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Cablegate: Finnish Commitment to Afghanistan Weathers

VZCZCXYZ0003
OO RUEHWEB

DE RUEHHE #0360/01 2740712
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
O 010712Z OCT 09
FM AMEMBASSY HELSINKI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 5189
INFO RUEHBUL/AMEMBASSY KABUL PRIORITY 0098
RUEHSM/AMEMBASSY STOCKHOLM PRIORITY 8677
RUEHNO/USMISSION USNATO PRIORITY 0977
RUEKJCS/JOINT STAFF WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC PRIORITY
RUEHBS/USEU BRUSSELS PRIORITY
RUCJACC/USCINCCENT MACDILL AFB FL PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L HELSINKI 000360

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 09/29/2019
TAGS: AF FI MOPS PGOV PREL
SUBJECT: FINNISH COMMITMENT TO AFGHANISTAN WEATHERS
FIREFIGHTS IN MAZAR-E-SHARIF AND SNIPING IN HELSINKI

Classified By: Ambassador Bruce J. Oreck For Reasons 1.4B and D

1. (C) SUMMARY: The GOF has been a partner in Afghanistan
with boots on the ground since 2002, and its political
leaders, with few exceptions, continue to demonstrate their
commitment to the mission both publicly and privately.
However, having suffered only one fatality so far, Finland's
political consensus has not yet been seriously tested. A
series of firefights involving Finnish ISAF troops deployed
in Mazar-e-Sharif starting in July and peaking in late August
caused some debate as some commentators, some members of
parliament, and a retired general have argued that Finland is
now at war rather than taking part in a peacekeeping mission.
The government and President responded by denying that they
have led the nation to war and affirming its commitment of
troops and civilian personnel to Afghanistan. Minister
Vayrynen was the sole dissenting voice in government, though
he urged only the withdrawal of Finnish soldiers, not
civilian personnel. The disturbing reports of fraud in
Afghanistan's presidential election and continuing concerns
over corruption and human rights there present an unfavorable
backdrop as parliament holds an open debate on Afghanistan on
October 1. That said, post assesses that the GOF would
entertain requests for more contributions to Afghanistan that
did not involve additional military boots on the ground. END
SUMMARY.

------------------------------------------
LESS PEACE, MORE FIGHTING FOR FINNS
------------------------------------------

2. (SBU) In July and August, media in Finland reported on the
increasingly difficult security environment around
Mazar-e-Sharif, the base of operations for Finnish ISAF
forces (always referred to here as "peacekeepers") which are
co-located with the Swedish-led PRT. According to the media,
Finnish patrols were exchanging fire with insurgents up to
several times a week, a marked increase which might have been
related to more energetic ISAF activity in the run-up to the
presidential poll as well as a more active Taliban presence
in the north. Some of the attacks also involved IEDs.
Neither the Swedes nor the Finns suffered casualties in these
engagements though they reported killing or wounding several
unidentified attackers. The Finnish ISAF commander indicated
publicly that he didn't believe that the attacks would stop
his troops from continuing their patrols. Recruiting of
volunteers to deploy has also apparently continued without
missing a beat. A survey conducted by the Finnish Officers'
Union concluded that troops heading to Afghanistan were doing
so with high morale, though concerns were raised about the
sufficiency of benefits.

---------------------
WAR BY ANY OTHER NAME
---------------------

3. (SBU) Some voices in the Finnish media and commentariat
reacted to the increasing violence in Mazar-e-Sharif, and
Afghanistan in general, by questioning whether Finland might
actually be involved in a war rather than the peacekeeping
and reconstruction mission which they originally signed onto
in 2002. In late July a commentator in the weekly Suomen
Kuvalehti argued that it was "tragicomic that the usage of
the term war has not been discussed in Finland any sooner . .
. Apparently Finland's political leaders need a few body bags
before they're willing to face the facts." One of the
sharpest critiques was penned by Finnish Institute of
International Affairs researcher Charly Salonius-Pasternak,
who wrote in Helsingin Sanomat in late July that "(T)hough
Finnish soldiers don't participate in offensive operations,
from the viewpoint of the opponent and international law they
are clearly a party to the conflict."

4. (SBU) A retired commander of the Finnish Defense Forces
(1994-2001), General Gustav Hagglund, bluntly asked in the
pages of the daily Aamulehti in mid-September "what does it
matter to us if the Taliban are in charge (in Afghanistan) or
not?". He continued: "We don't belong in battles in which
you have to attack and kill people. . . . To the Americans
the war on terror is motivation to be there, but I don't
understand what we Europeans are doing there." Notably,
though, even General Hagglund did not call for a unilateral
withdrawal of Finnish troops, instead urging that Finland
work towards a general withdrawal of all international
forces. Hagglund's comments drew both support and ridicule,

some of which reminded Finns just what kind of regime the
Taliban were when they were in power.

