Fiji’s strategic pivot.

datePosted on 15:13, January 27th, 2016 by Pablo

Last week Fiji took delivery of a shipment of Russian weapons that were “donated” by Russia pursuant to a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in February 2015. The Fijians say that the weapons are needed by Fijian peacekeepers in places like the Middle East because what they currently have in their inventory is obsolete. The shipment includes small arms (squad) weapons, two trucks, tear gas, other non-lethal munitions and possibly one or more helicopters. The shipment will formally be unveiled in February in front of a Russian delegation that will include military trainers who will remain in Fiji to instruct Fijian military personnel in their proper usage.

Fijian opposition figures believe that the shipment is illegal because it was not approved by Parliament and that it could be used against domestic opponents of the current, military-backed government. Let me briefly outline the issues.

The shipment is perfectly legal as it is not part of a Treaty that needs parliamentary ratification. Plus, it is a “donation” of military aid so it does not need parliamentary approval.

The opposition is correct to be concerned about the “dual use” potential of the weapons. Squad weapons, tear gas and non-lethal munitions can be used in peacekeeping but can also be used as instruments of crowd control at home. Given the Fijian Military Forces history, that is a very real possibility.

The arms shipment could trigger an arms race with Tonga, which also has a military and is a rival of Fiji. The Tongans are not likely to view the shipment kindly even if it does not specifically include naval equipment. Squad weapons can and are used by navies as a matter of routine, and the introduction of military helicopters into a regional rivalry is bound to cause alarm in the Kingdom.

Although Fijian military inventories may well be obsolete (meaning Vietnam era US weapons), most UN peacekeeping missions are armed by the UN using NATO-standard equipment. That includes small arms and troop carriers used in “blue helmet” operations.  Thus the claim that the Russian arms are needed for peacekeeping is debatable at best.

The MOU with Russia also outlines military educational exchanges. These follow on a similar program with the Chinese military (PLA). The Chinese also have funded and undertaken numerous infrastructure projects such as port dredging and road building that have a parallel “dual use” potential: they can be used for civilian and military purposes alike.

Given the above, it is reasonable to speculate that the Chinese and/or Russians may receive forward basing rights in Fiji in the not to distant future. Under the “Looking North” policy Fiji has clearly pivoted away from its traditional Western patrons (Australia, NZ and the US) and towards others that are less concerned about the status of Fijian democracy (such as it is, and it is not very much). Given these weapons transfers plus bilateral military education and training exercises with China and Russia, the path is cleared for the two countries to use Fiji as a means of projecting (especially maritime) power in the South Pacific. The Chinese are already doing so, with Chinese naval ships doing regular ports of call in Suva. After years of neglect, the Russian Pacific fleet has resumed long-range patrols. So the stage is set for a deepening of military ties with a basing agreement for one or both.

The Chinese and Russians are enjoying some of their best bilateral relations in decades. It is therefore possible that they may be working in coordinated, cooperative or complementary fashion when it comes to their overtures to the Fijians. Both seek tourism opportunities as well as preferential access to fisheries in and around Fijian territorial waters, so their non-military interests converge in that regard, which may limit the regional competition between them.

It is clear that post-election Fiji has moved from a “guarded” democracy in which the military acts as a check on civilian government to a soft authoritarian regime in which the executive branch supersedes and subordinates the legislature and judiciary with military connivance. Instead of going from a “hard” dictatorship to a “hard” democracy, Fiji has moved  from a “hard” dictatorship to a “soft” one (for those who know Spanish and the regime transitions literature, the move was from a “dictadura” to a “dictablanda” rather than to a “democradura”).

Some of this is by constitutional design (since the military bureaucratic regime dictated the current constitution prior to the 2014 elections), while other aspects of the slide back towards dictatorship are de facto rather than de jure (such as the speakers’ order to reduce the amount of days parliament can sit. The speaker is a member of the ruling party yet holds a position that is supposed to be apolitical). Then there are the strict restrictions on press freedom and freedom of political participation to consider. Attacks on the Methodist Church, arrests of civil society activists and claims of coup plotting by expats and local associates contribute to concerns about the state of governmental affairs. Add to that the fact that the first Police Commissioner after the election resigned after military interference in his investigation of police officers implicated in torture, and then was replaced by a military officer (against constitutional guarantees of police and military independence) while the policemen were given military commissions (which insulated them from prosecution thanks to provisions in the 2014 constitution), and one gets the sense that Fiji is now a democracy in name only.

None of this bothers the Russians or the Chinese, both of whom resisted the imposition of sanctions on Fiji after the 2006 coup (to include vetoing UN Security Council resolutions barring Fiji from peacekeeping operations).

All in all, the outlook is two-fold, with one trend a continuation and the other one new. Fiji is once again becoming authoritarian in governance, this time under electoral guise and a facade of constitutionalism. In parallel it has decisively turned away from the West when it comes to its diplomatic and military alignments. This turn is a direct result of the failed sanctions regime imposed on Fiji after the 2006 coup, which was too porous and too shallow to have the impact on Fiji that was hoped for at the time of imposition. The result is a greatly diminished diplomatic influence and leverage on the part of Australia, New Zealand and (to a lesser extent) the US and the rise of China, India and Russia as Fiji’s major diplomatic interlocutors. Factor in Fiji’s disdain for the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and its continued attempt to fashion the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) as a counter to it, and the makings of a regional transitional moment are clear.

The sum result of this is that the strategic balance in the South Pacific is clearly in flux. Given the US “pivot” to Asia and the reassertion of its security ties with Australia and New Zealand, that is bound to result in increased diplomatic tensions and gamesmanship in the Western Pacific in the years to come.

The US has asked New Zealand to provide special operations troops to the anti-Daesh coalition. The government has said that it will consider the request but both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister have qualified the response by stating that they do not think that NZ will increase its contribution beyond the company sized infantry training complement currently deployed at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad.

The Ministers’ caution has more to do with domestic political concerns than the practical or diplomatic necessities of the conflict itself. With a thin majority thanks to Winston Peter’s by-election victory in Northland, National cannot risk parliamentary defeat on the issue. But Opposition leader Andrew Little has signaled that Labour is willing to consider sending SAS troops to the fight, so the ground is clearing for authorization of a new phase of the NZDF mission.

This was predictable from the moment the NZDF first deployed to Iraq last May. It was clear then and it is now that training Iraqi soldiers is not enough to turn the tide against Daesh. The training is good and the troops that graduate have improved professional skills, but according to a report prepared by the US Defense Department immediately before Mr. Key travelled to Taji in October for his meet-and-greet photo op with the troops, they were no better in battle than they were before the training mission began.

The problem lies with the Iraqi Army leadership. Iraqi field rank officers are not included in the training program and are unwilling or unable to demonstrate the type of leadership skills under fire that are required to make best use of the training received by their soldiers from the NZDF and its allies.

That is where special operations troops like the NZSAS are useful. Among many other roles they serve as leadership advisors on the battlefield. Because of their exceptional skills and hardened discipline, SAS teams serve as force multipliers by adding tactical acumen, physical resilience and steadfastness of purpose to the fight. They lead by example.

