Speech at seminar on Afghanistan experiences – lessons learned or lessons lost?

Impact on Norwegian Security and Defence Policy and Civil-Military Relations

Speech by Minister of Defence Ine Eriksen Søreide at The Military Power Seminar “Afghanistan experiences – lessons learned or lessons lost?” November 20. 2013. Title on speech: “Impact on Norwegian Security and Defence Policy and Civil-Military Relations”.

Speech by Minister of Defence Ine Eriksen Søreide at The Military Power Seminar “Afghanistan experiences – lessons learned or lessons lost?” November 20. 2013. Title on speech: “Impact on Norwegian Security and Defence Policy and Civil-Military Relations”.

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Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,    

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this year’s Military Power Seminar. It is a pleasure to be here with you again. This is my second time as a speaker at this seminar.  And of course it is my first time as Minister of Defence.

Allow me from the outset to thank the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the Norwegian Defence University College, for the excellent programme they have developed and for focussing on such an important subject.

I especially welcome the flavour of self-assessment and self-criticism you have added to our discussions.

Lesson learned or lessons lost. This is indeed a question we must pursue. Not to do so would be unwise and unjust when analysing the outcome of our efforts in Afghanistan over the past 12 years.

We need an open and honest public discourse on Afghanistan. And we need to learn and assess the impact of the efforts we have made on our security and defence policy.  

The operations in Afghanistan have been and still are a tremendous international effort which has had a deep impact on nations and organizations. It has occupied resources and the attention of governments on a scale unprecedented in in modern history. As such it has greatly influenced the view of the public opinion with regard to security and defence policy, an issue I will return to later.

That said, let me also add a few extra perspectives to our discussions on Afghanistan that I consider to be essential.

First, we should always bear in mind the efforts of our men and women in uniform who served and are serving at the frontline in Afghanistan. These are the people who make sacrifices in order for us to remain safe. They deserve our deepest respect and recognition.

The same applies to aid workers and civilians. They are equally taking considerable personal risk in order to ensure that aid reaches a hard-tested Afghan people.

And secondly, we must never lose sight of what actual brought us to Afghanistan. A desire to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorism was, and remains the primary reason for Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan. This must be the main point of reference when we evaluate our efforts here.

In other words, making the Afghan society better, more stable, improving the systems of health and education taking care of human rights - these are all prerequisites for developing  a more stable country. But they are not the reasons why we got involved in Afghanistan in the first place.

Thirdly, we need a comprehensive evaluation of our efforts. We need an honest review both on what we did right, but even more importantly, where we could have chosen differently.  But speaking of evaluation I also believe timing is of the essence.

I strongly disagree with those who argue as if we had already left Afghanistan. You know, and I know that this is simply wrong. The Norwegian soldier in Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif surely knows this. The aid workers working in remote Afghan villages know this. This is why we should avoid presenting a message which is oriented towards the past, when our challenges remain in the present and in the years ahead of us.

Our military contribution is still considerable. Today we still have around half the military personnel compared with what we had in the beginning, and Norway intends to contribute to the Resolute Support Mission as well.  

At this juncture, Afghanistan and our efforts here are at a critical phase. 2014 is the year when the transition process is going to be completed, and when presidential and provincial elections will take place. At this point we simply cannot afford loosing either focus or momentum.    

I have been asked to share my thoughts on two separate, but nevertheless interlinked issues.

First of all, I will offer my view on how the operation in Afghanistan has impacted on Norwegian security and defence policy. Secondly, my remarks will be devoted to the issue of civil-military relations.   

Impact on Norwegian security and defence policy 

In addressing the impact on Norwegian defence and security policy, the “lessons learned/lessons lost” approach is an interesting analytical tool. I believe it can offer some insights relevant to our discussions.      

First, while gaining and implementing new lessons, one faces the danger of losing something along the way. In particular I believe this is the case in an operation of this magnitude. You risk entering a new stage, a new security situation, with an imbalance that can negatively affect your security interests.  

Looking at the broader picture I believe we all would agree that you will gain new knowledge through applying military force for such an extensive period of time. As conflicts are dynamic, and you change and adapt accordingly.

The Armed Forces are constantly assessing, learning and adapting their tactics. In the same way, strategies and policies are amended and updated to remain adequate.

The operation in Afghanistan has made it necessary for the NATO allies and their partners, to adjust in order to meet the requirements in Afghanistan. To a large extent national force structures, investment plans, training and exercises have been quite heavily impacted by the Afghan operations.  