5. (SBU) Foreign Minister Stubb and Defense Minister Hakamies
forcefully denied claims that Finland was at war, reinforcing
the government's line that Finland was participating in a UN
operation, though an especially tough one. In a mid-August
interview on Finnish public broadcaster YLE, Stubb described
the mission in Afghanistan "as one of difficult crisis
management work, in which Finnish soldiers are working to
return peace and stability to Afghanistan working under a UN
mandate." Hakamies defensively shot back at critics that "a
statement that Finland is at war and that decision-makers are
unaware of it is baseless."

----------------------------------------
MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT JOIN PUBLIC DEBATE
----------------------------------------

6. (SBU) Some members of parliament joined the sniping at the
government's line during the August spike in violence. At
the extreme end, Left Alliance MP Jaakko Laakso, a member of
the Defense Committee, compared Finnish help to the U.S. to
its efforts to please the Nazis during World War II. Social
Democratic (SDP) MP Eero Heinaluoma from the Foreign Affairs
Committee called for a political solution, including
negotiations with moderate Taliban, rather than relying on
military means. However, the debate has not broken down
strictly along party lines. SDP leader Jutta Urpilainen
voiced support for Finland's participation in ISAF, "which
has a UN mandate and is supported by the international
community."

7. (C) Even governing coalition MPs sounded more circumspect.
Center Party MP Markku Laukkanen, vice-chair of the Foreign
Affairs Committee and leader of the Finnish-American Caucus,
declared the ISAF operation to be in crisis and called for
post-Afghan election consultations among ISAF contributors to
find an exit strategy. However, in a private meeting with
the Ambassador, he confidently stated that Finnish troops
would remain and that Finland would be prepared to provide
even more help, though preferably in civilian form. Center
Party MP Juha Koreaoja, chair of the Defense Committee,
emphasized Finland's tradition of taking on international
responsibility and declared that it would never be the first
to withdraw from a crisis situation, but he also made clear
that Finland's election surge of about 100 extra troops
should return home when the election was concluded and that
any extra effort should take the form of civilian assistance.

8. (SBU) President Halonen and Prime Minister Vanhanen, not
always of the same viewpoint on policy issues, have also
publicly closed ranks behind Finland's commitment in
Afghanistan. Halonen publicly rejected the idea of reducing
the number of Finnish peacekeepers and the idea that Finland
was in a war, while Vanhanen emphasized that the government
had weighed the risks before sending troops: "There is a
possibility of the situation worsening before the election.
That is exactly why more troops were needed."

9. (SBU) The sole exception from within the government has
been Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Vayrynen, who
publicly called for the withdrawal of Finnish troops,
although even he called for Finland to maintain its civilian
development assistance in Afghanistan. Former President and
Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari cut through the war of words
about whether Finland was at war, clearly pointing out the
necessity of staying the course: "Afghanistan faces a
situation where much of the country is ruled by groups that
use terrorism as a weapon, fund their operations with the
drug trade and favor widespread crime." He also reminded
Finns that the world is watching them especially closely as
they seek a rotating seat on the UN Security Council in 2013.

10. (SBU) Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committees
will debate Afghanistan policy later this month, and there
will be a rare open plenary session on Afghanistan October
1. The last open debate on foreign policy was over a year
ago following the Russian attack on Georgia. There is no
decision regarding Afghanistan before the Parliament, but the
debate will be an indicator of how strong the government
backbenchers support Finland's current commitments.

-------
COMMENT

-------

11. (C) A strategy for Afghanistan that shows a path leading
to Afghanis taking responsibility for their own security is
what Finnish leaders would most like to see after seven years
with Finnish troops and civilians deployed there. We assess
that the Finnish government is strongly committed to staying
the course in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future,
although it would be politically difficult to deploy
additional troops or for the current election surge force to
remain after the election. However, requests for additional
forms of civilian support (for example, more police trainers)
or more military assistance that does not involve more
Finnish boots on the ground (such as training for OMLTs as
well as Afghan personnel in Finland, projects which are
already ongoing or planned) would certainly be considered.
Such requests will be more palatable to them if they can be
framed as part of a transition to the Afghan government
taking more responsibility and as part of a team effort in
which other European partners are also contributing more.
ORECK

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