NZ’s major allies already have special operations troops on the ground in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Although all of the nationally-badged SAS units roam the region, the Australian SAS is heavily involved in Iraq (and is present at Camp Taji). Not only do Australian SAS troops serve as forward spotters for RAAF FA-18s undertaking ground attack missions in Iraq. They have fought alongside Iraqi troops attempting to re-take the city of Ramadi, provincial capital of the Sunni heartland that is Anbar Province (119 kilometers from Camp Taji and 90 kilometres from Baghdad). The Australian role is considered to have been essential in the initial re-occupation of Ramadi, in which NZDF trained Iraqi troops participated. US, UK and Canadian special operators are currently conducting advisory, forward targeting, search and destroy and long-range intelligence missions against Daesh in north and western Iraq in conjunction with Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Russian, Iranian and Turkish special operators are on the ground in Iraq and Syria as well, and the contested spaces in which Western special forces are now actively involved in the Middle East extends to Libya, Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Anglophone special forces are the allies that the NZSAS trains with regularly and works the closest with when on foreign missions. Like its counterparts, NZSAS tend to spend much time in or near overseas conflict zones whether that is publicized or not, usually following the typical military rotation pattern of threes: a third overseas, a third preparing for deployment, and a third on home duty after deployment. It is fair to assume that their attention when overseas has recently been focused on Iraq, Syria and perhaps other conflict zones in the Middle East.

The PM has hinted as much, stating that the NZSAS could be involved in roles other than combat. Since one of its primary missions is long-range patrol and intelligence gathering (rather than active engagement of the enemy), it could well be that the NZSAS is already playing a part in the targeting of Daesh assets.

With around 130 SAS troops in A and B Squadrons (Air, Boat, Mountain), that leaves a minimum of two troops’ or a platoon sized group (30-40 soldiers excluding officers) available for foreign deployment at any given time. Since the NZSAS operates in squads of 3 to 6 men depending on the nature of the mission (4-5 squads per troop), this leaves plenty of room for tactical flexibility, operational decentralization and role diversification.

Reports dating back to early 2015 already put the NZSAS in theater in small numbers, something the government does not deny. They may not be based in Iraq (which gives the government plausible deniability when asked if there are NZSAS troops on the ground in Iraq), but the main focus of their mission certainly is. Given the logistics involved it would be unusual if the NZSAS has not been working behind the scenes for their eventual participation in more active combat roles beyond what it may already be engaged in.

It will be odd if NZ refuses to send its most elite soldiers when asked for them by its major allies in a UN sanctioned multinational military coalition. Troops like the NZSAS need regular combat experience to sharpen and maintain their skills and they cannot do that at home. Since part of their specialness is versatility in a wide range of combat environments, the NZSAS would be keen to test its troops in the mixed urban/desert, conventional and unconventional battlefields of Iraq, Libya and Syria. The kinetic environment in the fight against Daesh is highly complex and multi-faceted so it stands to reason that our elite soldiers would want exposure to it.

Leaving the NZSAS in NZ is akin to leaving a Bugatti in the garage. Much has been invested in their combat readiness. They are trained to fight autonomously and lead others in combat (such as during the anti-terrorist mission in Afghanistan). To keep their specialist skills they need to experience live hostile fire. It would therefore be counterproductive for them to be idling in Papakura when there is a just cause to be fought against real enemies of humanity who commit atrocities and wreak misery on those they subjugate.

Whether one likes it or not, thanks to the Wellington and Washington Agreements NZ is once again a first tier military partner of the US, standing alongside Australia, Canada and the UK in that regard. Most of NZ’s major diplomatic partners are members of the anti-Daesh coalition and some, like Norway and Denmark, have also contributed special operations troops to it. NZ ‘s major trade partners in the Middle East are part of the coalition. As a temporary member of the UN Security Council, NZ has been vocal in its condemnation of Daesh and in calling for a united diplomatic and military response against it. It consequently has no real option but to accede to the request for the NZSAS to join the fight. It may be mission creep but this was mission creep that was foreseeable (and arguably has been planned for and implemented in spite of the government’s obfuscations).

Critics will say that NZ has no dog in this fight, that it is neo-imperialist foreign intervention on behest of corporate interests that only serves to show how subservient governments like National’s are when it comes to pleasing the US. If so, then there are 59 other countries in that category, to which can be added Iran (and its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), Russia and the newly formed (if at this stage only on paper) Sunni Muslim anti-terrorism coalition that includes Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Critics will also point out that NZ is being selective about when and where it chooses to join foreign military adventures, and they would be right in that regard. But given its military resources, NZ pretty much has to be selective every time that it deploys troops, especially in combat roles. So there is nothing new, unusual or unethical in doing so.

Pacifists will say that the conflict with Daesh cannot be resolved by military means. It is true that military force alone is not sufficient to defeat Daesh, but removing it from the territory it occupies in Iraq, Libya and Syria is essential to that project. Not only is Daesh not prone to negotiating with its adversaries or sitting down with those that it disagrees with in order to settle differences. The very nature of its rule is based on coercion and imposition–of its puritanical values, of its medieval authority, of its rape and sex slave culture and of its harsh discriminatory treatment towards all who are not Sunni Arab men (and even the latter are not immune from its violence). Its removal is therefore justified on humanitarian grounds although disputed opinion polls claim that it enjoys some measure of public support in Anbar Province and Mosul. Yet even if the polls are correct–and that is very much questionable given the environment in which they are conducted–the hard fact is that there is no objective measure to gauge whether Daesh enjoys the informed consent of those that it governs, and until it does its reign is illegitimate because rule without majority consent is tyranny. Add to that the innumerable crimes against humanity Daesh has committed and its exportation and exhortation of terrorism across the globe, and the case against the use of force loses foundation.

Re-taking the ground lost to Daesh removes the main areas in which its leadership is located, from which it profits from oil production and where it trains jihadists from all over the world (some of whom return to commit acts of violence in their home countries). That in turn will lessen its appeal to prospective recruits. Thus the first step in rolling back Daesh as a international irregular warfare actor is to win the war of territorial re-occupation in the greater Levant.

The military objective in Iraq is to push Daesh out of Anbar Province and the Nineveh Governorate in which Mosul is located and force it to retreat back into Syria. At that point it can be subjected to a pincer movement in which the European/Arab/Antipodean/North American anti-Daesh coalition presses from the South and East while Russian, Iranian, Turkish and Syrian forces press from the North and West. The endgame will involve four milestones: first the capture of Ramadi, then the re-taking of Falluja, followed by the freeing of Mosul, and finally the seizure of the northern Syrian city of al-Raqqah, the capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

Arab states will need to contribute more to the fight, including ground forces. Resolving the impasse over what to do with Assad is critical to establishing a united front between his military, Russia’s, Iran’s, Turkey and the anti-Daesh coalition. Both requirements are fraught and need to be the subject of delicate negotiations made all the more complicated by the Saudi-Iranian confrontation occasioned by the Saudi execution of a Shiia cleric. But for the negotiations to advance, much less to succeed, there needs to be battlefield gains against Daesh in Iraq that reverse its march towards Baghdad and which break the strategic stalemate currently in place. Once the prospect of victory over Daesh becomes possible, more countries will feel comfortable putting additional resources into the campaign against it.