For an organization as NATO Afghanistan has been an almost all-absorbing effort. For years the Alliance has been geared towards running an operation far outside its own territory. In that sense NATO has become an expert in conducting “out of area” operations.

Looking at this from a bird’s view, I believe one convincingly could argue that the operations in Afghanistan have had a considerable impact on the framework we consider to be essential to our security and defence policy.

I am not questioning the importance of the Alliance’s operational deployments, quite to the contrary. We must continue to use NATO when required.  

My concern is rather in ensuring that our lessons remain relevant also in a different security environment than Afghanistan. Therefore we must ensure that we both retain the advances and lessons gained from Afghanistan at the same time as we brush the dust of old lessons and practices.   

However, I find it vital to underline that NATO is so much more than running a major operation. It is a political Alliance in which we put great emphasis.

I think one of the most important issues when looking toward the NATO Summit in 2014 is actually this dimension. We need to continue to build a credible and a reliable Alliance that can reach its stated level of ambition.   

Allow to me to elaborate a bit on this issue.

And let me start with the god news. I believe our time in Afghanistan has been instrumental in developing a number of key areas that are essential to our security and defence policy. And I am convinced these areas also remain relevant beyond our operations in Afghanistan. 

Let me then offer seven such lessons learned that I consider to be important:

-          Solidarity: This is fundamental for the Alliance. It is a basic component of the Alliance and it is essential in Norwegian security and defence policy. In my view, the absolute sense of solidarity is only tested in real operations or during a crisis. The operation in Afghanistan pushed the solidarity between the NATO nations hard, but in the end we succeeded and passed the test. Solidarity within the Alliance has been strengthened and this cannot be underestimated in the years to come.

-          Interoperability: For an Alliance consisting of 28 members and a range of partners, this is vital. In Afghanistan, both Allies and partners have learned to work together more closely and more efficiently than ever before. From the tactical through the operational to the strategic level interoperability has  improved.

-          Multinational cooperation: We have developed solid partnerships in the field. By working together within such areas as logistics and transport,   resources have been saved for the individual participating nations. The Nordic countries have a tradition for doing this on UN-missions. Afghanistan in my view has provided a push for even closer cooperation. As such, it has been a catalyst for even closer cooperation and more “smart defence”. 

-          Modernization of Allied forces: Afghanistan has been an important driver for the development and modernization of our Armed Forces. It has resulted in new and better capabilities.  Our personnel and defence organizations have taken a giant leap when it comes to quality. Our soldiers have shown extraordinary will to develop in line with new tasks. We now have a generation of soldiers and officers with extensive experience from both planning and conducting demanding operations. For the Government, it has also been important in view of the renewed discussion regarding professional soldiers and the use of conscripts.  

-          Military contributions: In line with the change in strategy, we have taken on the development of Afghan security forces. We have made important progress, but there are still challenges and the progress we have made needs to be sustained. I say this because in my opinion the case of Afghanistan is not unique.  On the contrary, I think the OMLT (Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams) concept is likely to also be relevant in future operations. I believe NATO can play a significant role in assisting nations with security sector reform tuned in to their individual needs and requirements.

-          Gender: Our operations in Afghanistan have been a push for the Allied nations and NATO to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325. I am happy that there now is greater “gender awareness” and that “gender” is reflected in operational plans and national defence planning.  However, we still need to keep the focus on this issue, because there is still a long way from the text of the resolution to ensuring actual changes on the ground.     

-          Veteran policy:  For years this was a neglected area receiving minimal political attention.  Afghanistan has paved the way for a complete overhaul of our national veteran policy. Clearly, this is not merely  a question of economic compensation. It is rather how we as politicians and the wider community recognize and honour those who have been fighting on our behalf.    

Despite the current and future security situation in Afghanistan, these are significant developments in our security and defence policy that should not be overlooked.

Then there is the other part of the dichotomy. The lessons lost. This is the part of the equation we need to pay more attention to.

Even though the operations in Afghanistan have qualitatively improved the competence of the Army, we now enter a period requiring a degree of mental readjustment.

I think no one should underestimate the impact sustaining such a high operational tempo in Afghanistan for an extended period of time. It has impacted on how we think about our armed forces. It has shaped the mind-set of a generation of soldiers. And it has had an effect on how we train, recruit and prepare for operations. 

