Speech/statement | Date: 2013-06-05
"It is important, it is right, and it is time that the Afghans take over the main responsibility for their own country. I am convinced that the timing is as good as it ever can be. Besides this has been the overriding goal for the transition and for all our work in the country," Mr Espen Barth Eide said in his address to the Storting.
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(translation from Norwegian)
Next year the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will conclude its efforts in Afghanistan, after 13 years in the country. The Afghans will then take over full responsibility for managing their own country and its future. This is only as it should be.
Our aim has always been to make our presence in Afghanistan superfluous. Although a number of challenges remain, this process of normalisation is taking place at a good time. The Afghans want this transition to happen and have been preparing for it. The international community is also ready for the change of gear this will entail.
Because, Mr President, let me make this quite clear:
ISAF – with a clear mandate from the UN Security Council – will have completed its main mission by the end of 2014. Afghanistan is no longer a hotbed of international terrorism.
ISAF has helped to lay the foundations for building a better future in line with the Afghans’ own wishes. The road has been long and arduous, even more arduous than many had anticipated, but despite this, we can look back on an operation that deserves respect.
The original intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 was carried out under the auspices of a broad international coalition that we were part of. Eighteen months later, from August 2003, NATO was given special responsibility for the ISAF mission. The Security Council decided that ISAF should be brought under NATO’s political and military command structure.
After a slow start in and around Kabul, ISAF’s area of operations had been expanded to cover the whole of Afghanistan by 2006. The mission has cost the lives of many soldiers and has been gruelling for those sent out to serve in Afghanistan, as well as for their families, Afghan civilians and the authorities.
I would particularly like to express our gratitude to all the Norwegian women and men who have served in Afghanistan on Norway’s behalf. Over 8 300 Norwegian soldiers can be proud of the important job they have done. Some have not returned home alive. We pay tribute to the memory of those who have borne the greatest burden of all. Ten Norwegian soldiers have lost their lives in the fight to create a more peaceful Afghanistan and for international peace and security. Others have been scarred for life, physically and/or psychologically.
I would also like to thank the many civilian organisations, our police force, aid workers and employees in the Foreign Service and the many others who have played a role in helping to create a better future for Afghanistan and the Afghan people.
Together we have shown that we do not shy away from our responsibility: our joint responsibility to promote international peace and security.
Our military mission in Faryab was concluded in October last year. The ISAF mission, as already mentioned, is coming to an end, but our engagement in Afghanistan will continue. Like many other countries, we have committed ourselves to a long-term partnership. The most important task in the time ahead will be to strengthen social and economic development, which is essential for bringing stability to the country.
The Afghan Government has a particular responsibility in this respect, as does the UN, which must continue its role of providing active support. It is therefore essential that the UN maintains a marked presence in Afghanistan, and Norway will continue to support the work of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). This will be even more important once ISAF has withdrawn from Afghanistan.
President Karzai and Prime Minister Stoltenberg signed a strategic partnership agreement between our two countries on 5 February this year during the President’s visit to Norway. The agreement is for five years and is based on mutual commitments. It sets out the overall framework for Norway’s continued engagement in Afghanistan and places clear requirements on the Afghanistan Government.
Subject to the Storting’s consent, Norway will continue to provide an annual allocation of NOK 750 million to Afghanistan until 2017. The Afghan authorities undertake in particular to intensify their efforts in the areas of human rights, women’s rights, good governance and anti-corruption. The agreement is in line with the agreed international framework for cooperation with Afghanistan.
The year 2012 saw a series of high-level meetings on Afghanistan’s future; the Chicago, Kabul and Tokyo conferences established the framework for the partnership between the international community and Afghanistan during the transition period and in the years to follow.
Now, in 2013, we have entered a phase of consolidation and implementation. The next crossroads in Afghanistan will be the presidential elections and the conclusion of the ISAF mission in 2014.
Let me now take a closer look at the security situation.
At the NATO summit in Lisbon in 2010 the ISAF countries and the Afghan authorities reached agreement on a gradual transfer of responsibility for security in the run-up to the end of the ISAF mission in 2014. At the time, some people, myself included, raised the question as to whether it was appropriate to set an end date for the ISAF mission, without being sure that the Afghans really were ready to take over this responsibility.