There is room to be optimistic in that regard. In 2015 Daesh lost approximately 30-40 percent (+/- 5000 square miles) of the territory that it controlled in Iraq and Syria. Most of these losses were to Kurdish Peshmerga forces working in concert with Western special operations units. Significantly aided by its coalition partners and tribal militias, the Iraq Army has re-taken Tikrit (November) and the oil refinery town of Baiji (October) and is in the process of clearing the last pockets of Daesh resistance in Ramadi. Preparations for the re-taking of Falluja are well underway, and the battle for Mosul–Daesh’s biggest conquest in Iraq–is scheduled to begin within months. Key Daesh supply lines between Iraq and Syria are under near-constant aerial attack. In sum, the tide of Deash victories may not have completely turned but it does appear to have ebbed.

John Key does not do anything out of moral or ethical conviction, much less altruism. Instead he relies on polling and self-interest to drive policy. His polling may be telling him that it is getting politically less difficult to sell the NZSAS deployment to domestic audiences. But even if not, he has in the past ignored public opinion when it suits him (e.g. asset sales and the TPPA). With Labour warming to the idea of an NZSAS deployment, his political risk is reduced considerably regardless of public opinion. It is therefore likely that, weasel words notwithstanding, the train has been set in motion for that to occur.

Once the deployment is announced it is likely that the NZ public will support the decision and wish the troops Godspeed and success in fulfilling their mission. But even if the majority do not, the diplomatic and military pressure to contribute more to the war effort against Daesh will be enough to convince the government that it is in NZ’s best interests to agree to the request. In a non-election year and with Labour support it is also a politically safe thing to do.

What is certain is that the mission will be very dangerous for the troops involved. It will raise NZ’s target profile amongst Islamicists and could invite attack at home. But given the position NZ finds itself in, it is a necessary and ultimately justified thing to do for several reasons, not the least of which is upholding NZ’s reputation as an international actor.

A short version of this essay appears in the New Zealand Herald, January 7, 2016 (the comments are quite entertaining).

Year End Summary.

datePosted on 11:16, December 31st, 2015 by Pablo

Kiwipolitico continues to chug along in its niche space in the NZ political blogosphere. We published 41 posts this past year, all but three of which I wrote. Kate guest posted in May (on universal human rights) and Lew wrote posts in July and August (on Labour’s inept pronouncements on race and the Auckland housing market, and tasers). We averaged around 4 posts per month, with April being the high mark (5 posts) and February and November being low points (2 posts).  Our readership continues its gradual decline, slipping to around 3500 views per month. In a sign that readership is indeed content driven, the biggest month for views was February (4900) even though it was a month when only two posts were published. That included the most viewed post (on NZ’s role in the anti-Daesh coalition), which was followed in views by the recently published post on the Police search for Rawshark as part of the sequels to the Dirty Politics saga. The third most viewed post was Lew’s July post on Labour’s clumsy attempt to layer race into the debate about Auckland’s housing market.

Most of what I wrote focused on comparative politics, foreign policy, international relations, intelligence matters and security. I did a couple of “lighter” posts (on Donald Trump and cricket sledging) and  a few on NZ politics (including the post about the NZDF’s defamatory treatment of Jon Stephenson), but in the main it was my usual repertoire of subjects.

Most of our traffic comes directly from search engines and other NZ Left-leaning blogs. Twitter and Facebook also provide significant traffic and were instrumental in sending viewers to the most read posts. Mention of a post by larger blogs such as The Standard or Kiwiblog also sends more viewers than usual our way.

We have a dedicated core of readers and commentators who help inform discussion of selected topics. One area of success has been the significant reduction in the number of trolls even though we have not had to ban anyone this year. The pests from the past have not returned and the new ones–especially the NZ government employee writing from his work computer and feebly trying to cover his IP tracks with common misdirection techniques that are easily overcome with reverse tracking technologies–have come to realise that there is no point in trolling because all they do is get slapped silly. I must admit I do miss “peter quixote”/”lolita’s brother”/Paul Scott, who voluntarily stopped posting his reactionary diatribes for reasons unknown to me.

An ongoing source of concern is the lack of diversity in our contributors and the one man show aspects of the blog. Lew is busy with life balance issues, Kate was and perhaps will be a very occasional visitor, and the last remaining member of the original cadre, Anita, has all but disappeared. I write on KP as an outlet for more ideological toned and personal missives, since my business writing has to be non-partisan, neutral and ideology-free. My hope is that the other members will return to writing more regularly and/or that we pick up another member willing to contribute regularly. That is important because we need to expand the range of subjects we write about and I cannot do that on my own given the limitations of my “expertise” and interests.  Having said that, I will endeavour to do my bit to keep KP rolling as an alternative source of analysis and interpretation of social dynamics, both foreign and domestic.

In any event I would like to wish our readers the best for a productive and happy 2016.  Cheers!

The Impunity Files, Police Edition: Trolling for Rawshark.

datePosted on 08:37, December 15th, 2015 by Pablo

By now it is well known that in their effort to find the source of the information upon which Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics was based, the NZ Police searched and seized computers, phones and personal records from Mr. Hager’s home. They also intimidated Mr. Hager’s daughter (who was home at the time) by forcing her to dress in front of an officer and relinquish her personal computer. In addition, they asked a number of service providers to give them access to Mr. Hager’s personal details without a warrant or production order. Most of the service providers refused or asked for a warrant but at least one, the financial corporation Westpac, gave up eight month’s worth of Mr. Hager’s transaction records without asking the Police for a legal instrument compelling them to do so.

News of this caused a brief furore amongst civil libertarians, privacy advocates, some journalists and a few business people. But as with much that the Police does that is borderline in terms of legality, the issue soon dropped from the public eye. Few if any follow ups have been published and for all intents and purposes the Police have emerged unscathed from yet another episode of operating with impunity and contempt for the law.

I have had opportunity to review Police documentation regarding the case released under Discovery (79 pages in total). Readers are invited to read the full dossier released by the High Court over at Scoop, which also has an interesting newspaper story detailing the genesis of the investigation into Mr. Hager.

Much in the Police documents is redacted but there is plenty to consider nevertheless. In the spirit of public interest journalism (although I am not a journalist by training, inclination or employment), I have decided to add a bit more to the public domain on this case. As it turns out, the Police did more than ask various service providers to give them access to Mr. Hager’s private information, and they got things rolling just before and then accelerated  the investigation very quickly after a complaint was laid about the source of the material from which Dirty Politics was constructed (the infamous or heroic hacker known as Rawshark, depending on how you view things).

On August 22, 2014, amid the sequels to the publication of Dirty Politics and the speculation as to the identity of the hacker who accessed the information from a notorious right-wing blogger that detailed his unsavoury connections to government officials and corporate interests, Rawshark tweeted what most observers saw as a satirical or diversionary tweet saying that s/he was on vacation in Vanuatu. Rather than take it with a grain of salt, and after the blogger formally complained on August 25, 2014, the NZ Police fired up their investigative resources and on September 18, 2014 a detective constable by the name of Rachelle (I shall leave her last name out), who was assigned to the case by a superior named Simon (again, I shall leave his surname out for the moment), telephoned Immigration New Zealand (INZ) for information on all NZ residents and citizens who had traveled to Vanuatu around that time.

