NOU 2016: 8

A Good Ally: Norway in Afghanistan 2001–2014

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2 Introduction

In a letter to the UN Secretary-General dated 7 October 2001, the US stated that al-Qaeda had played a central role in the terror attacks of 11 September 2001.1 The letter also stated that al-Qaeda was supported by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and that the Taliban had refused to withdraw its support. In accordance with the article under the UN Charter on the right of individual and collective self-defence, the US and the UK launched military operations against both organisations. The military operation to combat al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban was soon expanded to an extensive international military and civilian engagement to build a new Afghan state. Military involvement continued in this form until 31 December 2014, when Afghan authorities took over the main responsibility for their own national security.

For Norway, the engagement in Afghanistan came to be its most comprehensive and costly international engagement since WWII, although the Norwegian contribution comprised only a small proportion of the overall international effort.

On 21 November 2014 the Norwegian government appointed a commission ‘to evaluate and extract lessons from Norway’s civilian and military involvement in Afghanistan during the period 2001–2014’.2 The Norwegian Commission on Afghanistan carried out its activity for a year and a half, from 1 January 2015 to 1 June 2016. Two objectives have guided the Commission’s efforts: first, to map all parts of the Norwegian engagement during the period and obtain the greatest possible insight into decisions taken by the Norwegian authorities in relation to these activities; second, to identify lessons that may contribute to the planning, organisation and implementation of future Norwegian contributions to international operations, civilian and military alike.

2.1 The Commission’s analysis

The Norwegian government had three explicit, overarching objectives for its engagement in Afghanistan. The first and most important objective was the Alliance dimension: to support the US and help to safeguard NATO’s relevance. The second objective was to help to combat international terror by preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for international terror activities. The third was to help to build a stable and democratic Afghan state by providing development aid and promoting a political solution to the conflict. Norwegian authorities portrayed the engagement in Afghanistan as a battle fought together with the US and NATO, against international terror and for a better Afghanistan.

The Commission assesses the various aspects of Norway’s involvement against the backdrop of these objectives, by asking to what extent did Norwegian civilian and military efforts contribute to achieving these. Three elements of the Norwegian engagement stand out: the activities in Faryab province; the individual and joint efforts of the Norwegian special forces and Norwegian Intelligence Service; and Norwegian peace diplomacy efforts.

The historical overview focuses on the decision-making processes. The Commission has sought to identify important crossroads and to explain why some decisions were taken as opposed to others, as well as the degree to which there were genuine choices at hand. The Commission also assesses ramifications and identifies lessons learned with regard to future operations.

Given the breadth and comprehensiveness of the mandate, it has not been possible for the Commission to assess every task or factor in detail. The Commission has focused on presenting a cohesive picture of Norway’s efforts in a Norwegian and international context. The Commission recommends that consideration is given to initiating further studies and assessments of specific factors within both civilian and military activities.

Central to the Commission’s review has been the question of Norway’s scope for independent action. Although there were significant constraints on Norway’s room for manoeuvre, there was also some cope for promoting specific ideals and interests. The limitations and opportunities inherent in this space will be an important consideration for all participants in this type of engagement, but will be especially critical for a small country. What opportunities did Norway have to shape and influence decisions concerning the international efforts? Were there contexts in which there was room for independent action that Norway did not exploit?

The Commission’s analysis is based on two premises:

  • Norway’s involvement must be understood in a broader international and Afghan context.

  • A retrospective analysis must distinguish between the opportunities that can be seen in hindsight and those that were viewed as possible at the actual point in time.

2.2 The Commission’s work and sources

The Commission has held 21 plenary meetings. All or a subset of the Commission’s members have visited Kabul, Washington, New York, Brussels and London. Hearings and interviews/talks with more than 330 persons have been held. These include current and former political leaders in Afghanistan and Norway, military officers, veterans and representatives of the civil service in Norway and several other countries, and representatives of NATO, the UN, non-governmental organisations and research institutions. The Commission has taken a broad approach to the hearings and has sought to ensure that as many relevant institutions and stakeholders as possible have been heard. None of the individuals consulted is named in this text, but a list is provided in Appendix B.

The Commission was granted wide-ranging access to comprehensive and, in part, classified written source material from, for example, Norway’s National Archives, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), the Norwegian Ministry of Defence and the Norwegian armed forces, as well as from NATO and the UN. There has been such a great volume of source material that the Commission has had to prioritise certain parts of it. The Commission was also granted access to cabinet documents from the second Bondevik Government (2001–2005), the second Stoltenberg Government (2005–2013) and the Solberg Government (2013–2014), but did not have access to the minutes of cabinet conferences and of meetings of the Cabinet Subcommittee.3 Some members of the Commission have had access to the minutes of meetings of the Enlarged Foreign Affairs Committee and, from 2009, of the Enlarged Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee.

The Commission was also given several classified briefings. Some of the material is sensitive, since it pertains to ongoing activity and may entail a risk to persons who have had certain roles. Certain aspects of the Intelligence Service’s working methods must also be kept confidential.

The restrictions on access to information pose a problem. Viewed in the context of the overall access to information from written and oral sources, however, the Commission does not feel that these restrictions have had an impact on its reconstruction, analysis and conclusions.

The Commission’s efforts have been greatly aided by three research assistants: Vårin Alme (for the entire period the Commission worked), Inga Nesheim (spring and summer 2015) and Ida Maria Oma (spring 2015). All graphics were designed by

It is difficult to obtain reliable statistics in a war-torn country such as Afghanistan. Therefore, most of the figures in this Official Norwegian Report are uncertain. There is also uncertainty regarding the figures on Norwegian activities. The reason for this is partly because no statistics or overviews were recorded and also because it is difficult to compile an overview from detailed, complex quantitative data.

The Commission has asked Integrity Watch Afghanistan (Kabul), the Christian Michelsen Institute (Bergen) and the Royal United Services Institute (London) to compile some smaller reports and surveys. These reports will be made available electronically.

The Commission wishes to thank all those taking part in the hearings for their candour. The Commission has been very well received by the contracting authorities and all the others it has contacted in its efforts, both in Norway and abroad. The Royal Norwegian Embassies in Kabul, Washington and London, as well as the delegations to NATO, the UN and the EU, organised valuable activities for the Commission.

Special thanks are due the Afghan authorities and everyone with whom the Commission met in Kabul in November 2015.

2.3 Structure of the report

The Commission’s report consists of three parts. Part I: Historical Overview discusses the main features of Norway’s engagement in Afghanistan as part of a larger, international effort. It tells the ‘big story’, in which the Commission discusses the developments in Afghanistan and in the international and Norwegian activities.

In Part II: Topics the Commission examines nine selected topics relating to Norway’s engagement. Here the Commission discusses in more detail the ‘small stories’ within the big one. Even in this more thorough discussion, the Commission was not able to cover every aspect of the Norwegian engagement.

In Part III: Reflections the Commission summarises its assessments of the Norwegian engagement as part of the international effort. In this section the Commission discusses experience gained and lessons learned.



Letter dated 7 October 2001 from the Permanent Representative of the United States of America to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council’, S/2001/946, 7 October 2001.


The mandate of the Norwegian Commission on Afghanistan, presented in Appendix A.


In Norwegian ‘regjeringens underutvalg’. The Subcommittee consisted of the heads of the coalition parties.

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