We can now say that setting an end date was the right decision. It created fresh impetus that had several positive effects both for Afghanistan and for the international community.
In Afghanistan it enhanced confidence that the day would come when the Afghan authorities would once again be masters of their own house. They would be given responsibility but they would also have to prepare themselves for taking on this responsibility. As they have always wanted. This has had a disciplinary effect on politics in Afghanistan. At the same time a major effort was made to build up the Afghan security forces, and we can now say that we are satisfied with the quality of these forces.
Afghan security forces will naturally not have a military organisation or capability that is fully comparable with that of a combined international force such as ISAF, in terms of technology, equipment and resources. But the Afghan security forces can compensate for this by the very fact that they are Afghan forces and therefore know their own country and culture. They are not going to withdraw sometime in the future, as we all knew ISAF one day would.
In the crucial transition phase that we have now entered, it is important that the most is made of the advantages of this local knowledge in order to compensate for the loss of the particular capabilities that ISAF was able to provide.
The decision to set this end date of 2014 has also been useful for NATO and the rest of the international community. It has provided a planning horizon both for the Alliance itself and the individual countries contributing to the mission. I would even go so far as to say that without a fixed time frame we would have seen willingness to participate dwindle over the past few years, creating a far more fragmented ISAF mission than the one we have had. In other words, this focus on 2014 as the end date for the mission has also had a unifying and disciplinary effect on the countries contributing to ISAF.
Major international operations such as the one in Afghanistan must have a beginning and an end. They tend to start quite abruptly. It is therefore all the more important to have a clear strategy for bringing these operations to an end.
There is no doubt that both the political landscape and the security situation in Afghanistan are complex. The level of conflict in Afghanistan is high and the country is unlikely to experience true peace in the usual sense in the near future. We are seeing major challenges, but also positive trends.
Let me mention a few of these:
Firstly, Afghan forces are currently taking over responsibility for security across the entire country. This is a major and important step in the right direction and one that is essential for ensuring lasting stability.
Secondly, when the international community intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, the country had plenty of warlords but no national security forces. Now the elected Government has some 334 000 armed men and women at its disposal. By the end of 2013, this number will have increased to 352 000.
And thirdly, the transition appears to be working well. Good results have meant that the transition process has been speeded up in several places. The years of support and training provided by NATO and the NATO partners to the Afghan security forces are paying off.
ISAF will continue to provide support until its mission comes to an end next year, primarily in the form of advice and training. At the same time the contribution of the ISAF countries will be gradually reduced.
President Obama announced in February that the US would reduce its presence from around 68 000 soldiers today to 34 000 by February 2014. There is nothing dramatic about this. Quite the contrary, it is a logical consequence of the fact that the transition is advancing faster than originally planned.
Continued capacity building will be essential for a successful transfer of security responsibility. This is precisely why we are focusing our efforts on providing advice and training to the Afghan police and special forces. Our contribution is highly regarded and is given high priority by both NATO and the Afghan authorities.
The international community has also undertaken to organise and co-finance the Afghan army in the years ahead. Norway will provide NOK 60 million per year for this purpose in the period 2015–17, again subject to the consent of the Storting. Military support of this kind is not covered by the aid budget, as it cannot be reported as official development assistance (ODA). This military support comes therefore in addition to the financial support provided to the Afghan police, which is included in Norway’s overall annual allocation of NOK 750 million for civilian aid to Afghanistan, as I’ve already mentioned.
The ISAF mission has been unique – in terms of its scope and legitimacy. More than fifty countries have contributed. The mission has had a firm basis in international law under Chapter VII of the UN Charter – a mandate that has been renewed unanimously every year by the UN Security Council.
In its planning for the years ahead, NATO highlights the fact that the partnership with Afghanistan is a long-term commitment. Work is now underway to establish a training mission to be put in place after the ISAF mission comes to an end.
This will be a completely different type of operation from ISAF and will be far smaller in terms of both scope and ambition. NATO forces will continue to provide advice and training to Afghan soldiers, but will not participate in any military operations.