I should note that this very same detective Simon was the police officer who made the “enquiry” of Westpac about Mr. Hager’s financial details on September 24, 2014. In the days that followed the Police were able to obtain detailed information on Mr. Hager’s property holdings from Wellington City Council as well as full details of his Westpac bank accounts and credit cards. Although some of this information was available through the Council web site, on at least one occasion detective constable Rachelle was able to obtain information directly from the Council without a warrant or production order (this information is available on pages 25-26  of the Discovery documents that I have read. (KEB Vol 4 Part 1C file pages 1468-69).

One has to wonder what relevance Mr. Hager’s property valuations and rate payments have with regard to the search for Rawshark. If the figures were obtained for a future asset seizure in the event Mr. Hager is found guilty of a crime, we have to remember that he has not been charged, much less convicted of any such thing. A search for aspects of his worth with an eye to future seizure implies a presumption of guilt on the  part of the Police before any charges have been laid against Mr. Hager. To say the least, that is a perversion of natural justice.

During the September 18, 2014 conversation with detective constable Rachelle, a female senior INZ officer replied that it would be difficult to compile a list of all New Zealanders who traveled to Vanuatu during the referenced time period because INZ only had data on those who traveled directly to Vanuatu from NZ and did not hold information on those who may have stopped off elsewhere (such as Fiji) on their way to the holiday destination. She sent the Police an OIA form to fill out (which was completed and returned that day) in order to assist the INZ side of the investigation. A day later, on September 19, 2014, she emailed detective constable Rachelle and wrote that there was nothing more that INZ could do “on their end” and suggested that the Police “might want to try Customs.”

That was a good tip.  Detective constable Rachelle noted then that she would speak to someone at Customs who was working on organised crime to find out the best source for that information. On September 23, 2014, after approaching NZ Customs, the NZ Police received from them spreadsheets containing the names of 2500 NZ citizens or residents who travelled directly from NZ to Vanuatu in the two weeks prior and after August 22, 2014. The spreadsheets were then sent to an officer Nichola (again, no last name needs to be published at this time) “at intel to see what plan we can come with in relation to analysing this information.”

The passenger information was presumably sourced from Air Vanuatu and/or Air New Zealand, who code share the three weekly flights between Auckland and Port Villa. No warrant or production order was issued for the release of this information, and it is unclear as to who and how Air Vanuatu and/or Air New Zealand were approached, or whether they were approached directly at all. This information is detailed on pages 70-71 (KEB Vol 4 Part 1C file pages 1525-26) of the Police documents released under Discovery in the case Mr. Hager has brought against them.

It is unclear whether the Police ever came up with a plan to analyse the personal information of the 2500 NZ citizens and residents that flew to Vanuatu from NZ in the two weeks before and after August 22, 2014. What is clear is that it was done, at a minimum, in violation of the Privacy Act because the data was obtained without a warrant or production order. Moreover, it is not clear what was ultimately done with the information about the 2500 people whose details were obtained by the Police. Was it analysed? Did any of it lead to further inquiries or action? Was it stored? Was it destroyed? Was some records kept and others not? The bottom line is that this information was obtained based upon a “courtesy” request, not a lawful order, and was part of a trolling exercise that began before a complaint was laid and not as a result of specific or precise information related to the Hager investigation. Both procedurally and substantively, obtaining this travel-related data of 2500 NZ citizens and residents was unlawful.

Given that Rawshark appears to be a pretty savvy hacker who knows how to cover his/her tracks, it is arguable that any of the 2500 people whose privacy was violated by Customs and the Police (and perhaps Air Vanuatu and/or Air New Zealand) had anything to do with obtaining the material for Dirty Politics. Beyond the issue of what was done with their personal information, the question is whether they have been told by any of these agencies about their records being accessed. After all, they have nothing to fear if they have nothing to hide, so it would seem natural that the Police and/or the other entities involved in the privacy breach would let the 2500 travellers know that their private records are safe. That is important because these records could well be more than passport details and could include ticket purchase location details, credit card information etc. At this point we do not know the full extent of the Police handling of this private information, but the privacy breach is a pretty big one in any event so the duty to inform those affected is great.

Published information is that the senior officer in charge of the investigation into Rawshark is Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess. It appears that Mr. Burgess was contacted by email by the rightwing blogger on August 19, 2014 and immediately assigned the matter to the National Criminal Investigation Group (see the NZ Herald article on November 14, 2015 by David Fisher). That is odd because at the time no formal complaint had been made–that did not happen until August 25, 2014. In fact, it appears that an investigative plan of action was drawn up before the blogger made his formal complaint, then quickly put into action once he did.

In any case, perhaps Mr. Burgess is a “hand’s off” manager who did not know what those under him were doing, particularly detective Simon. But it would be interesting to see how he feels about the way the information on Vanuatu travellers was accessed given that it appears to have shed no light on Rawshark’s identity and seems to have violated the Privacy Act. In other words, it looks like it was a useless and illegal fishing expedition, which should be a concern for him as the senior office in charge.

I understand the importance of chasing all leads and avenues of inquiry in criminal investigations. I understand the notion of professional courtesy amongst security agencies. I understand the utility of informal agreements between government offices. I understand that institutional cultures may see legal requirement more as a challenge rather than as an obligation. I understand that sometimes investigatory overkill in one case is needed to serve as a deterrent to others who might seek to pursue similar courses of action.

But I also know, from both my academic writing on democratic governance and my professional experience while working in security branches of the US government, that at its institutional core democracy is about self-limitation and the universal rule of law, to which can be added the bureaucratic axion “CYA.” Yet when it comes to the NZ Police in this case and others, it seems that an institutional culture of impunity far outweighs respect for the self-limitations imposed by law when it comes to decision-making on matters of policy and operations.

Perhaps the Privacy Commissioner and other civil rights groups might want to take another look into this case because it is not just Mr. Hager who has had his rights violated by the Police investigation into Rawshark’s identity (in what to my mind is more a case of journalistic intimidation rather than a legitimate investigation into criminal wrong-doing). As much as I would like to believe that the Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) would seize the opportunity to examine the particulars that I have outlined, its track record suggests otherwise.

One thing is certain: there are 2500 people in NZ who got a lot more than they bargained for when they booked direct flights to Vanuatu in the middle of last year.

Threat Distortion as Fear Manipulation.

datePosted on 12:40, December 9th, 2015 by Pablo

The Directors of the GCSB (Acting) and SIS appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security (SCIS) to deliver their respective annual reports. Those reports include national threat assessments. I was not at the meeting but here is what I gleaned from the media coverage of the event:

Did the SIS Director focus on the hundreds of gang members who see violence as a way of life, to include sexual assaults, drug dealing, gun running, property crime and assorted acts of physical mayhem that result in death and injury and whose collective behaviour intimidate and terrorise sectors of the communities in which they inhabit?  Answer: No.

Did the SIS Director mention the dozens of white supremacists with track records of violence against minorities and who openly call for a race war and ethnic cleansing in NZ? Answer: No.

