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The debate over Swedish troops in Afghanistan

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The debate over Swedish troops in Afghanistan
10:36 CET+01:00
As the Riksdag prepares to vote on Sweden's military mission in Afghanistan, contributor David Stavrou examines how the distant conflict became such an important foreign policy issue--even before being mentioned in a warning sent by the Stockholm suicide bomber.

Sweden's involvement in the war in Afghanistan is different from most debates in Swedish politics. While it may be one of the country’s most important foreign policy issues, it's largely non-existent in day-to-day life.

For many Swedes, it's unclear what their troops are doing in Afghanistan in the first place. Even those who have a strong interest in politics may well see the war as primarily the business of others.

However, there are those who see Sweden's involvement as an important contribution to global peace and security and a crucial expression of Sweden's role in the international community.

Currently, Sweden has around 500 soldiers in Afghanistan as a part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which consists of around 130,000 troops from over 40 countries.

Swedish troops head up a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan's fourth-largest city, situated in the north of the country.

In terms of troop numbers, Sweden's contribution lies somewhere between those of Belgium and Bulgaria, but even this relatively small contingent of soldiers has paid a grim price. Five Swedish soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan so far and many more have been injured.

Separately, on Saturday, Swedish troops in Afghanistan were cited by the suicide bomber who blew himself up in central Stockholm.

Despite the costs and the distance, much of Sweden's political establishment is in agreement about the country’s military involvement in Afghanistan. The ruling centre-right Alliance and two of its main opposition parties, the Social Democrats and the Green Party, recently agreed on a strategy shift, changing the Swedish military's mission from actively fighting insurgents to training and supporting local forces.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt explained the government's goals at a press conference just before the agreement was negotiated.

"We are trying to bring security and well functioning, secure civilian institutions to Afghanistan" he said and added that it's about international solidarity.

"When the UN calls," he concluded, "we come."

After agreeing on the joint policy, Reinfeldt stressed the importance of a broad political consensus. Standing by the leaders of the Social Democrats and the Green Party he said: "We feel a joint responsibility to the Swedish tradition of agreement when it concerns Swedish presence abroad."

Foreign Minister Carl Bildt explained the new strategy thusly: "Sweden should take an active role in realizing the objective of Afghan security forces being able to lead and implement operations in all provinces by the end of 2014.”

Though the new strategy sets no exact dates for a full withdrawal, Bildt added that the gradual change from combatant troops to supportive security actions will start in 2012.

The Social Democrats, usually Reinfeldt's and Bildt's bitter rivals, are in full agreement. Urban Ahlin, the party's foreign policy spokesperson and deputy chair of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee is optimistic about the new policy. Defying criticism that the war in Afghanistan can't be won he says: "We're not there to win a war; we're there to support a local government and help the people of Afghanistan gain security in their own country".

Absent from the broad consensus was the Left Party, which according to its leaders represents Sweden's growing peace movement. Hours before the agreement on the new strategy was announced, Left Party leader, Lars Ohly, said his party was abandoning the deal.

"We have demanded a very clear change in the Swedish strategy, from military to civilian, with increased aid and clear start and end dates for withdrawal. None of the four points have been met," he said in a statement.

Also absent from the "broad political consensus" sought by Reinfeldt, were the far-right Sweden Democrats, who entered the Riksdag for the first time following September's general elections. While the party wasn’t invited to negotiate on the issue, the Sweden Democrats now find themselves standing with their ideological archrivals in opposition to the military mission in Afghanistan.

Hans Linde, a Left Party MP and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, favors a strategy based more on peaceful and political action.

"It's quite obvious that the military strategy isn't working," he says.

"We should use civilian tools to fight the causes of the conflict and address unemployment, public health and poverty."

Linde also expresses regrets about his party's initial support of Sweden’s ISAF contribution.

"In retrospect it was a mistake", he says, "We never should have been involved in a military mission."

Meanwhile, Sweden Democrat MP Mikael Jansson, a member of the Defence Committee, presents a different argument against Sweden's military involvement in Afghanistan.

"We support the troops in Afghanistan and the war against terrorism", he says, "but it's more important to us to invest in Sweden's defence."

Jansson talks of strengthening Sweden's armed forces and investing in protecting the home front, rather than devoting resources to foreign missions. The Sweden Democrats also believe there should be a precise time limit to Sweden's involvement in Afghanistan.

While the combined opposition of the Sweden Democrats and the Left Party won't be enough to scuttle the government's plans, it leaves questions about how parties from opposite sides of Sweden's political spectrum could find themselves so close on such an important issue.

"It's common that extreme parties mirror each other", explains political scientist Robert Egnell from The Swedish National Defence College.

But though the rival parties arrive at the same conclusion, Egnell says, their reasons are very different.

"The Sweden Democrats want more focus on national defence and the Left Party is anti-militaristic".

Further opposition according to Egnell, is a result of the fact that Sweden's Afghanistan mission didn't turn out to be a peaceful operation. "It's a war using a counter-insurgent narrative and some suspect we are actively supporting a US and NATO policy", he says.

The otherwise the broad political consensus, says Egnell, is a result of a strong tradition of widely supporting international operations.

As for the reason why almost all Swedish political parties see the Afghanistan operation as a vital national interest he says: "The starting point is one of international solidarity, supporting the Afghan people and the decisions made by the UN's Security Council. But it's not all altruistic. Sweden has an international agenda, it wants more influence in the UN, the EU and NATO and the mission in Afghanistan strengthens its international credibility".

Politically it appears the wide consensus about Afghanistan is a major victory for Reinfeldt, who succeeded in advancing an important foreign policy decision and breaking up the opposition at the same time.

Of course, it remains to be seen how Saturday’s suicide bomb attack in Stockholm, which cited Sweden’s military presence in Afghanistan, will affect Wednesday vote.

Reinfeldt will have to wait to assess any political gains until after the Riksdag vote on the new strategy, currently scheduled for December 15th.

In addition, Reinfledt’s potential success on the issue depends not only on the coalition he built but also on the situation on the ground in Afghaistan.

"An ISAF strategy shift may pose challenges to the broad coalition in Sweden", says Robert Egnell, "what's more, nobody knows what will happen in the event of further serious Swedish casualties".

Any of these scenarios would make any government gains regarding it’s Afghanistan policy very short-lived.

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