In the years to come we should expect an increased emphasis on defence tasks within our own core areas. Norway will continue to be active in supporting international peace and stability. But our national tasks and the requirements of collective defence will regain momentum. 

And due to the financial stress in many NATO countries, we have to be ready on two areas. First we have to expect to deal with more issues on our own. Second we will need to contribute more within the framework of the Alliance.

I think NATO needs to spend time adjusting to a new modus operandi. Rather than solely focusing on the shifting demands of current operations, we must adapt political and military structures that effectively may execute even the most demanding tasks. In particular we need to re-establish a firm belief in Article 5 and our collective capabilities.

I believe that some of the qualities that once constituted NATO as an alliance, if they have not been lost, they have at the very least gradually faded away. The current Alliance is not sufficiently tuned in for the traditional tasks of collective defence.

The integrated command structure is considered to be decisive for NATOs credibility as a collective defence organization. Our assumption has always been that if we face a crisis requiring allied reinforcements, we have to transfer command to NATO.

We have to be assured that the command structure is sufficiently manned and organized to perform its tasks also in its own area of responsibility. As of today, we believe this core business of NATO is not in as such good shape as we would like it to be. At best there is a rudimentary understanding of NATO’s traditional tasks. 

For many years, military contingency planning has been neglected both nationally and within the Alliance. The operation in Afghanistan and other ongoing operations have reinforced this.

Dormant plans need to be dusted off and updated. We have been working hard for some time now to rectify this on a national level. There is still a lot to do, not least in the area of reinforcement planning.

We decided to resume military planning for crisis and war a few years ago. This has already proven its value. We have discovered shortfalls in logistics, personnel and readiness in a number of areas.

I have made this a number one priority. We need to examine the readiness and capability of every unit in our Armed Forces. Our operational capability must be credible and reliable. This is the every responsibility of every ally. 

We do this primarily because we run the risk of losing the knowledge and the competence for this kind of operational planning.  And this is the core competency of the military. 

Our national security and defence policy rests heavily on the will and ability of NATO to perform its tasks. We must therefore never lose sight of what actually makes NATO unique. The basic idea of transatlantic security should continue to be the bedrock of alliance activity, embodied in the principle of collective defence, and in our security consultations.

To do this, we will do our job nationally. The Government will continue to maintain and develop strong and modern Armed Forces. We will ensure a good balance between funding, structure and tasks. We will increase the level of activity in all services.

Currently, in the county of Hordaland, the Armed Forces are conducting a large scale joint exercise involving more than 3200 personnel, as well as moving 30 000 tons of equipment. Part of the exercise is actually to train deployment from north to south.  Through such exercises we will test our capability to solve national tasks. We will learn new lessons and perhaps also discover lessons lost. 

And we will be prepared to do our job internationally. Our reputation among Allies is good because our contributions are of very high quality. We remain committed to making contributions that are valued in NATO and that make a difference.

We will actively be working to retain what we have gained and further develop lessons that we have learned from Afghanistan. As the operational tempo is expected to decrease, we need to step up joint training efforts to maintain readiness and interoperability. The Connected Forces Initiative addresses this matter in particular.

Norway has argued in favour of ambitious and frequent exercises that cover the full range of Alliance missions. I am happy that we at the NATO defence minister summit in October, agreed to move forward on plans for a broader concept for training and exercises.

To sum up: Redeploying from Afghanistan entails turning a page where allies adapt and reorient themselves to a new and possibly different security situation. It is crucial that we manage to retain and develop lessons learned and regain the lessons that we may have lost.

Civil-military relations

My final remark will be on the issue of civil-military relations.

I believe my position is well known to this audience. I will therefore limit myself to the following remarks.

Throughout the campaign in Afghanistan, civil-military relations have been a highly disputed area. And I would like to add, we have not spent enough time or resources in the Armed Forces spend on actually training our soldiers in what this entails. Be it political or professional differences, you tend to revert to the fundamental question – is the glass half empty or half full.

When evaluating our overall efforts in Afghanistan we should not only review what we have achieved. Even more importantly is an honest review of objectives we did not accomplish or we did not succeed.  In my view the civil-military coordination is a case in point in this regard.

I am not talking about a complete mix of military and civilian means, but rather the strict separation of means which was supposed to be followed by a close coordination between the two. Has the strict separation that seemed to work fine at a theoretical level, actually worked on the ground in Afghanistan? I think this is a crucial question that needs to be addressed when we do a full-scale evaluation of our efforts.  