In the period leading up to the end of the ISAF mission, Norway’s military contribution will remain more or less at the present level, but these forces will be gradually reduced and further concentrated in the Kabul area.
I want to stress that we will stand by our obligations to Afghanistan, our support for the UN’s work in the country and the collective responsibility we have under NATO.
Norway’s efforts in Faryab province have produced results.
At the request of NATO we withdrew our forces from Faryab on 1 October 2012. I personally attended a ceremony in Meymaneh in September 2012, then as Minister of Defence, to mark the end of our eight-year engagement in Faryab.
The Norwegian-led base, Camp Meymaneh was transferred to the Afghan army. Both ISAF and the Afghan authorities considered the Afghan security forces to be capable of assuming this responsibility. This would not have been possible if it had not been for Norway’s efforts in Faryab.
Both the security forces and the authorities have since shown that they are able to deal with the challenges in the province.
The withdrawal of Norwegian forces from Faryab meant a reduction in the Norway’s military contribution to the country. As of 2013 the main focus of Norway’s military involvement has been on providing advice and training to the Afghan police in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif.
As elsewhere in the country, the sceptics’ predictions of rapid collapse following our withdrawal did not come true in Faryab. Quite the contrary, our impression is that the Afghan authorities and security forces were relatively well prepared, and that they are capable of providing security in the province, as we had hoped and believed. Our soldiers and all other personnel who have served in Faryab deserve much of the credit for this.
It also came as no surprise that the Taliban and other rebel groups would “test” the Afghan security forces and political structures as soon as a new province was brought under Afghan leadership. The Taliban’s strategic message to the population is after all that the local authorities have been governing only at the mercy of foreigners. This attitude is now prevalent in Faryab, as it has been in other parts of the country. That is why the period straight after security responsibility is transferred is so crucial and at times quite difficult. However, we would have faced these sorts of problems whether we had withdrawn a year earlier or a year later.
Afghan security forces are withstanding the pressure, but nevertheless it is reasonable to assume that the security situation will remain difficult during what is often referred to in Afghanistan as the “fighting season”. We should be prepared for new attacks by the Taliban and by other insurgent groups in the coming months. Much of this pressure is coming from the very areas that posed the most difficult challenges to us during the period when Norway and ISAF had primary responsibility for Faryab.
Despite the difficult security situation, there is evidence of significant progress in Faryab in the fields of education, health and infrastructure. The town of Meymaneh has become a dynamic economic centre, and now also has a stable electricity supply, something that can never be taken for granted in Afghanistan.
I have made a total of 10 visits to Afghanistan since 2001 and have personally witnessed a tremendous development.
Norwegian aid to Faryab is channelled through the UN, World Bank-financed projects and various NGOs. The World Bank provides funding for building schools, education projects, teachers’ salaries and infrastructure projects. The development of local organisations is helping to develop good governance from the bottom up.
The NGOs are doing outstanding work in the areas of rural development, good governance and education. They are reaching remote communities, developing the competence of the local authorities and helping to improve the position of women.
Much of the international effort in Afghanistan has been driven by short-term military needs, so-called quick fix projects. As a result the much of the funding has been distributed between a very large number of small projects, which have seen very little follow-up afterwards. We believe that making use of well-established aid channels, as we have done in Faryab, makes it much easier to ensure that aid efforts are sustainable.
Moreover, our efforts in Faryab have been guided by development needs in the province and not by military objectives or a tactical need to gain respect or information.
This approach is also supported by reputable studies, such as one carried out at Tufts University in the US and one by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). These studies have concluded that many of the short-term projects have neither improved the security situation nor contributed to long-term development. Rather, some of these short-term projects have led to more corruption and increased fragmentation.
Norway has provided a significant amount of civilian aid to Faryab in recent years, which has produced concrete results and improved the basic living conditions of many people. According to the Governor of Faryab province, half a million people have directly benefited from the civilian aid provided by Norway to the region.
Let me give some examples:
Better access to clean water and health services has improved general health and hygiene.