Did the SIS Director address the infiltration of transnational organised crime into NZ and its use of business fronts, corruption, extortion, and intimidation to extend its reach in NZ and beyond? Answer: No.

Did the Director comment on the presence of foreign espionage networks in NZ seeking to obtain sensitive corporate, diplomatic, political and security information. Answer: No.

Instead, according to the media coverage, the Director focused her remarks on the handful of NZ women who are believed to have left the country in order to join Daesh in Syria and Iraq. The Director was not sure if they left to marry or to fight (or both), and wondered about the effect the experience may have on them should they decide to return. That is interesting since few of the foreign women who have left to marry into or fight with Daesh return to their homelands, most being killed in conflict zones or while trying to escape the not-so-paradisical life of a Daesh concubine. The lucky few who have managed to get back to their homelands have not committed any acts of violence after their return.

Perhaps Director Kitteridge wanted to capitalise on the recent mass shooting in the US where one of the perpetrators was a so-called “jihadi bride” in order to focus public attention on the potential threat such women pose to NZ. But the woman in San Bernadino did not surreptitiously travel to a conflict zone, marry a Daesh fighter, then return to her homeland. Instead, she was a citizen of one US ally (Pakistan) and came from another (Saudi Arabia), who appears to have deliberately married a US citizen with the explicit intent of gaining entry to the US in order to carry out acts of politically motivated violence. Similarly, the woman who was an accomplice to the Paris mass murderers had never been to Syria and was unmarried. Neither is in any way comparable to NZ women marrying quickly and heading off to the Middle East.

That these women–again, less than a dozen by the Director’s own admission–chose to do so is certainly a tragedy for their families. It is also a small social problem in that it shows the depth of alienation and desperation of some women in NZ who see life with Daesh as a better alternative to life in Aotearoa. It can be considered to be a mental health issue because, to put it bluntly, one has to be a bit unhinged to think that life under Daesh in the killing grounds of al-Raqqa and elsewhere is an attractive proposition.

One thing is even clearer: it is not a pressing national security issue and should not have been the focus of the Director’s remarks or of the press coverage given to them.

So why so much attention given to the subject? Is this not public fear-manipulation via threat distortion? Was it the Director who was playing this game or was it the media doing so in their coverage of her remarks? Again, I was not there and only saw the coverage, but either way someone IS playing games when it comes to national threat assessments.

There is one more oddity about the mention of NZ “jihadi brides.” Western women who have travelled to join Daesh are known to be more likely than male foreign fighters to try and maintain contact with their families and/or friends back at home. They are known to be more likely than men to use social media applications as well as cell phones to communicate from Daesh-controlled territory (which speaks to the strategic, tactical and technological limitations of Daesh). This makes them a highly exploitable resource for intelligence agencies seeking to establish their locations, track their movements and those of their associates as well as get a sense of life under Daesh.

So why on earth would the Director jeopardize the ability of the SIS and GCSB to do so by publicly outing the fact that these women are being “monitored” as much as possible? This is especially perplexing given that these women are undoubtably included in the 30-40 people that the Director and PM have already said are being watched because of their Daesh sympathies, so there was no compelling reason to provide a gender breakdown of the approximately one in four who are female and who may have decided to travel in order to join Daesh.

A cynic would say that the comments by both Director Kitteridge and Acting GCSB Director Una Jagose were designed to prepare public sentiment for forthcoming security legislation allowing more intrusive powers of surveillance. The PM has now repeated his concerns about the “dark web” and spoken of the problems of decoding encrypted terrorist communications. So perhaps the stage is being set for that.

We must remember that the technologies involved in encryption and decryption, including the temporary “snapshot” encrypted communications that Western security authorities claim that terrorists are now using, all originate from military and intelligence agencies themselves. Thus the cycle of encryption/decryption, much like the previous cycles of code-making and code-breaking, has been well in progress for some time and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. In this cycle it is security agencies who have the lead, not private sector application manufacturers.

In any event, jihadi brides are unlikely to be at the leading edge of this cycle so using them, however obliquely, as the foil for extending communications security legislation is a bridge too far.

The US has a mass murder problem, not a terrorism problem.

datePosted on 15:50, December 6th, 2015 by Pablo

The latest spate of mass murder in the US has again demonstrated the hypocrisy and bigotry of right-wingers on the subject. When the murderers are white Christians such as the Colorado Planned Parenthood assassin or the  Charleston South Carolina church gunman, the Right speaks of them being “unstable” or psychopathic. Yet when Muslims commit acts of mass violence such as that in San Bernadino, it is always considered by the Right to be an act of terrorism.

We need to cut through the BS and see things for what they are: not all mass murders are terroristic in nature. In fact, given the easy access to firearms, mass murder is as American as apple pie and almost as common. In most cases it matters less what drives US perpetrators to murder than it is their unique yet common ability to make a statement by murdering in numbers.

Let’s begin with the definition of “problem.” A problem is something pernicious that is persistent, continual and hard to resolve, counter or ameliorate.

Mass murders can be serial, sequential or simultaneous in nature depending on the perpetrator’s intent and capabilities. Most mass murders are motivated by personal reasons–revenge, alienation, stress, and yes, mental illness. The term “going postal” was coined in the US because of the propensity for workplace conflicts to lead to mass bloodshed. In fewer numbers of mass murder cases the killers express support for or involvement in political or ideological causes, such as the Colorado, San Bernadino and South Carolina events mentioned above.  In a fair number of cases personal and political motivations combine into mass murderous intent. In many cases mentally ill people adopt extremist causes as an interpretation of their plight and justification for their murderous intent. The Sydney cafe siege instigator is a case in point. Whatever the motivation, what all the US killers share is their ability to kill in numbers. Given its frequency, that is a particularly American way of death.

We need to be clear that not all politically motivated killing is terrorism. The murder of US presidents, public officials and political activists of various stripes was and is not terroristic in nature. On the either hand, the murder of blacks and civil rights workers by the Klu Klux Klan was clearly terroristic in nature because it was designed to do much more the physically eliminate the victims. Although they were all politically motivated one can argue that the Charleston killings were not terroristic but the Colorado and San Bernadino murders were. The Boston marathon bombing was terroristic, but was the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh also terroristic in nature or was it just a case of lethal lashing out by a disgruntled loser? What about today’s London tube stabber and the Palestinians who kill Israelis with knives? Are they really terrorists or just lashing out in murderous anger? Could not the same be said for all of the events mentioned here?

Terrorism has a target, subject and object. The target is the immediate victims of an act of politically motivated lethal violence, the subject is the larger body politic, and the object is to influence both the general public and decision makers to bend to the will of the perpetrators. This can be done by getting the latter to desist from doing something (say, joining in a foreign conflict) or by getting them to overreact in order to exacerbate tensions or contradictions within the subject society itself. Not all mass murders extend beyond the target, and even then most are not driven by a desire to shape the will of decision-makers or public at large. If we review the cases mentioned earlier, how many of them properly fall into the category of terrorism?

The currency of terrorism is irrational fear and panic. It has a paralysing or galvanising effect depending on the nature of the subject. But the key to differentiating terrorism is that those who perpetrate it seek to manipulate panic and fear to their advantage. They may not always calculate right and and up losing, but that is their intent.

