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The debate over Swedish troops in Afghanistan

David Stavrou · 15 Dec 2010, 10:36

Published: 15 Dec 2010 10:36 GMT+01:00

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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.

Story continues below…

"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.

David Stavrou (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

19:12 December 15, 2010 by MikeSar
"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." The goal is to have this done by 2012.

Our President Obama has a similar date to begin to remove troops out.

It is now, evidently, obvious that the ONLY solution is "Train and support" the local forces that speak the local language.

The US came the closest to that in South Korea but has kept a large force there.

The efforts in Vietnam failed because there was no sense of security by the local people, with soldiers that spoke no Vietnamese, rotating in and out for a short stay, which may have scared them into supporting the invaders, who knows! Some soldiers got a higher pay than native officers may have been a problem.

Now, both South Korea and Vietnam are two very important friends and business partners of the USA. A huge U.S. Hi Tech factory opened recently in Vietnam, with the total support from leaders in Hanoi, with a "Hot Line", how big? The "Clean Room" is the size of Five Football Fields. Go figure!

Maybe we should try the olive branch, or a business deal, with North Korea? Or, is this too much to ask? Where is Dick Holbrooke when we need him?
09:47 December 16, 2010 by wenddiver
Wow that Flag looks great over the Armored Vehicle! I wish you would do some interviews with the troops LOCAL.
10:09 December 16, 2010 by Nemesis
They should send more combat troops.

They need to burn the poppy fields, then tell eh Saudi's to cut of there supply of money to Al Queda.

@ MikeSar,

Once the nutjob in charge of North Korea dies, things will move quickly and within five years out shops will be flooded by cheap goods made in North Korea.
03:32 December 17, 2010 by wenddiver
Still waiting for the Swedish Combat Soldier on the Ground interview Local.

These Men are truely Heroes, why can't they get the same amount of Press time as some idiot who blows himself up.
04:50 December 18, 2010 by jackx123
better to kill them in afghanistan than get killed by them in sweden.....

rest my case
08:15 December 19, 2010 by cmbsweden
Oh god, not that BS argument again........
02:52 December 20, 2010 by GLO
This is a question for all time. During WW2 Sweden made a decisive move to BOW to the most famous terrorist in modern times. Norway said WE will not. This is real History. So, what do you do now....

I am the father of a US SOF officer for 11 years and I have developed very strong positions about the USMC and my old homeland.

There are two worlds. Thats it, no in between.

So, choose sides thats it.

Really not that hard to understand. Right or wrong.. Good or Evil...

We have common enemys, What to do... NO right answer.

Do you Fight or Bow down...

Well, Sweden for now says fight. Thats Good... But do you need to be in the middle of a big mess with weak direction, political leadership, Afgans who do not want us there.

Not Good my friends. We do not understand how to fight this war. The world is not in a position to fight the fight. YET..
05:34 December 20, 2010 by No Haram Done
The "Splodey Dope" LOSER (Swedish bomber) said: "Stop your stupid war on Islam"

You call this war?

Against I-Slam?

We don't call it that over here.

Even when our deprecations to Mohammedan aggression against The World are limited to reactions against "man made disasters" we're STILL stomping your forked tails.

But you ain't seen nuthin' yet!

Keep it up, Sub-genius, keep trying to shove that two-bit death-cult down the throats of The World, and you'll see just what REAL war looks like!

The World stopped Mohammedanism in its tracks (Crusades, Spanish Reconquista/1492 & Vienna/1683) and when sufficiently provoked it'll do it AGAIN.

Only THIS time attention will be paid to neutering Mohammedanism PERMANENTLY.

Finally, any converts to Islam, once they read the Koran & continue to believe in it, must be truly EVIL SOULS!

"The Jews and the Christians are perverts; fight them."... Koran 9:30

"I wouldn't want to create the impression that I wouldn't like the government of the United States to be Islamic sometime in the future." -- Hamas-linked Council on American Islamic Relations spokesman Ibrahim "Honest Abe" Hooper, 1993.
22:06 December 20, 2010 by johnny1939
Nothing good comes out of war. Withdraw all troops from Afganistan and offer help instead but only if the people want it.
01:34 December 21, 2010 by Njal
Bring the troops home so that they can now protect their fellow Swedes who are being targeted by Islam.
17:22 January 12, 2011 by AHA
Is Kongo any better today than it was in the 1960-ies when we had our boys there? Come on, nations have to solve their problems in their own time or they will never be solved. What good did the Americans involvement in Vietnam do? What good did the USSR involvement in Afghanistan do? They also thought that they were rescuing the country from anarchy. Bring our boys back home.
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