Forsvarsministerens tale på konferansen "Peacebuilding in Afghanistan: How to reach the Women", organisert av International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO): Since I took up the post as Minister of Defence two years ago, I have visited Afghanistan six times, to meet our troops and my Afghan ccolleagues, and to get a first hand impression of the situation. Afghanistan is our most important international operation and a main ppriority and commitment for the Government. In my capacity as Minister, but also personally, Afghanistan and its people have come to mean a great deal to me.
I very much appreciate being invited to this seminar and to have the opportunity to discuss with such an expert audience on a crucially important topic – the situation for Afghan women. As I am sure has been outlined by several of the speakers before me, the situation for Afghan women is still precarious, six years after the fall of the Taliban. Even though the Constitution gives equal rights to women, this is not always the reality, neither in the public nor the private spheres.
I am sure I am not the only person here to have been moved by the stories about the hardships and faiths of the two female characters, Mariam and Laila, in Khaled Hosseini’s book A Thousand Splendid Suns. Unfortunately, their tragic stories, which include domestic, social and even state violence, are only too realistic and representative.
The security situation in Afghanistan is still very vulnerable, and as we have seen through the tragic events of the passing week, this is also the case in the North, where we have our main areas of responsibility.
At the same time, we see that what we do is moving Afghan society in a positive direction. Since my first visit I see clear progress and development in Afghanistan and for Afghan women.
More than 4 in 5 Afghans now have access to health services, compared to only 1 in 10 in 2004. This particularly benefits women, who have had the lowest access to health services in the population, and the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. This year, there will be an increase of 400,000 Afghan girls attending school. Under the Taliban, this would have been unthinkable. Norway is building 82 new schools in the Faryab Province in the North.
When I visited Meymaneh and one of the schools built by the Norwegian Refugee Council last month, I noticed for the first time that there were more female than male pupils. I guess it is in the nature of my job that I do not get standing ovations too often, but the welcome and applause from these children, and girls in particular, because I represented a country that built their school, is something I will never forget.
There is broad international agreement that we need to support Afghanistan and the process of rebuilding Afghan society. This is not only something that the UN and the Afghan government have asked us to do, but it is a moral obligation. And our efforts need to benefit all parts of the Afghan population – including the women. I’d like to focus on two seemingly simple questions in my remarks –I will address why we, also from a military and security perspective, cannot ignore the question of women, and what our military forces do to improve the lives of the Afghan population and Afghan women.
Rebuilding justice and security - for all
It is an imperative that we reach out to also the female part of the population in Afghanistan. There are several elements to this. First, we need to see this from a justice perspective. If we are in Afghanistan to improve the lives of the Afghan population, we cannot succeed if it is only the male part of the population that benefits from improvements. Second, for me as defence minister, I also see this from the point of view of security. In “old fashioned” operations, the aim was to remove or replace the leadership of a country. In today’s operations, the aim is to transform and assist a society and an elected government. This means that relations to society and the local community are a prerequisite for the success of our military operations.
It is therefore a challenge that our military units have difficulties in establishing contact with the female part of the Afghan population. This means that we are missing out on important relations and contacts. We are looking at ways to do this better, and I will return to this later in my remarks.
The connection to civil society is a prerequisite for the legitimacy of our missions. Legitimacy is important to the security of our soldiers, first because their presence is seen as necessary to progress, and second because it gives access to information, which means they can better counter threats.
Our Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the Faryab Province is one example of a joint military-civilian unit which underpins and extends the authority of the Government of Afghanistan, also in remote parts of the country. PRTs combine civilian and military personnel to coordinate and enable security and reconstruction efforts. They are a key element by which ISAF interacts with the local population and authorities and disseminate information and identify needs and priorities. Thus the PRT staff – civil and military – gets first hand situational awareness of the needs and challenges of the Afghan people and communities.
The gender perspective is an integral part in what we do, but we need to further increase our awareness on this important issue. NATO is currently working on how to better integrate the gender perspective in international operations. We have signalled our support to this process, and are looking at how we can integrate this better in our operational planning.
A comprehensive approach - "As civilian as possible - as military as necessary"
Coordination between society and the military is the basis of our approach in Afghanistan. This includes not only the relationship between our military forces and the local population, but also how we combine civilian and military means. Reconstruction and development cannot take place if ISAF does not succeed in providing security and stability. In this regard, we must implement a comprehensive approach in which military and civilian instruments are applied in a coordinated way.
Sometimes this is referred to as civil-military cooperation. But we are talking about much more than that. A truly comprehensive approach entails the application of a wide spectrum of instruments – economic, political, developmental and humanitarian – in an integrated and coordinated manner. And the gender perspective should be integral in this.