Taking that criteria, it is clear that the US has a mass murder problem, not a terrorism problem. The answer to that problem lies in effective gun control, to be sure, but also involves backing away from the culture of violence into which US citizens are socialised. That includes reducing the amount of everyday exposure to militarism, jingoism, mindless patriotism and violence glorified in popular culture.

That will be hard to do because violence and the fear that it brings sells, and selling violence and playing on fear makes money for those who know how to manipulate it in order to take advantage of the opportunity. Not only does it sell guns and increases the profits of arms manufacturers big and small. It also sells electronic games, movies, toys (!), television series and any number of other appended industries. It helps further political careers. Violence is exalted, even reified as the preferred method of conflict resolution by a mass media industry fuelled by fear mongering and funded by war-mongerers. There are many vested interests in maintaining a culture of violence in which mass murder thrives. Yet these are not terrorists, by definition.

Rather than confront this thorny issue, the US Right prefer to selectively apply the word “terrorism” to mass murders committed by Muslims whether or not they are inspired or directed by a known irregular warfare group such as Daesh. Daesh knows this and along with al-Qaeda has urged supporters in the US to take advantage of loose gun laws to commit so-called “lone wolf” or small cell attacks on everyday targets. Although it is as much an admission of Daesh and al-Qaeda’s inability to confront established states like the US or France directly, the strategy has the virtue of making the threat of Islamic terrorism in the West seem much bigger than it really is, thereby eliciting the type of response called for by the Right–bans on Muslim immigration, increased surveillance and profiling of Muslims, etc. That serves to increase the alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West, which suits the Daesh narrative about a clash of civilisations to a “T.”

This is not to say that we should disregard the threat of terrorism, Islamic or otherwise. But what it does suggest is that the focus should be on the penchant for mass slaughter in the US regardless of cause. Once that is addressed the real threat of terrorism can be addressed in proper context and without the ideological opportunism that currently drives debates about guns and extremism in the US.

In summary: Mass murders are extraordinarily common in the US when compared to pretty much everywhere else (not just the “developed” world), specifically because US mass murders are carried out by individuals rather than state forces or irregular armed groups or criminal organisations. The overwhelming majority of US mass murders are not motivated by political or ideological beliefs. Of those that are,  few can be properly considered acts of terrorism and should be seen instead as acts of lethal retribution, retaliation, or striking out at society and authority by individuals with personal as well as political grievances.

This does not make them any less dangerous. Yet  it does help clarify the unique US mass murder phenomena in order to more sharply focus the search for preventatives that address root rather than superficial causes as well as strip that search of the normative baggage many pundits, politicians and the general public currently carry into it.

The Daesh Matryoshka doll.

datePosted on 13:06, November 21st, 2015 by Pablo

Much ether and pulp have been expended analysing the Daesh phenomenon and its consequences. The range and acuity of interpretations is broad yet often shallow or incomplete. Since it is a rainy weekend on Auckland’s west coast, I figured that I would alternate playing with the toddler with compiling a brief on the multiple interlocked layers that is the war of Daesh.

I refer to the irregular warfare actor otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL or IS as Deash because the latter is a derogatory term in Arabic and denies the group its claim to legitimacy as a state or caliphate. Plus, Isis is a common Arabic female name so it is insulting to Arab women to use it.

Much like the famed Russian dolls, the conflicts involving Daesh can be seen as a series of embedded pieces or better yet, as a multilevel chess game, with each piece or level interactive with and superimposed on the other. Working from the core outwards, this is what the conflict involving Daesh is about:

First, it is a conflict about the heart and soul of Sunni Islam. Daesh is a Wahabist/Salafist movement that sees Sunni Arab petroligarchies, military nationalist regimes such as those of Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Asaad and Muammar al-Qaddafi, nominally secular regimes like those in Algeria, Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia, and moderate monarchies such as those of Jordan and Morocco as all being degenerate and sold out to Western interests, thereby betraying their faith. The overthrow of these regimes and the prevention of anything moderate (read: non-theocratic) emerging as their political replacement are core objectives for Daesh.

Secondly, Daesh is at the front of a Sunni-Shiia conflict. In significant measure funded by the Arab petroligarchies who opportunistically yet myopically see it as a proxy in the geopolitical competition for regional dominance with Iran and its proxies (such as Hizbollah) and allies (like the Syrian and post-Saddam Iraqi regimes), Daesh has as its second main objective eliminating the Shiia apostates as much as possible. To that can be added removing all ethnic and religious minorities for the Middle East, starting with the Levant. Because Daesh is racist as well as fundamentalist in orientation, it wishes to purge non-Arabs from its domain even if it will use them as cannon fodder in Syria and Iraq and as decentralised autonomous terrorist cells in Europe and elsewhere.

Thirdly, Daesh is engaged in a territorial war of conquest in Iraq and Syria, where it seeks to geographically situate its caliphate. This has allowed it to gain control over important oil processing facilities in Iraq and Syria and use the proceeds from the black-market sale of oil (including to the Assad regime!) to help fund its recruitment and weapons procurement efforts.

Fourth, Daesh is the source of inspiration, encouragement and sometimes training of decentralised, independent and autonomous urban guerrilla cells in Europe and elsewhere that use terrorism as the tactic of choice. The strategy is a variant of Che Guevara’s “foco” theory of guerrilla warfare whereby cadres receive common training in a secure safe haven then return to their home countries in order to exploit their knowledge of the local terrain (cultural, socio-economic, political as well as physical) in order to better carry out terrorist attacks with high symbolic and psychological impact. In this variant Daesh uses social media to great effective to provide ideological guidance and practical instruction to would-be domestic jihadis, thereby obviating the need for all of them to gain combat experience in the Middle East.

Like Lenin and Guevara, Daesh understands that its terrorism will attract the mentally unbalanced and criminally minded seeking a cause to join. Along with disaffected, alienated and angry Muslim youth, these are the new Muslim lumpenproletarians that constitute the recruitment pool for the guerrilla wars it seeks to wage in the Western world. In places like Belgium, France and arguably even Australia, that recruitment pool runs deep.

Fifth, through these activities Daesh hopes to precipitate a clash of civilizations between Muslims and non-Muslims on a global scale.  It sees the current time much as fundamentalist Christians do, as an apocalyptic “end of days” moment. Its strategy is to fight a two-front war to that end, using the territorial war in the Middle East as a base for conventional and unconventional military operations while engaging in irregular war in Europe and elsewhere. The key of their military strategy is to lure Western powers into a broad fight on Muslim lands while getting them to overreact to terrorist attacks on their home soil by scapegoating the Muslim diaspora resident within them.

Daesh may be barbaric but its political and military leadership (made up mostly of Sunni Baathists from Iraq) is not stupid. It has not attacked Israel, knowing full well what the response will be from the Jewish state. In its eyes the confrontation with the Zionists must wait until the pieces of the end game are in place.