Agricultural production and the income of farmers in the project areas have increased. Access to advisory services and also to veterinary services, for example, has also improved.
Irrigation has made it possible for farmers in many areas to increase crop production to give not just one, but two yields in the growing season.
The over 100 schools that have been built with funds provided by Norway are crucial for preventing children from growing up illiterate, like their parents. Young people are attending literacy and vocational courses and as a result are significantly boosting their earning potential. The schools provide a new and vital foundation for further development for both the young people and the province as a whole.
Representatives of the Norwegian Embassy visited Faryab province just a week ago. The message from the local authorities and representatives of the opposition and NGOs was that the military and civilian assistance that Norway had provided, including the Norwegian police effort in Faryab, had had a long-term and positive impact.
Despite this progress, there are, of course, still challenges that need to be resolved in Faryab.
We are seeing both political and ethnic rivalry. Insurgent groups remain active.
Unemployment is high.
Drug abuse is a growing problem in the province, as in the rest of the country.
Afghan institutions need to be strengthened and local actors need to take over much of the work that is currently being done by international organisations.
We are therefore working to increase Afghan ownership and reduce the number of parallel structures. Norway intends to continue its aid efforts in Faryab for a while to come. However, the general trend is to reduce the earmarking of aid to specific provinces. This is fully in line with the Afghan authorities’ own wishes.
Let me say a few words about the general assistance Norway is providing to Afghanistan, over and above what we are doing in Faryab.
Afghanistan is still one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. A third of the population are living below the poverty line and three quarters are illiterate.
The need for long-term assistance is therefore great. Afghanistan is currently one of the biggest recipients of Norwegian aid and we are one of the world’s 10 largest donors to the country.
At the Tokyo conference last year, the donor countries committed themselves to continuing to provide aid to the country, pledging to provide USD 16 billion (approximately NOK 97 billion) in civilian aid in the period up until the end of 2015. Norway and many other countries have pledged to continue to provide aid at this level until 2017, as already mentioned.
The Afghan authorities committed themselves to implementing reforms in the fields of public financial management and governance and to implementing free elections and respecting human rights. These commitments are set out in the mutual accountability framework agreed in Tokyo, the Tokyo Framework.
The fact that the Afghan authorities respect these commitments is important not only for the Afghan people but also for the donors.
The high level of aid pledged in Chicago and Tokyo will only continue if significant steps are taken to combat corruption, strengthen the judicial system and promote respect for human rights, especially the rights of women.
Creating a better foundation for economic development and increasing tax revenues is also crucial. The donor countries and the Afghan authorities are maintaining a close dialogue on this issue.
In a month from now the first major review of the commitments set out in the Tokyo Framework will be carried out in Kabul. The Afghan authorities have reaffirmed that they stand by their commitments and that they are working on implementing several reforms. So far the entire leadership of the Revenue Department at the Afghan Ministry of Finance has been replaced. Draft amendments to the banking law have been submitted to the Afghan parliament and laws on VAT and money laundering are on the way.
We are finding that the Afghan authorities increasingly recognise the fact that the country itself also has to deliver on its commitments. President Karzai was very conscious of this when he visited Norway in February this year. These commitments are also set out in the strategic partnership agreement between Norway and Afghanistan.
We have three strategic objectives for Norway’s work in the time ahead:
Firstly, to strengthen Afghan institutions so that the country is able to take care of its own security and development.
Secondly, to help the country reach a political solution and strengthen regional cooperation.
Thirdly, to promote sustainable and equitable development, humanitarian relief, good governance, human rights and gender equality.
We have also identified three priority areas for aid to Afghanistan:
Education, good governance and rural development. The position of women and the fight against corruption are key issues that cut across all three areas.
In addition, both Norway and the international community have committed themselves to gradually channelling more aid to Afghan budgets in line with Afghan priorities.
On 14 May, we debated in this chamber the need for an overall evaluation of our efforts in Afghanistan. I am pleased that there was broad agreement that such an evaluation is needed, that it should be carried out after the IASF mission has been completed, and that it must be done under the auspices of the Storting. Such a large-scale and complex mission as the one we have been part of in Afghanistan should definitely be subject to a thorough review after its completion. This evaluation will come in addition to the regular evaluations carried out during the course of the mission.