When I meet our soldiers in Afghanistan, they tell me; “there is little point to what we are doing unless the Afghan people can see that their lives get better.” We can only succeed if ordinary Afghan men and women see that their lives get better. They need to see that new roads are being built, that women get access to health services, and they need to see that schools are being built and opened to their daughters as well as their sons.
Is it the task of the armed forces to provide these things? Perhaps not. We need to maintain the separation between the civilian and military efforts. But the civilian organisations can only do their job and build roads, hospitals and schools if the security situation allows this. Consequently, there is great interdependence between security and development; without security there cannot be development, and without development there will not be long-term security.
It is very important that we coordinate our civilian and military efforts. I therefore keep a close dialogue with my colleagues in the other ministries on these issues, and we have established a forum at the level of deputy ministers, where all ministries involved in Afghanistan meet.
We have also repeatedly voiced this concern in NATO - that the situation in Afghanistan cannot be solved by military means alone. More and more, the refrain in NATO has been that the international community’s efforts should be “As civilian as possible – as military as necessary”.
So. Is it our soldiers, or even Western civilian organisations that can “fix” Afghanistan?
We cannot impose our own systems and traditions on the Afghans and expect them to succeed. Our task is to help the Afghans so that they can better help themselves – so that they can provide for and ensure their country’s own security, governance and development.
So-called Afghanisation is particularly important in the development of good governance, justice and the rule of law. It is vital to ensure a system the Afghans can relate to, and which has the necessary legitimacy. Good governance and rule of law is especially important to Afghan women, who have suffered the most due to the lack thereof.
On one of my recent trips to Afghanistan, I visited a prison for women.I say “prison”, but there was little to remind me of what we think of as prisons in Norway. First, the conditions were such that it could best be described as a mud pit. One woman I met was not there because of any crime she had been sentenced to by a court of law– she had sought refuge with her child from her husband. Her husband had been missing for 21 years, assumed killed during the civil war. When he returned after 21 years, she had a child by another man. That was her crime.
Setting an example
I would also like to add some words on what our armed forces can do to reach the Afghan women. This is an extremely difficult field to operate in – as I am sure you are aware. As I mentioned above, we need to be aware of the cultural sensitivities and traditions. Our role as armed forces is to create a security space for civilian actors, but in some cases we can also play an active role, by raising awareness about women’s issues in our dealings with the local population, and also by setting an example.
The mantra in this is the UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which stresses the important role of female personnel in international security operations. We do not have enough women in our armed forces. This is a challenge at the top of my agenda as defence minister. I could easily spend the rest of today’s conference elaborating on this, but I’ll try to be brief; The government’s position is that all sectors of society should be equally accessible to both men and women. The armed forces is one of the sectors in society where this lack of equality and lack of equal accessibility is most marked.
I believe that being a woman in itself is a quality and competence that will improve a male dominated military organisation. This is not least the case because of the changing nature of the challenges our armed forces are set to deal with. And one area where this has become particularly urgent is international operations.
In Afghanistan we see how important female personnel are in order to relate to the female part of the population. Our male soldiers cannot build these relations. Even though we have a higher percentage of women in international operations than we do in the armed forces as a whole, we need more qualified women in operations like Afghanistan.
Recruiting more women is of course the only long-term solution, but in the meantime we must look at other options. The Swedish and Norwegian Chiefs of Defence have presented a joint model for how to cooperate on this. Sweden has very positive experience with a female Military Observation Team (MOT) in Afghanistan. But Sweden has not been able to maintain this MOT because of lack of female personnel. The Swedish and Norwegian armed forces are now looking at ways to cooperate both on a practical level, with a possible joint Norwegian-Swedish all-female MOT, and also in terms of cooperation over competence resources.
I am following this closely, and believe it could set an example to other European countries on how to follow up 1325. But what is more important – I believe it can make a real difference on the ground in Afghanistan and for the women in our areas of responsibility.
Let me return to Miriam and Leila, the characters of A Thousand Splendid Suns – I hope that when their stories are read in 20 years time, they will no longer be read as testimonies to the dire situation of Afghan women, but as an illustration of how far Afghan society has moved in the time that has elapsed.
And as much as I enjoyed having such a warm welcome at the school in Meymaneh, I hope that I and future defence ministers who come to visit will experience that the rounds of applause will lessen – Lessen because the opportunities of education will have become more a state of normality and thus taken for granted by Afghan society and Afghan women.
This is not something that our soldiers can achieve, or any other foreign organisation. Our task as a military organisation is to provide the security space that allows the civilian organisations to do their job, so that we jointly enable the Afghans to provide their own security and development.