwegian development assistance more effective, with a view to achieving concrete results. Norway has therefore reduced the number of partners and projects it is involved with in Afghanistan.

The World Bank’s multi-donor Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund is a cornerstone of our development cooperation with Afghanistan. The fund is the biggest single recipient of Norwegian funding, having received an allocation of NOK 750 million over a three-year period. It supports the Afghan authorities’ priorities and programmes. The World Bank has built up an extensive system of controls for the fund, which enables it to exercise far better oversight over the use of the funds than Norway could manage on its own.

The recent evaluation of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows, unequivocally, how essential good control routines are. The evaluation identified a number of serious weaknesses in UNDP’s country programme in Afghanistan, including a lack of coordination, organisation and results focus. This has been widely reported in the media. Norway is not an uncritical donor. We make demands of the organisations we support, and we will continue to do so. It is crucial that the leadership of UNDP takes the criticism seriously. There is a need for UNDP in Afghanistan. We must therefore all work together to ensure that UNDP and the UN can carry out their activities in a sustainable and responsible manner.

For seven years, Norway had particular responsibility for security in Faryab province, where, until October 2012, we had our Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Over 8 000 Norwegians have served in Afghanistan, many of them in Faryab. Even though our military forces have now been pulled out of the province, Norway is continuing to support Faryab.

Last year, we entered into new three-year agreements with several major international NGOs, with a particular focus on Faryab. The Government is also continuing to channel humanitarian and development aid through Norwegian NGOs with extensive experience in Afghanistan.


Mr President,

Afghanistan is one of the most difficult countries in the world to give aid to, as confirmed by the many evaluations of international assistance to Afghanistan that have been carried out in recent years. Corruption is rife, and public sector institutions lack the capacity and expertise to manage and monitor funds. The country’s security challenges make it difficult to follow aid funds all the way to the end user.

Afghans themselves have succeeded in building governmental and administrative structures, with support from the international community. However, we see that the large sums that have been given in aid, and the international community’s military engagement may in fact have contributed to corruption. This is a huge dilemma. We also see that Afghanistan does not currently have the capacity to use all the aid funds responsibly and effectively. In the long run, a solution to this dilemma could therefore be more targeted capacity building and less funding in total.

We will demand better results from the aid we provide. Together with other aid donors, and by channelling funds through the World Bank and other organisations, Norway has each year helped to substantially increase the number of children in Afghanistan who attend school. In 2001, one million children went to school. In 2012, the number of children attending school was around eight million. In 2001, almost no Afghan girls went to school. Today, 41 % of them do. However, we are aware that the education provided is often of low quality. We are therefore seeking to improve the quality of education in the country. In keeping with the high priority the Government is giving to education, we will also provide support for upper secondary education, vocational education and higher education in Afghanistan. We will place particular emphasis on increasing girls’ opportunities to pursue higher education.

Aid should only be a supplement to recipient countries’ own development initiatives. Afghanistan is no exception. It must fulfil its obligations by pursuing good governance, combating corruption, strengthening women’s rights and carrying out democratic elections. Democratic elections are indeed under way. Afghanistan made commitments in these areas to the donor countries at the Tokyo Conference in 2012, and fulfilling them is a condition for continued development cooperation.

In response to Afghanistan’s failure to adequately follow up these commitments, Norway cut its aid to the country this year by NOK 50 million. Since then, the Afghan Government has delivered on many of the concrete measures concerned.

This autumn, a new meeting is being planned at ministerial level between Afghanistan and the donor countries. By then, we expect Afghanistan to have delivered on the commitments made in Tokyo. Moreover, the country’s new government must commit itself to further strengthening women’s rights and introducing measures to combat corruption, with a view to building a sound foundation for economic growth. 

If we are to maintain an allocation of NOK 750 million annually until the end of 2017, as we pledged in Tokyo, we must see greater willingness to make changes and to take decisive action than we have seen under the current Afghan Government. 

Alongside our long-term development aid funding, we will maintain a high level of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. The humanitarian crisis is being exacerbated by the ongoing conflict. A great many Afghan people have ended up in the slum areas surrounding Kabul and other cities, where they have neither healthcare services nor schools for their children. Others are living in areas of ongoing hostilities; there, too, they are without access to health services and schooling. Moreover, there are three million Afghan refugees still living in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries. Many families would like to return, but are reluctant to do so while the security situation is fragile and there is a shortage of jobs.

