From Bosnia to Iraq: The history of Activist foreign policy

Since the end of the Cold War, Denmark has remained active on the world stage and contributed to seven international conflicts across the globe

With the end of the Cold War and the downfall of the Soviet Union, Denmark’s military focus changed from protecting the nation’s borders to international operations. Since then the country has deployed around 30,000 servicemen to seven overseas missions across the globe – a sizeable number considering that Forsvaret, the Danish Military, has a total capacity of 24,509 active service members.

Most of those early missions were carried out as a part of a UN peacekeeping force, but following frustration with the organisation’s perceived inability in dealing with crisis zones, the focus shifted towards increased unilateral actions, carried out in tandem with allied nations lead by the United States.

The UN era
The first post-Cold War mission Denmark was involved with was the 1990 Desert Storm operation, aimed at driving Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. Denmark contributed with a single warship, the HDMS Olfert Fischer, which assisted in maintaining the UN imposed trade embargo on Iraq.

Although the contribution was very limited, it was a watershed moment in the country’s involvement in international affairs, as it was the first time since the colonial era that Denmark had deployed warships outside Europe. Internally this also lead to the formation of the International Brigade, which until it was disbanded in 2009, had a force of up to 5000 men, who carried out operations around the world.

Two years after the Gulf War Danish troops joined a UN peacekeeping mission during the Bosnian War. This time the country contributed with ground troops, armoured vehicles and fighter planes. During the conflict six Danish soldiers and three humanitarian aid workers lost their lives.

In 1999 the army returned to the Balkans to take part in the Kosovo War, with planes taking part in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavian targets, and ground troop participating in the peace keeping force following the end of the conflict, where they remain to this day.

Team 17 in Afghanistan. Photo: Per B. Jørgensen

Team 17 in Afghanistan. Photo: Per B. Jørgensen

The War on Terror
These operations were, however, very diminutive when compared to the country’s involvement in the post-911 War on Terror. In January 2002 the first Danish troops arrived in Afghanistan and, shortly after, parliament voted unanimously to take an active part in the US-led coalition. Just two months after the vote the first Danish soldiers died in the country, when, during a disarming operation, an antiquated missile exploded, killing three members of a combat engineer detachment.

At the beginning of the Taliban insurgency the following year, parliament decided to increase the effort in Afghanistan and prolong its stay in the country. This time around, nine MPs from left wing Enhedslisten and SF voted against the resolution. In the following years parliament decided four more times to increase the war effort and extend the time Danish troops would remain in the country.

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The most important of these was the 2006 decision to send combat troops to the Helmand province, which meant that for the first time since the Second World War the country had troops actively engaged in fighting. The last of those left earlier this year, finally putting an end to a 12 year long military involvement in Afghanistan, which cost 43 Danish soldiers their lives.

The final six member of the Danish military in Baghdad before returning to Denmark in 2011 (Photo: HOK)

The final six member of the Danish military in Baghdad before returning to Denmark in 2011 (Photo: HOK)

The Iraq War marked another major turning point for the country’s foreign policy, and brought an end to a political consensus that had existed since the early nineties. For the first time in modern history Danish soldiers took part in an invasion of another country, a stark contrast to the multilateral peacekeeping mantra of the previous decade.

Involvement in the conflict was from the beginning controversial, and while the government led by Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen lobbied aggressively for the use of force, the parliamentary minority remained averse to this drastic change in policy, which disregarded the UN and the Security Council. In March 2003 the resolution for sending troops to join the US-lead invasion was passed with the narrowest of majorities and in July that year the first military battalion arrived in Iraq.

Danish troops remained in the country until 2007, when parliament decided to pull out of the conflict, which had remained controversial and hotly debated throughout. Eight Danish soldiers lost their lives during that time, with dozens more injured.

Former NATO secretary general and Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen

Former NATO secretary general and Danish PM Anders Fogh Rasmussen

No boots on the ground
The unpopularity of the Iraq War created an aversion both among the public and politicians to commit ground troops to conflict areas across the globe. Pictures and news of young men dying in wars – which had no direct impact on the country – had been hard to take for the public, and when news broke that the weapons of mass destruction, the main reason behind the war, had never existed, opposition grew fiercer.

Furthermore, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who had been key to forming this new militarist direction, had left the government to become the 12th Secretary General of NATO. However, Danish military jets, and support personnel were deployed in the strategic airstrikes on Libyan targets, with all parties voting in favour of the resolution.

This marked the beginning of a new consensus, which was formed around the idea that Denmark should remain active on the world stage, without the risk of getting dragged into another long, persistent conflict. Like its ally the US, from the Libyan operation onwards, parliament has followed the line of limited, tactical response from the air.

This new approach both harks back to the more limited response of the nineties, while continuing the unilateralism of the Iraq War years, as even before the US had decided on a course of action in Syria, defence minister Nicolai Wammen had expressed willingness to commit planes and support personnel to the fight against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Following the strategy that causalities, while still showing force, parliament has now approved to send F-16s, cargo planes and supplies to support Kurdish and Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State in the Middle East, once again showcasing Denmark’s willingness to carry on as one the US’ most active and eager allies. M

Features, News

By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson elias@murmur.dk

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