Last year we carried out an evaluation of the Norwegian aid effort in Afghanistan over the last decade. This was both important and useful.
The report concluded that Norway had supported Afghan priorities and that aid channels had been chosen in line with Norwegian priorities. At the same time, it identified a number of challenges relating to carrying out aid work in a situation of ongoing armed conflict and political instability such as that in Afghanistan.
On the basis of the report’s recommendations, we are making changes to our aid efforts, for example, by improving routines for follow-up.
We have initiated a number of measures to improve control of how aid is used. We are cooperating closely with other donors on developing the best possible follow-up and control systems.
Corruption is a serious problem, for donors and for the Afghan authorities. Aid efforts entail considerable risk, in terms of both achieving targets and ensuring sound management. We know that there is a definite risk of Norwegian aid being misused. We have therefore implemented a number of measures to reduce the misuse of aid funds, and we will continue to give priority to this work in the time to ahead.
Throughout the years we have been in Afghanistan, there has been a lot of discussion about the relationship between military, political, humanitarian and development efforts and how these various efforts should best be organised. I would therefore like to say a few more words about how I see this, now that the stage of Provincial Reconstruction Teams – or PRTs – is soon behind us.
The PRT model, which ISAF adopted in connection with the expansion of its operations throughout the country, was not an unqualified success. One important reason for this is that what were first envisaged as small military outposts at the start of the mission grew into much larger and far more complex structures. Moreover, this process unfolded in PRTs across the country, and there was no overall plan for their development.
The PRT concept differs quite significantly from the models used in most other peacemaking and peacekeeping operations. It gives the individual troop-contributing countries considerable regional responsibility that extends far beyond the purely military sphere, even though the countries concerned may not have the administrative or political institutions or resources needed to fulfil such a responsibility.
In addition, it soon became clear that different countries interpreted the task before them in very different ways. This in turn led to a fragmentation of the international effort and a strong tendency to give priority to short-term projects rather than long-term development.
In most other international operations, the international community is represented both at national and regional level through political, development and humanitarian organisations.
Moreover, normally every effort would be made to ensure that military strategy was subordinate to a comprehensive political plan. This has also generally been the case in Afghanistan at the central level, but has not always been the case – or has not been equally successful – at regional and provincial level.
Some PRTs functioned as parallel structures to existing Afghan civilian governance structures, and thus undermined the Afghan administration instead of strengthening it. However, as soon as we took over the leadership of the PRT in Faryab, Norway took a different approach from the one pursued by certain other countries.
We gave priority to acquiring a thorough understanding of the overall situation and to ensuring close coordination of all aspects of our engagement in Faryab, while at the same time avoiding a confusion of roles between the military stabilisation mission, humanitarian relief work and long-term development efforts. We also identified early on the need to define the PRT concept more closely in the debate between the countries contributing to ISAF. I believe we gained a great deal from this approach.
Now the PRTs have either been disbanded or are in the process of being disbanded, and we are seeing the long-term consequences of this. Many of the countries that put virtually all their aid activities into one basket that was channelled through their PRTs are now struggling to find suitable channels for their aid funding., Norway, on the other hand, is, in my view, in a good position to continue its constructive development cooperation with competent local partners for the very reason that this is what we have been doing all along.
I believe there are already useful lessons to be learned from this, with regard to both military and civilian aspects of future international stabilisation missions. The experience we have gained in Afghanistan will make us better equipped should we decide to take part in a similar operation in the future. However, it is important to stress that no two situations are the same. International peacekeeping or peacebuilding operations must be adapted to the needs in the country concerned.
Let me say a few more words about the political situation.
The plan is for a presidential election and a provincial council election to be held in Afghanistan on 5 April next year. This will be the first time in the country’s history that there is a possibility of a peaceful transition from one president to another following a democratic election. Under the Constitution, President Karzai cannot stand for re-election for a third term. He has made it quite clear, including to me, that he respects the Constitution, and will therefore not run for president again.