A critical component of Daesh’s strategy is the so-called “sucker ploy,” and it is being successful in implementing it. Basically, the sucker ploy is a tactic by which a weaker military actor commits highly symbolic atrocities in order to provoke over-reactions from militarily stronger actors that deepen the alienation from the stronger actor of core prospective constituencies of the weaker actor. That is exactly what has happened in places like the US, where opposition to the acceptance of Syrian refugees has become widespread in conservative political circles. It also is seen in the bans on refugees imposed by the Hungarian and Polish governments, and the clamour to halt refugee flows from conservative-nationalist sectors throughout Europe. We even see it in NZ on rightwing blogs and talkback radio, where the calls are to keep the Syrian refugees out even though no Syrian has ever done politically-motivated harm to a Kiwi (the projected intake is 750).

Sowing disproportionate fear, paranoia and the blind thirst for revenge amongst targeted populations is the bread and butter of the sucker ploy and by all indicators Daesh has done very well in doing so.

There is more to the picture but I shall leave things here and resume my asymmetric campaign versus the toddler.

One final thought. For the anti-Daesh coalition the fight must assume the form of a conventional war of territorial re-conquest in Syria and Iraq, run in parallel with a shadow urban counter-insurgency campaign in the West that is fought irregularly but which is treated judicially as a criminal matter, much like an anti Mafia campaign would be. Eliminating the territorial hold of Daesh in Syria and Iraq will remove their safe haven and training grounds as well as kill many of their fighters and leaders. That will help slow refugee flows and the recruitment of Westerners to the cause and facilitate the domestic counter-insurgency campaigns of Daesh-targeted states. The latter include better human intelligence gathering and intelligence sharing by and among erstwhile allies and adversaries in order to better counter dispersed terrorist plots.

Of course, the long-term solution to Daesh, al-Qaeda and other Islamicist groups is political reform in the Arab world and socio-economic reform in the Western world that respectively treat the root causes of  alienation and resentment within them.  So what is outlined in the previous paragraph is just a short-term solution.

In order for even that to happen, there has to be a tactical alliance between all actors with strategic stakes in the game: Russia, major Western powers, the Sunni Arab states and Turkey, the Syrian and Iraqi regimes, the Kurds, Iran and a host of irregular warfare actors including Hizbollah, the Free Syrian Army and assorted Islamicist groups not beholden to Daesh. It will be a hard coalition to cobble together, but the common threat posed by Daesh could just well force them to temporarily put aside their differences in favour of a workable compromise and military division of labour between them.

Of course, should that all occur and Daesh be defeated, then the old fashioned geopolitical chess game between Russia, the West, the Arabs, Kurds and Iranians can resume in Syria and Iraq. The conditions for that game depend on who emerges strongest from the anti-Daesh struggle.

Somewhere in the Kremlin Vladimir Putin is smiling.

Media Link: The Paris attacks in context.

datePosted on 15:33, November 17th, 2015 by Pablo

I have spent the better part of the last few days doing assorted media interviews about the Paris terrorist attacks.  Some were no more than sound bites, others were a bit more in depth. Here is a radio interview that allowed me to elaborate a bit on the broader picture behind the attacks.

Confronting executive branch excess.

datePosted on 12:16, October 14th, 2015 by Pablo

Recent court victories by Jane Kelsey and Jon Stephenson have vindicated those who have long complained about the culture of excess that permeates the National government’s cabinet. Excess and abuse of authority preceded the current government but this one has taken the practice to art form. It has resulted in allegations of corruption and behaviour such as that outlined in Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics, and it has compromised the integrity of the DPMC, GCSB, NZDF, Ombudsman and SIS in doing so. If it did not openly encourage, at a minimum it facilitated managerial excess in agencies “overseen” by a variety of ministerial portfolios. The combination of ministerial and managerial excess–executive excess, to re-coin the phrase–is malignant in a liberal democracy.

Apparently the courts, or perhaps better said, two High Court judges, have caught on to the problem. Although the reasoning of the judge that forced the Stephenson settlement has not been made public, the judge in the Kelsey versus Groser case made abundantly clear that the “unlawful” behaviour exhibited by Groser and his staff included the Office of the Ombudsman as well as abuse of process. Likewise, the settlement of the Stephenson case involved not only a payment but a retraction and statement of regret by the NZDF as an institution, rather than by the command officer who was the subject of the defamation lawsuit. That suggests that more than one individual and branch of government may have had a hand in slandering Mr. Stephenson. Yet no independent review of their actions has been done.

There are other instances where the independence and integrity of reviewing agencies have come into question. Think of the Police Complaints Authority and the skepticism with which its findings are held. Think of past findings (such as during the Zaoui case) by the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. Think of the way Crown Law has behaved in several high profile politically charged cases. Although adjustments have been made to some oversight agencies like the IGSI and not all oversight agencies are uniformly compromised, there appears to be a necrosis spreading across the system of institutional checks and balances in Aotearoa.

Those who regularly submit Official Information Act (OIA) requests will already know that the process is routinely abused, especially but not exclusively by security services. Delays beyond the mandated time frame for response are common. Censoring of material prior to release is common. So is the Ombudsman’s practice of upholding decisions to withhold or censor material on broadly defined national security grounds. Cynics might say that is a case of one hand washing the other. Others might go further and say that the problem is systemic rather than random and occasional. However skepticism is voiced, there is a sense that when it comes to the Ombudsman and other oversight agencies, they are more about whitewashing than honest scrutiny.

This again raises the issue of politically neutral, independent and transparent oversight. I have written a fair bit on the need for independent oversight of intelligence agencies above and beyond the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security, Commissioner of Warrants and current Select Committee on Intelligence and Security. I have not written about the problems with the Office of the Ombudsman and treatment of OIAs. But it should be clear by now that when it comes to democratic oversight of executive departments and those that lead them, New Zealand is hollow at its core.

Readers may recall that I have written about horizontal and vertical accountability in the democratic state. This academic concept finds real meaning in this case. Beyond the problem of vertical accountability in a country where electoral preferences are the subject of poll-driven media manipulation by government PR agents, elite cronyism is the norm and where civil society organisations are weak in the face of that, there is a serious lack of horizontal accountability in New Zealand. Agencies such as the Ombudsman that are entrusted with overseeing the behaviour of politicians and senior state managers  are seemingly subordinate (or at least submissive) to them. With some notable exceptions, when it comes to executive excess even the courts appear to have become as much instruments as they are arbiters of government policy and behaviour.

The first question that has to be asked is when does ministerial skirting or manipulation of the rules rise to the level of criminal offence? Is the complicity of more than one government entity (say, MFAT and the Ombudsman) in circumventing or obstructing OIA requests a trigger for a criminal investigation?  If not, what is? If so, who prosecutes the offence given current institutional arrangements?

There are a number of reviews and investigations of government agencies already underway. There are Royal Commissions on matters of policy. Private prosecutions are possible. Constitutional experts may know the answer, but I wonder if there also is an overarching investigatory body or process with legal authority that can look into the system of institutional (horizontal)  accountability and oversight mechanisms currently operative in the country. I ask because from where I sit the system looks broken.