Developments in the security situation have made conditions for local and international aid workers more difficult. A number of local aid workers have been killed. We condemn these killings in the strongest possible terms. Actions like this also prevent help from getting to those who need it most.


Mr President,

Afghanistan has built national institutions that increasingly ensure stability, democracy and services for the population. Education is one such service. Another is health care. In 2001, Afghanistan had some of the lowest health indicators in the world. Primary health services were lacking in rural areas. Nationally, access to primary health care rose from 9 % of the population in 2003 to 85 % in 2008, according to the World Bank. Rates of infant, child and maternal mortality have been reduced, but much remains to be done. 

What the Afghans now need to focus on is maintaining these results, and we will support them in this endeavour. There is little use in providing education for girls if they are not allowed to attend school. There is little use in promoting women’s access to universities if they do not have the opportunity to work or to participate in political processes. And there is little use in dedicated young people wishing to advance the future of their country if this means they risk being killed in terrorist attacks.  

The most important contribution we can make is to help the Afghans themselves find lasting solutions for their country. This means that Afghanistan must become far less dependent on foreign aid in the long term. Afghanistan receives about USD 6 billion annually in aid. More than half of the country’s operating budget is financed from abroad. Public revenue generated within Afghanistan goes largely to the security sector. This situation is not sustainable over time.

It is therefore crucial that Afghanistan facilitates increased growth in its economy. This must be done by creating jobs and income within the country. The mining industry has great potential, but before operations in this sector can be launched, peace has to be secured and investments made. Afghanistan must adopt legislation and establish a judicial system that promote private investment, ensure that taxes are paid, enable Afghan banks to operate internationally and combat corruption. All this must be in place to ensure greater economic growth than is expected this year. The systems for banking and taxation are currently riddled with corruption. 

Without a concerted effort and a significant change in attitudes towards corruption, Afghanistan will remain dependent on aid.  The new government, which is scheduled to take office in August, will face considerable challenges. It is encouraging that both presidential candidates seem to be aware of these challenges and have announced that they will implement sweeping reforms.

At the same time, the challenges ahead are an important reminder that Afghanistan must continue to receive international funding and support. Without international cooperation and long-term international engagement, Afghanistan will not be able to get back on its feet.

Having said this, we must also be allowed to ask whether the results that have been achieved are in keeping with the huge amounts of aid that have been provided. The discrepancy between the results achieved and the aid provided may be partly due to an excessive focus on military strategies and means at the expense of development in other areas, because of the unresolved conflict in Afghanistan. Both the Afghans themselves and the donors are now trying to change this. As the capacity and competence of the public administration is strengthened and modernised, and not least as the fight against corruption is stepped up, the aim is to increase the impact of aid. This will take time. We will remain critical as we actively promote these changes.

A concerted effort must also be made to combat the extensive black market economy. In this context, opium production is the gravest concern. According to the UN, the land area used for growing opium poppies increased by 36 % from 2012 to 2013. The corresponding increase in production was a massive 49 %.

Lower priority has been given to combating opium production, partly due to the conflict in the country. This has resulted in increased availability of illegal drugs both in Afghanistan and in other countries. Money from the illegal drugs trade also fuels corruption and is used to finance terrorism and other illicit activities.

These problems must be taken seriously. Efforts must be made across a broad front, including measures to combat the illegal drugs cartels. But contributing to rural development and modernisation, so that there are viable alternatives to opium production, is just as important. Saffron is an example of an alternative commodity that is being successfully produced in some areas.    

Afghanistan’s high level of expenditure on the military and the police is another key issue as regards economic sustainability. The security forces now number about 350 000, which places Afghanistan among the top 20 countries in the world in terms of the size of the security forces in relation to the population. Given the ongoing conflict, there is undoubtedly a need for a large security force to hold back the insurgents. However, in the longer term a country with limited resources cannot support such a large, costly security force. The Afghans, with the help of international funding, are therefore planning to reduce the size of the force to 228 000 by 2017.


