COMMENTARY: Send condoms, not rifles, to Afghanistan
By Juhana Rossi
"Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we've all been there", is how author and journalist Michael Herr concluded his classical description of the Vietnam War in his book Dispatches from 1977.
In a similar manner, three words have dominated Finnish security policy debate in July: Afghanistan, Afghanistan, Afghanistan.
Here is a brief summary of the content of the debate: Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva and Defence Minister Jyri Häkämies want Finland to strengthen its presence - either military, or that which is linked with civilian crisis management - in Afghanistan.
Both ministers are members of the National Coalition Party, and the statements of both of them have clearly emphasised military aspects.
Finland is not a great power like the United States, and Finland would not even be capable of a commitment of more than ten years to a war being fought overseas.
In this respect it is wrong to compare Finland's Afghanistan operation to the Vietnam War.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric of Kanerva and Häkämies is reminiscent of the Vietnam conflict. For instance, Kanerva has spoken of Finland's military traditions, and of running away.
American politicians, from the President on down subscribed to this kind of thinking during the Vietnam War.
They spoke even though they should have known better, because US security policy experts had said from the very beginning on the basis of their analyses that the United States should have given up and left Vietnam.
If Finland were to pull out of Afghanistan, it would not be an act of giving up. Finland has many good reasons to reduce rather than to expand its presence in Afghanistan.
The first and most important reason is linked with Finland's national defence.
Finland's Defence Forces are not the same kind of military force as those of the United States or Britain. The Finnish Defence Forces are a training organisation, in which a small group of professional soldiers train conscripts in case Finland needed to be defended militarily.
The resources provided by public funds allocated to this are meagre, and they should not be used for purposes with relatively little benefit for Finland.
To put it simply, the main task of a Finnish cadre officer is to practice leading an army corps or brigade in a war, and not to push papers in the staff headquarters of some multinational force in a foreign country.
Finland also has a so-called good reputation around the world. Although Finland is in Afghanistan for legitimate reasons, the mission could damage this reputation.
War is rough; it is hell, as one of the best American generals, William Tecumseh Sherman (1820–1891) said.
Like any other soldier, a Finn is capable of shooting a prisoner of war, or raping a civilian.
In a theatre of operations like Afghanistan, the likelihood of such an event is greater than in a traditional peacekeeping operation.
If this were to happen, the sad news would be remembered around the world for a long time.
A different kind of hypothesis: what if a Finnish patrol were to stop a car in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden in it? Would Finland hand bin Laden over to the Americans, incur the hatred of militant Muslims, and thus increase the likelihood of a terror attack in Finland?
We are in Afghanistan and that cannot be changed. However, it is in Finland's interest to reduce rather than increase the military presence there.
If and when Finland wants to help Afghanistan, civilian crisis management and development cooperation are the right way for a small country like Finland to assist others.
It may sound cynical, but often the best way to help a damaged state is to leave it to its own devices, and not to interfere in its internal affairs.
This does not mean that Finland should completely stop all aid.
Market-driven economic cooperation, support for education and family planning, and the improvement of the position of women and girls come to mind first. This is also the case in Afghanistan.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 28.7.2007
Previously in HS International Edition:
Two Finnish peacekeepers to go on trial for taking bribes in Afghanistan (29.5.2007)
Taleban claims responsibility for explosion that killed Finnish peacekeeper (25.5.2007)
Finnish peacekeeper killed in Afghanistan (23.5.2007)
JUHANA ROSSI / Helsingin Sanomat