Another dog and pony show.

datePosted on 16:37, October 8th, 2015 by Pablo

Prime Minister John Key did a whirlwind trip to Iraq to confer with its Prime Minister and President and visit the NZDF personnel stationed at Camp Taji, 25 kilometres north of Baghdad. The trip was supposedly secret yet he took an entourage of 40, including selected members of major NZ media outlets. He stayed overnight at Camp Taji in between duststorms, fog, and assorted other travel contretemps that lengthened the journey.

The coverage from the invited media was breathless and fawning. It was mostly about the travel delays. It was a mix of reporter’s lament and “hey I am here!”. Save the protocolar press releases, nothing, as in zero, was reported by the NZ media about John Key’s meetings with the Iraqi government, AKA the people that ostensibly have sovereign control over the land in which the NZDF operates at their formal request. That much was announced by the National government four months after NZ agreed to the military terms of its joining the anti-Daesh coalition.

What passed for reportage about the NZDF mission was basically regurgitated NZDF press releases extolling the virtues of the NZDF trainers, the difference that they made and the successes they were having in training Iraqi troops. PM Key was featured at length in audio and video clips talking about his sense of personal responsibility for the troops and his commitment to their cause.

Taking it all in, my gag reflex was forced into overdrive. If I were vulgar I would label those covering the visit as “useful fools.” If I were nasty I would simply call them “tools.”

Whatever morale boosting the visit may have occasioned amongst the NZDF troops, this was a PR exercise/photo op/sound bite exercise of the first and crassest order. Let me explain why.

“Secret” trips by Western political dignitaries to troops in conflict zones usually do not involve a pack of media figures tailing along. That is because real morale boosting is about the troops, not the dignitary’s image back home. Troops like to be appreciated by their political leaders, and that can be done without media fanfare. In fact, most troops prefer the appreciation to be given in private and not in the glare of cameras (and in fact, NZDF personnel other than Defense Chief Tim Keating were not identified in the reportage of the visit). Bringing media along turns the exercise into a circus side show that is more about the dignitary than the troops. And so it was on this occasion.

The media coverage of the trip was not of the “embedded” type. Embedded journalism, which has many problems associated with it, is the practice of placing journalists for extended periods of time in military units. This was no such instance. Instead, it was a government funded junket for a select few media types.

The coverage was boot-lickingly atrocious. Beyond the vapid commentary about dust storms, aborted plane flights and chopper rides, the description of the NZDF focused on the harsh terrain, nasty weather and the need for security. TV viewers were treated to images of Iraqis running around pointing weapons and kicking doors and were told by Iraqi officers via translators that the trainees were determined to fight for their country and fellow citizens. John Key spoke of how awful the place was and how two years was all that he was prepared to keep the NZDF there (the first rotation of NZDF troops is about to leave Taji and be replaced by a new cadre. The composition of future cadres may not necessarily resemble the first one, where 16 trainers are protected by a couple of platoons of infantry along with medical and intelligence personnel).

Although all of the coverage was vacuous, that of a print reporter from Wellington takes the cake for most ignorantly obsequious. Among other gems, she claimed more than once in her reports that the PM as well as herself where outfitted in “full body armour.”  Photos of the visit suggest otherwise, since Key is seen on base in a flak jacket, shirt, pants and a baseball cap. Most of the military personnel around him were dressed in basic uniforms with no armour or helmets, save Iraqi recruits running drills and his personal protection force (30 “non-deployed” SAS soldiers, which is a bit of overkill when it comes to that sort of thing and makes one wonder from where they were sourced since 30 is a significant chunk of the unit). There is even one photo of Key walking along with some guy in a suit.

According to this particular reporter, her “full body armour” consisted of a flak jacket and a helmet. I reckon that she needs to be briefed on what being fully body armoured entails. And the guy in the suit may want to consider his status if everyone but him in the entourage were given helmets and flak jackets.

The entire gaggle of NZ media regurgitated the line that the NZDF was making a difference and the training was a success. This, after a day at the base and, judging from the tone of their reports, never talking independently with anyone on it (the NZ  media were accompanied by “minders” at all times).

We are told that 2000 Iraqis have been trained and returned to the front lines and that the mission has been a success. My question is how do we know what success is in this context?’ The NZDF states that Iraqi troops are trained in six week blocks in groups of battalion size. Assuming that the figure of 2000 is correct, that means that over the 5 months of NZDF training at Taji there have been 3 light battalions of 500 troops trained and sent to the front, with a fourth group soon to graduate before the original NZDF deployment ends.

It is a pretty admirable task for 16 trainers to accomplish. With a ratio of recruits to trainers of approximately 30:1, that is a lot of contact hours for the trainers. Given that ratio, has there been any burnout amongst the trainers given the cultural differences and widely variant notions of military professionalism between them and the recruits? Have any of the original soldiers sent to Camp Taji in May had to leave, and if so, why? If that is the case, what was the contingency plan?

More broadly, what is “success” when it comes to the training mission? Does success mean that all who entered the training completed the course, or that some significant percentage did? Does it mean that there were no green on blue “incidents?” Does it mean that the recruits came in like rabbits and left like Rambos?

Then there is the issue of post-training success. Has it been confirmed that the troops trained by the NZDF did in fact return to the front and achieve battlefield successes? If so, what were they?

I wonder about that because Mr. Key mentioned that the problem of unreliable Iraqi officers still exists (and those are the officers that presumably will lead the NZDF-trained troops into battle, which begs the question why officer training was not part of the mission). He also admitted that the Iraqi Army has not retaken any of the large towns and cities that Daesh has occupied (like Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi), that the NZDF personnel were restricted to the base because of security concerns and that the road between Taji and Baghdad was impassable by land due to the threat of IEDs and/or Daesh attacks. In light of that, what ARE those freshly trained soldiers doing?

One thing is certain: we will never find out from the press junket crowd because none of them appear to have asked questions to that effect or if they did, they chose not to report the answers. Instead, they seem to have taken the NZDF and Iraqi Army’s word at face value.

I will not comment on the debacle of having the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office publish photos of his meeting with Mr. Key in advance of Key’s secret visit to Taji, in contravention of the security protocols imposed by the NZDF and NZ government. As one wag noted, that was not too bad a security breach so long as Daesh only read the NZ Herald (or presumably watched NZ TV or listened to NZ radio).

In any event what is clear is this. With the complicity of major media outlets, Mr. Key has added troop visits to his pandas and flags repertoire of diversions. In saying so I in no way mean to denigrate the work and sacrifice of the NZDF soldiers at Taji or downplay the difficulty of their mission. Nor do I discount the positive impact his visit has on the NZDF personnel deployed, or the diplomatic and symbolic overtones of it. I simply do not think that the visit was about the troops per se. Instead, I think that the trip was a propaganda exercise that was more about burnishing the PM’s image as well as softening up the NZ public for a possible announcement of future changes to the NZDF mission in Iraq (and Syria).

It is a pity that none of those from the press gallery who were invited to join the PM on his meet-and-greet with the troops thought to wade through the fluff in order to cut to the chase of the matter. On the other hand, perhaps that is precisely why they were chosen.

Imagine if Jon Stephenson had been on that trip. I am willing to bet that not only would his reporting have been very different, but it would have set the tone for the entire group to be a little more serious in their scrutiny of the event. Then again, pigs will fly before such a thing ever happens.

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