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Danish lessons learned: The comprehensive/integrated approach after Iraq and Afghanistan

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Danish lessons learned: The comprehensive/integrated approach after Iraq and Afghanistan 

The lessons learned by Denmark in recent conflicts with respect to combining its diplomatic, development and military instruments in an integrated manner have now crystallised into a new strategy paper outlining the main features of a new approach emphasising the importance of conflict prevention and greater respect for humanitarian principles.

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Bandibak Road, Helmand Copyright Danish Defence

In September 2014 Denmark published a new strategy paper outlining its approach to future stabilisation operations (Denmark’s Integrated Stabilisation Engagement in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Areas of the World). The paper is noteworthy in three respects. First, it signals the government’s ambition to continue to play an active role in enhancing international peace and security. Second, it does not constitute a break with the policies pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan. The mixed experiences in these difficult and controversial operations have not induced the government to rethink Danish security policy fundamentally. While there is a new emphasis on conflict prevention, the use of force is not ruled out and future involvement in operations similar to the NATO air campaign in Libya in 2011 is anticipated. Third, the paper retains the comprehensive/integrated approach as the guiding star of Danish stabilisation efforts, but refines it in a way that reflects lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Refinement of the Danish understanding of the comprehensive/integrated approach is important because it aligns Danish policy with the United Nations’ and facilitates future cooperation with the humanitarian organisations that, to some extent, were alienated by the approach adopted by Denmark in Iraq and Afghanistan. The purpose of this article is to spell out why. The first part briefly describes the Danish comprehensive/integrated approach concept as it was originally conceived and the problems it encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second part analyses the actions taken to address these problems in the new stabilisation paper and briefly touches upon the implications for the future.

The Danish comprehensive/integrated approach – take one
The comprehensive approach concept, as it was called then in English, was initially introduced in 2004 as part of the 2005-2009 Defence Agreement in order to improve cooperation between Danish humanitarian organisations and the Danish military, thereby enhancing the effectiveness and visibility of the overall effort. The concept was launched in response to the problems encountered in Iraq where the civil military cooperation (CIMIC) model established in Kosovo proved unworkable.

The Kosovo model was built on the premise that Danish development and humanitarian organisations would cooperate with Danish military units in the Danish area of responsibility. In Iraq this model proved unworkable because the coalition could not establish the level of security required to allow civilian organisations to work without military protection. In an attempt to make up for the lack of civilian reconstruction and development activities, the Danish armed forces therefore established their own reconstruction unit (Rebuilding Unit Denmark = RUD), which in cooperation with civilian advisors seconded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark identified, funded and monitored small, quick impact projects in the Danish area.

The comprehensive approach initiative sought to address this problem by integrating the civilian organisations into the stabilisation activities carried out by the Danish government. At first sight this seemed like a no-brainer as the major Danish humanitarian and development organisations receive most of their funding from the Danish government. But two problems quickly surfaced. One was the inability and unwillingness of humanitarian and development organisations to work under military protection. The humanitarian organisations protested that such cooperation would undermine the humanitarian principles of impartiality, independence and neutrality, which enable them to get access to civilians in need of assistance from all parties to a conflict. The organisations were concerned that cooperation with a part in the conflict would make them targets and prevent them from getting access to civilians in areas controlled by opposing parties. They also pointed out that it was highly problematic from a humanitarian perspective to tie their work to Danish areas of deployment as the needs might be greater elsewhere.
The other problem was the lack of government capacity to fill the civilian gaps created by the absence of the humanitarian organisations. It proved difficult to find qualified civilian advisors willing to work alongside the Danish soldiers serving in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan for an extended period of time. While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark eventually took steps towards addressing the problem by making such service more attractive to its career diplomats, Denmark was never capable of fielding more than a small number of civilian advisors.

Incomplete guidance and support from Copenhagen was a third problem emphasised in lessons learned, reports and evaluations. The preoccupation with tactical integration in the field and service delivery meant that too little attention and priority was given to creating the right mindset and procedures in the relevant ministries at the strategic level in Copenhagen.

Finally, joint inter-ministerial mechanisms and procedures for learning collective lessons also emerged as a weak spot with each institution employing its own separate reporting channels, benchmarking and evaluation systems.