Mr President,

Clearly, the challenges related to the size and funding of the Afghan security forces are linked to the need to find a solution to the conflict with the country’s insurgents.

The high level of public engagement during the first round of elections revealed a strong commitment to development, reforms and democracy.  I believe we can safely conclude that the majority of the people in no way want to return to Taliban rule. In many ways the elections can be seen as a stand against the Taliban and everything it represents.

The successful first round of elections shows that the Afghan political system has passed an important test. The Taliban will have to take this into account to a greater extent than it has so far been willing to do.  

There are strong indications that a new Afghan president will assume office following relatively successful and legitimate elections. This gives hope that a peace process with the Taliban can be initiated. Such a process is essential for achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The aim must be for the Taliban and other insurgent groups to find their place within a democratic system through negotiations. In order for this to happen, they will have to function within a constitutional framework and respect human rights.

However, we must not be naive. The Taliban is capable of continuing its violent struggle for a long time to come, if it chooses to do so. Therefore it will not be easy to initiate a genuine peace process, and we cannot expect rapid results. However, the recent exchange of prisoners between the US and the Taliban may be the first step towards more significant developments. For the first time, negotiations have led to a concrete result.

A peace process must be owned and led by the Afghans themselves. Norway will be able to provide support. We will advocate a process that is inclusive, particularly with regard to women.  This process must also safeguard human rights.


Mr President, 

For decades, wars and conflicts have made Afghanistan a roadblock to normal economic activity in the region. However, Afghanistan has the potential to once more become a bridge for trade between north and south, and between east and west. But this requires that the countries in the region recognise that it is in their own self-interest to cooperate and facilitate increased trade and investment.

Norway has helped strengthen a regional approach through the ‘Heart of Asia’ cooperation that was established in Istanbul in 2011. Since then, this cooperation has grown in breadth and depth. High-level political meetings are held regularly. Agreement has been reached on building a common platform of shared regional interests, and practical cooperation on issues of mutual interest is emerging. We are pleased that China has undertaken to host the next ministerial meeting in the Istanbul process this August.  

Norway’s role in the process is to promote political dialogue and provide practical support where we have relevant expertise. Last month, Norwegian experts shared their expertise on natural disaster management with the region at a conference in Islamabad.

Cooperation through the Istanbul process, combined with cooperation in other regional forums, means increased contact between the countries in the region. However, structures for cooperation alone are not enough to eliminate fundamental problems. There is still considerable distrust among the countries of the region. There are numerous conflicts of interest. For many of the countries involved, Afghanistan is just a stage on which they can play out their national ambitions. Their ability and willingness to cooperate in addressing common challenges is limited. That is why it will – at best – take time to develop well-functioning cooperation.


Mr President, 

At the beginning of this address I mentioned that we are planning to evaluate Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan. The Storting has requested a comprehensive evaluation of Norway’s overall efforts in Afghanistan. The Government is currently drawing up a mandate for the evaluation committee.  

It is the Government’s objective that the evaluation committee’s mandate should be broad. The international engagement in Afghanistan in which Norway has participated has been unique, in terms of both its origin and its implementation. The engagement began as a response to a terrorist attack on a NATO member state.

It was natural and right of Norway, NATO and a broad coalition of countries to join forces in order to prevent Afghanistan from once again being used as a platform for a terrorist attack. At the same time, having participated in such a difficult mission in such a complicated part of the world, we must examine our overall efforts to see where we have succeeded and why. We must also consider whether we should or could have done anything differently. The report will also identify valuable experience that we should draw on in our further cooperation with Afghanistan.

The Government intends to appoint the committee members this autumn, and the committee is to start its work on 1 January 2015. The committee’s report is to be submitted by 31 December 2015. The Storting will be consulted.


Mr President,

Afghanistan is still one of the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries in the world. Our hope is that this country, through its own efforts and with regional and international support, will be able at some time in the future to make the transition from its current status as a poor developing country to become a country that is self-sustaining. If that is to become a reality, we must maintain our long-term support in cooperation with the Afghan authorities and international partners. But there must be no doubt that the responsibility for Afghanistan’s development is in the hands of the country’s own political leaders.


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