We will continue our cooperation with a new, popularly elected president, and we will follow the election process very closely.
The election next year will be test of strength for the Afghan authorities – both civilian and military. It will be the fifth time an election is held in Afghanistan since 2001.
We should bear in mind that not all the countries in the region have seen such a positive democratic development. As you are aware, Afghanistan shares borders with Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. From a regional perspective, Afghanistan has in fact come quite far in developing a democratic foundation for governance.
Norway and other donors are now seeing results from the assistance we have provided to the independent election commission in recent years. The number of international advisers has been considerably reduced. The Afghans have taken on more responsibility. Afghan forces have full responsibility for conducting the elections, and the planning stage has already begun.
Next year’s elections coincide with ISAF’s withdrawal, and the security situation may prove difficult. In my view, we cannot expect all the polling stations to be open or all voters to be able to exercise their right to vote. Nevertheless, I am confident that the Afghans will hold an election that reflects the will of the people.
Norway is planning to provide considerable support for the implementation of the election. But, we have, as in many other areas, set conditions. We expect the election to be properly conducted, the Afghan population and the various ethnic groups must view the election process and results as credible, and we are particularly concerned that more women should become politically engaged – both that more should vote and that more should stand for election.
Developments in the area of human rights in Afghanistan have been quite mixed. The starting point in 2001 was very bad, and the country is still beset by armed conflict. This is clearly undermining the human rights situation.
Parts of the judicial system are corrupt, arbitrary arrests are made and torture is used in Afghan prisons. We raise human rights issues regularly at all levels, including with the President.
Afghanistan is still considered to be the worst country in the world for women to live in. However, important progress is being made in the areas of education, employment and participation in society as a whole. The situation for women in Afghanistan is considerably better than it was in 2001, but support for Afghan girls and women will continue to be needed for many years to come.
This is particularly important in the context of possible political reconciliation between former warring parties in Afghanistan. This could result in a peace that solely takes the interests of men into account – men who may not feel it is to their advantage to continue the progress that nevertheless has been made.
Norway has therefore actively followed up UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security in Afghanistan. We are helping women to take part in the political debate on peace and reconciliation. For example, we cooperate closely with the Afghan Women’s Network, which works with women in local communities to help them get involved in conflict management at local level.
Norway and the other Nordic countries are using considerable resources to strengthen civil society organisations to enable them to hold the authorities accountable in the field of human rights.
Freedom of expression and the press is one of the areas that has seen the greatest progress over the last decade. Afghanistan has in fact come quite far in this respect, at least from a regional perspective.
Norway has long taken the view that only a political solution can bring the conflicts in Afghanistan to an end. And that the process towards a political solution must be led by the Afghans themselves. It must be inclusive, and it must encompass all the various groups that make up Afghan society, including the Taliban.
This is what we were already advocating early on in the conflict. To begin with, there were few who agreed. Gradually, most other countries have acknowledged that a broad reconciliation process is needed.
The Afghans themselves must find solutions that they believe can work, that are tailored to the particular conditions in the country, and that take human rights and the position of women into consideration.
Norway responded positively to President Karzai’s initiative to set up the High Peace Council. It was formed by the Afghan authorities, and it has a broad membership. We also believe that it would make the political process easier if the Taliban established an office in Doha.
The way things look today, there is unlikely to be a political breakthrough in the near future. There is still little trust between the Karzai Government and the Taliban. If they can sit down together to talk, this in itself will be an important step towards a political solution.
We maintain that all the parties will benefit from seeking a political solution in a process that includes all ethnic groups, women and civil society.
And, Mr President, it would be advantageous for a political understanding to be reached before the election, so that the election can be held with the greatest possible security and the broadest possible participation.
But this process may well take time. Neither the election nor the withdrawal of international forces will mark an end date on the Afghan calendar. It is vital that the Afghans themselves, other countries in the region and the international community support the political solutions reached for as long as is necessary.
Norway has begun a dialogue with various Afghan actors on their efforts to reach a political solution. We are playing a part through our capacity-building work, for example in the High Peace Council, civil society and women’s organisations.