Afghanistan has clearly taught us a lesson with regard to developing a more diverse set of instruments in our tool box. And it has illustrated that our tools all need to work towards the same set of objectives.

In Afghanistan nations have all seen to civilian-military coordination on their own.  A range of different national policies and procedures left us at on stage with 26 Provincial Reconstruction Teams, each with their individual civil-military arrangements.  

In my view the very strict separation between civilian and military efforts Norway has practiced has proven suboptimal. Rather than promoting civilian and military coordination which was supposed to happen, Norway developed a strategy to ensure separation of actors. As such it has been a strategy that has encouraged fragmentation. 

I have long argued that insisting on strict separation between military activities and civilian activities in all conflict areas is illogical and unhelpful.  It is illogical because any additional resources, whether it is weapons, schools or employment opportunities, will tip the balance of the conflict and become one more thing for the parties to fight over. 

It is unhelpful because not acknowledging this obvious feature stops us from addressing it. Good contact between diplomatic, military and development actors will allow us to share crucial information and views on what activities may contribute to conflict and which ones may prevent it.

It will help us identify which local actors that may be vulnerable by becoming too closely associated with international operators, and which local actors could actually be agents for positive change and how to best keep them on a constructive track. 

We will of course always respect the need for absolute neutrality and impartiality among actors like the ICRC that depend on this to conduct their invaluable work across the front lines.

I would like to underline that I do not believe in any quick fixes or that soldiers in any way make ideal aid workers. However I believe in a coherent strategy where we have all the tools at our disposal pulling in the same direction.

Moving on, I want to draw your attention to another lesson about civil-military relations that we have learned the hard way in Afghanistan, and where recent experiences from Syria are instructive. 

We should lift our views from the tactical and operational levels to the strategic level. I definitely believe that Afghanistan has led to a more cautious and realistic approach to operations of this magnitude. Today we must recognize that we never captured the complexities of this war-ridden country.

One lesson from Afghanistan is therefore the need for a more realistic understanding of what we can achieve in complex conflicts. Once again, we must remind ourselves of the limits of military power.

We have learnt that military power will only be effective if it supplements diplomatic efforts in a logical manner. And it will only be logical if is used towards well-defined, achievable objectives, and if it is based on a political will and a technical ability to achieve these objectives.

In Syria, we concluded that a political framework still does not exist for any settlement between the parties, and that international military action at this stage may only add to the violence. This has more or less been the consensus around the table.

Still, the international community has succeeded in bringing the Assad regime to task for its stockpiles of chemical weapons. This would probably not have happened without Assad fearing the prospect of being hit by military force.

So we should see how our armed forces best can support diplomatic efforts to bring lasting settlement to armed conflicts.  To this end, we will not necessarily need huge or long-lasting contributions. 

But what we do need is a clear idea of international diplomacy’s ability to bring about solution or settlement to conflicts. And we need a clear idea as to when military force can contribute to such settlement. What are we trying to achieve, what is the desired end state?

And equally important we need to see when military force is not likely to make such contributions. 

Again, returning to the tactical level, I do not criticise those executing our policy in Afghanistan. I do not doubt the existence of the best will and the noblest purpose possible. Both military and civilian actors have made tremendous efforts, but too often on separate turfs.

The responsibility always rests with those shaping the strategy.

Concluding remarks

Ladies and gentlemen,

A recent opinion poll carried out by the Norwegian defence organization “Folk og Forsvar” contains some interesting observations and trends. 

The poll tells us that two out of three, fully or partially agree that Norway should participate with forces in NATO-operations with a United Nations mandate. This is a high number. However, I register that the numbers have decreased from last year poll, when three out of four opted for participation.

I believe our Allies face similar or even slightly worse numbers. Several years of fighting in a remote area, breeds a sense of fatigue and a lack of interest. Nations confronted with new and dire economic realities, also risk becoming more inward looking.

We must do our best to avoid disengagement. As politicians, we have a special responsibility. Our time in Afghanistan is not yet over. Our soldiers and our civilian personnel in Afghanistan know this.

It is our obligation to sustain the engagement and continue to have an active public debate. A seminar like this serves not only this purpose. It also invites us to carefully identify lessons and to assess our efforts. As defence minister I take deep interest in these questions.

I wish you all a very successful seminar. Thank you for your attention.