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Afghanistan: Norwegians Playing Valuable Role Among U.S. Allies

Operation Anaconda, ongoing in eastern Afghanistan, is perceived mainly as a fight between U.S. and Afghan troops on one side and Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces on the other. But a number of America's European allies are also involved in the fighting in mountainous Paktia Province -- including Norwegian special operations forces. In addition to providing troops, Norway is also leading the way in Afghan aid coordination and humanitarian activities. RFE/RL correspondent William Samii looks at Norway's contributions to the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan and to efforts to rebuild the country.

Prague, 13 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- According to the U.S. State Department, 136 nations have offered some form of military assistance to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, 17 of which have deployed more than 16,500 troops in Central and Southwest Asia. Of these, Norway is one of a handful of countries whose troops are actually engaged in ground combat with Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Allon Groth, first secretary at the Norwegian Embassy in Prague, told RFE/RL there are two reasons for his country's military involvement in Afghanistan.

"First, Norway is a NATO member. Since the operation in Afghanistan is an Article Five operation under NATO, we have the obligation to assist any member of the alliance under military attack," Groth said.

One day after the 11 September terrorist attacks against the United States, NATO ruled that if it could be determined the attacks were directed from abroad, they would be regarded as an action covered by Article Five of the alliance's founding charter. Article Five states that an attack against one NATO member is considered an attack against all NATO members.

Less than three weeks later, on 2 October, the North Atlantic Council -- NATO's top decision-making body -- was briefed by U.S. officials on the results of investigations into the attacks. Having linked the attacks to the worldwide Al-Qaeda network -- headed by Osama bin Laden and protected by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan -- the alliance invoked Article Five for the first time in its 52-year history.

Norwegian state radio cited the country's central military command as saying the U.S., in planning the Afghanistan campaign, requested the participation of Norwegian troops because of their expertise in small-unit operations in extremely cold and mountainous conditions. Oslo will not say how many troops it currently has deployed in Afghanistan but says its Afghan contingent comprises Royal Marine commandos from the Ramsund naval base near Harstad and soldiers from the Norwegian Army Special Operations Command stationed at Rena. The Norwegian Defense Ministry has indicated that more troops are on their way to Afghanistan.

Norwegian special forces have been active in Afghanistan for several months. A U.S. Defense Department fact sheet issued on 26 February cites their missions as having yielded "valuable human intelligence." Moreover, Norway has provided both ground vehicles and C-130 aircraft to support special operations missions and is one of 17 countries contributing troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Norwegian explosive ordinance disposal experts and mine-clearing vehicles are working in Kandahar. Norwegian staff officers and a supplies control unit are in Afghanistan, as well, and other officers are assigned to U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.

Groth of the Norwegian Embassy in Prague said that tradition is another reason behind Norway's involvement in Afghanistan: "Norway has been active in trying to restore peace and security all over the world before -- through the UN -- and later also in the Balkans, through NATO. So we certainly have a certain tradition in contributing forces to peacekeeping operations -- or even now, it is more like peace enforcement."

But Norway's involvement with Afghanistan is not just in the military arena. News reports cite Norwegian Foreign Minister Jan Petersen as saying his country will work for increased international support for Afghanistan. Norway assumed the presidency of the UN Security Council on 1 March.

Norway also chairs the Afghanistan Support Group (ASG), which was established in 1997. The ASG is an informal group of donors that focuses on coordinating international assistance efforts and ensuring the consideration of human rights in the provision of aid. Norwegian Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen, speaking at a meeting of the ASG earlier on 4 March in Geneva, said: "Humanitarian challenges are at the top of our list and must be met if we are to succeed in building a better future for Afghanistan."

Representatives from the Afghan interim administration, Afghanistan's neighboring countries and non-governmental organizations all participated in the ASG meeting. Helgesen identified three areas requiring immediate action: enhanced access to persons in need of food and medicine by strengthening local distribution networks; mine clearance; and mobilization of female teachers and distributing basic school materials before the start of the school year on 23 March.