At the same time, the humanitarian challenges are still huge and complex. Natural disasters and many years of armed conflict have brought great suffering to the population. More than five million refugees have returned to Afghanistan, but there are still 2.7 million Afghan refugees in neighbouring countries. In addition, more than half a million people are internally displaced.
Norway provides around NOK 130 million a year for humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, and we will continue to provide this humanitarian assistance alongside our long-term aid funding.
Our contributions are producing results. In parts of Afghanistan polio has not yet been eradicated, and Norwegian support for political reconciliation processes has made vaccination efforts possible in these areas. This is Norway’s unique contribution to international efforts to eradicate polio. Our experience of viewing political dialogue, humanitarian efforts and global health as parts of a coherent whole could be useful in other conflict-affected areas where Norway is involved.
Afghanistan is one of the countries in Asia where urbanisation and modernisation are proceeding fastest. More and more people are gaining access to mobile telephones, the internet, radio and TV.
Gross domestic product (GDP) has increased tenfold since 2001, and today the country enjoys economic growth of about 10 % – far above the average for the region.
According to a national survey carried out in 2012, the majority have experienced marked improvements in areas that are important for their day-to-day lives, such as schooling, personal economy, health, food security, access to goods, housing and employment opportunities.
Mine clearance has also been a huge success. All these factors go towards explaining why optimism for the future is greater in Afghanistan today than in many Western countries.
Over the last decade, life expectancy has increased by as much as 18 years. The country currently has a very young population: 75 % are under 25.
An increasingly large proportion of these young people now attend school. There are a total of nine million school pupils in Afghanistan today, and 38 % of these are girls. That in itself is no less than a revolution.
Regional factors are important for development and stability in Afghanistan. The neighbouring countries need to be involved and need to contribute actively to the stabilisation of Afghanistan. It is important to prevent neighbouring countries from settling their strategic differences on Afghan soil – as in the past.
Norway has emphasised from an early stage the importance of seeing the challenges in a regional context, and not as limited to Afghanistan in isolation. As early as 2009, Norway took the initiative to bring the region together for an informal dialogue to pave the way for more concrete cooperation.
This led to what is now known as the Istanbul process. And since Norway and Turkey steered the process towards the first ministerial conference, which was held in Istanbul in November 2011, there has been a positive development. We are seeing more political dialogue, regular meetings at ministerial level – most recently a month ago in Almaty in Kazakhstan – and increasing practical cooperation.
The Government attaches great importance to maintaining Norway’s profile as a supporter of this process. We are willing to facilitate further informal political talks and we are contributing to practical cooperation in the areas of crisis management, education and regional infrastructure.
I have pointed out that our cooperation with Afghanistan has a long-term perspective. We are working to increase the effectiveness of our aid and to concentrate funding on key areas. Looking ahead, the aim must be to reduce dependency on aid by stimulating economic activity.
Afghanistan has an abundance of natural resources, including energy sources. These represent many opportunities for future cooperation.
Afghanistan has become a better country to live in for most people. It was right to take part in the joint military, political and economic effort in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is no longer a hotbed of international terrorism. The authorities are gradually taking over responsibility for security. They are to an increasing degree providing the Afghan people with basic services.
Although there is still a long way to go, developments have been far better than pessimists have forecast over the years. And when we compare these developments with trends in other countries in the region, we see that in many areas Afghanistan is doing well.
None of us, however, are under the illusion that we are leaving a paradise behind as we withdraw from Afghanistan. But the scenarios of collapse and civil war are not, in my view, very likely.
It is more likely that a broad compromise will be reached between a number of different groups in Afghanistan. It is important that we prepare ourselves for the fact that this will be an Afghan solution, for better or worse. It will take the country forwards, not backwards, towards real reconciliation, stability and further development.
The international community will be there to provide support, but in a different way. International assistance should not be continued for too long, for it could then add to the problems it was intended to resolve.
It is important, it is right, and it is time that the Afghans take over the main responsibility for their own country. I am convinced that the timing is as good as it ever can be. Besides this has been the overriding goal for the transition and for all our work in the country.