Lessons learned in the new integrated approach to stabilisation
The single most important change in the new stabilisation approach compared to the initial formulation of the comprehensive approach initiative is the abandonment of the ambition to integrate humanitarian organisations in Denmark´s integrated approach to stabilisation. It is emphasised that the approach only seeks to integrate the government’s political, development and military instruments and that it is ‘not immediately compatible with humanitarian assistance in operational terms ... Danish humanitarian assistance rests squarely on humanitarian principles which underline, i.a. that complete neutrality and independence are preconditions for being able to reach all groups in need of help’ (p. 11). This aligns the Danish approach with the United Nations’ which back in 2008 decided that its integrated operations ‘should take full account of recognized humanitarian principles, allow for the protection of humanitarian space and facilitate effective humanitarian coordination with all humanitarian actors’ (UN Secretary-General’s Decision No. 2008/24).

The decision is a sensible one as it did more damage than good to try to force the humanitarian organisations to work under military protection in Iraq and Afghanistan. It not only poisoned the relationship between the humanitarian organisations and the Western states and international organisations operating in the two theatres, thereby undermining the quite positive relations that had been established in the course of the 1990s. But the occupying powers also found it convenient to blame the humanitarian problems on the failure of the humanitarian organisations to show up, even though the Geneva Conventions oblige occupying powers to provide humanitarian relief to civilians in need or to establish the level of security required to allow the humanitarian organisations to operate.

In more benign environments there is no need to demand integration of the humanitarian organisations as the coordination mechanisms and procedures developed during the 1990s in the Balkans worked quite well. The key problem in relation to the humanitarian organisations in high-profile permissive conflict areas is their overwhelming number, and this is better addressed by establishing close institutionalised cooperative relationships with a small number of large organisations that have demonstrated their professional skills in several emergencies in the past, and which are likely to be present in most of the future ones that are relevant to the state donors. This is precisely what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark has done with the major Danish humanitarian organisations represented in its Humanitarian Contact Group since 1995.

Another important change is the steps taken to increase integration among the relevant ministries. This has been achieved through the establishment of a Whole-of-Government Stabilisation Committee comprising the deputy permanent secretaries from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, the Ministry of Defence, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Justice, who meet on a regular basis. The Committee has a Peace and Stability Fund budget of 930 million DKK for 2010-14, and its work is supported by a small secretariat and the establishment of task forces dealing with specific issues when the need arises. But the most important step in terms of creating an ‘integrated’ mindset at the ministerial level has undoubtedly been the practice of formulating inter-ministerial strategy papers. It began with the formulation of the Danish plan for Helmand in 2007. This was the first in what became a whole series of strategy papers and annual plans for Afghanistan. The production of such papers has now become standard practice, and they have been produced on Somalia, the Arctic and Libya and on the challenges posed by fragile states. 

Finally, the strategy paper points to the importance of integrated civil-military training and ongoing knowledge sharing and vows to prioritise lesson learning as well as the monitoring and evalu¬ation of results in Denmark’s stabilisation engagements. Considerable room for progress remains in these key areas. Designing useful civil-military courses, especially for practitioners at the strategic level, and mechanisms that will allow for ongoing and easy knowledge sharing and lesson learning will be key in the continuous efforts to mainstream and improve Denmark’s integrated approach to stabilisation.


Further reading:

  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Justice. (Copenhagen 2013) Denmark’s Integrated Stabilisation Engagement in Fragile and Conflict-Affected Areas of The World.
  • Jakobsen, P. V. (2011) NATO’s Comprehensive Approach after Lisbon: Principal Problem Acknowledged. Solution Elusive.
  • Jakobsen, P. V. (2011) Right Strategy, Wrong Place - Why NATO’s Comprehensive Approach Will Fail in Afghanistan, UNISCI Discussion Papers, No. 22.
  • Jakobsen, P. V. (2008) NATO’s Comprehensive Approach to Crisis Response Operations: A Work in Slow Progress. DIIS.
  • Thruelsen, P. D. et.al. (2009) The Long March: Building an Afghan National Army. RAND Corporation.
  • Thruelsen, P. D. et.al. (2007) Afghanistan: State and Society, Great Power Politics, and the Way Ahead. RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy.
  • Thruelsen, P. D. (2007) Tribal Elders, the Taliban, NATO, and Locally Brokered Peace Deals in Afghanistan. Royal Danish Defence College.
  • Thruelsen, P. D. (2008) Implementing the Comprehensive Approach in Helmand – Within the Context of Counterinsurgency. Royal Danish Defence College.

About the author

Civilian researcher

Peter Viggo Jakobsen

Mail: ifs-12@fak.dk