Finns start reducing Afghanistan force
Rotation brings fewer replacements
The gradual withdrawal of Finnish forces from Afghanistan began on Tuesday. Finnish crisis management soldiers who have completed their stint in Afghanistan have started their home journey from the Finnish and Swedish base at Mazar-i-Sharif, and they are being replaced by a smaller number of personnel. The Finnish force is declining from 195 to 145 soldiers.
The reduction is linked with the ongoing shift in power, in which more responsibility for security in Afghanistan is being transferred from the NATO-led ISAF forces to Afghan soldiers and police. The foreign combat forces are scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2014.
As the Afghans themselves start taking command over their own soldiers, the ISAF forces will increasingly focus on training and supporting the local police and army.
Commander Joni Lindeman of the Finnish crisis management forces spoke to Helsingin Sanomat by telephone from Mazar-i-Sharif, saying that the Finns now arriving in Afghanistan have a slightly higher proportion of personnel focusing on training than the previous group.
There will be even more trainers in the next rotation in March, but Lindeman could not say how many.
"Plans are being made at the Finnish staff at the moment."
Lindeman says that the new Finnish arrivals largely have the same duties as the force that is being withdrawn. This means mainly patrolling in villages near the base in full combat gear together with Afghan soldiers.
The most important goal of visiting the villages is to assure the local people that the Afghan government forces are capable of protecting them.
"We are present in the villages and on the streets, among ordinary people. In this way we establish security in the area", Lindeman explained.
The villagers have a variety of concerns. Unemployment is a problem, and many villages have no schools. Anti-government rebels extort illegal taxes from the villagers.
Lindeman says that the patrols rarely confront the rebels, as they tend to hide from advancing military forces.
The most recent dangerous situation occurred last week when a Finnish-Afghan convoy was on patrol and found a few roadside bombs in an area west of Mazar-i-Sharif.
The area is one of the most difficult in the zone in which the Finns operate. However, the explosives were detected by a mine-clearing vehicle at the head of the convoy.
Not all places are accessible to the heavy vehicles used by the forces. There are mountainous areas and narrow roads in poor condition.
"The local people are capable of moving there with donkeys or motorcycles, or the three-wheeled vehicles that they use", Lindeman says.
Transfers of power have started in nearly all areas in the four provinces where the Finns operate.
Most recently a so-called transition celebration took place in late August in Sar-e Pol province, where the Afghan flag replaced that of Sweden.
Even after the ceremony, the actual transfer process is continuing by degrees. The Afghans are taking responsibility for security, but the international forces will continue to offer support when asked.
Lindeman expects that the autumn and winter in the area will be more peaceful than the summer, as rebel activity tends to decline in colder weather.
"Walking around in snow and freezing weather in beach sandals tends to reduce motivation even among the rebels."
Previously in HS International Edition:
Parliament wants Finland to stay on in Afghanistan (30.2.2012)
Afghan forces to take responsibility for zone now under Finnish supervision (28.10.2011)
Niinistö emphasises importance of supporting Afghanistan (22.5.2012)
Afghan party leader telecommutes from Helsinki (1.8.2012)