An exemplary defeat: the Swedish–Finnish provincial reconstruction team experience in Afghanistan
This research project will result in a detailed analysis of the performance of the joint Swedish-Finnish Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in northern Afghanistan between 2006 and 2012. It is also designed to present a case study explaining the broader, systemic failure of the Western intervention that ended in the summer of 2021.
The Swedish-Finnish experience is an exemplary one and as such instructive to an international political, military and scholarly audience now searching for convincing explanations for the unhappy ending of the Western involvement in Afghanistan.
Proud tradition in peacekeeping
A focus on Sweden and Finland is especially enlightening because these countries and their militaries were generally presumed to have been uncommonly well placed to deal with the complex challenges of Afghanistan. They possessed a widely acknowledged, proud tradition in peacekeeping and development assistance which, so it seemed, gave them a special aptitude for effectively operating in an underdeveloped country marred (initially at least) by low-level conflict.
That they did not perform markedly better overall, we argue, is not the result of special, unique failings. Rather, it is indicative of fundamental issues relating to the ways in which war and social conflict are conceptualised and understood in Western countries. This conceptualisation in turn gives rise to highly routinised and inflexible bureaucratic practices which found their match in Afghanistan. The findings suggest the existence of a ‘mean’ towards which Western interventions gravitate and that this mean is not conducive to achieving success in any but a very specific type of conflict - which the Western coalition did not face in Afghanistan and is unlikely to face elsewhere in the foreseeable future.
Focus on strategy
What is further distinctive about this research project and gives it coherence is a focus on strategy. Strategy - or the process of translating political goals into practical steps implementable in the field against a resisting enemy - provides a framework for identifying, ordering and judging the relative significance of the activities that characterized Western, including the Swedish-Finnish, involvement in ISAF. This brings out how their understanding of war and the established bureaucratic-professional approaches to war and conflict in Western democracies, with their clear separation of the political sphere from the military one, no longer seems fit for purpose.
A clear conclusion which emerges is that just as they failed in nation-building and counterinsurgency, they are also likely to struggle and fail in the emerging highly politicised forms of ‘hybrid’ warfare. This suggests that the lessons of Afghanistan have general relevance for the evolving politico-military challenges of our time.
Honig, Jan Willem, and Ilmari Käihkö: Challenges of Command: The Rise of the ‘Strategic Colonel, Leadership in Challenging Situations, edited by Harald Haas, Franz Kernic, and Andrea Plaschke, 89–108. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2012.
Honig, Jan Willem, and Ilmari Käihkö: The Likely Lads: The Joint Swedish-Finnish PRT in Mazar-e Sharif, From Venus to Mars? Provincial Reconstruction Teams and the European Military Experience in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, edited by Bernhard Chiari, 209–20. Freiburg
Department of War Studies and Military History
King's College London
Netherlands Defence Academy
Swedish Defence University
The Swedish Armed Forces