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A fraught inquiry.

datePosted on 16:21, June 20th, 2019 by Pablo

The inquiry into whether the SAS acted illegally during a nighttime raid on a suspected insurgent’s hideout in Afghanistan in 2010 (code named Operation Burnham), which resulted in six civilian deaths and serious wounds to 15 others, is slowly coming apart. This is unfortunate because the NZDF, which has allocated NZ $8 million to its representation at the inquiry, looks likely to be let off the hook even though the inquiry has revealed a pattern of lying, deception and cover up on its part. The issue transcends the actions of the SAS and allied forces on the ground and moves into the behaviour of the NZDF chain of command in Afghanistan and NZ after the first reports of civilian casualties came to light. Unfortunately, it now seems that will be whitewashed into oblivion.

So far the Inquiry (chaired by Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Terence Arnold) has revealed that contrary to NZDF statements, civilians were known to be killed from the beginning and that at least some of them were “MAMs” (military aged males) who were unarmed. It also revealed that, again contrary to earlier NZDF reports, a US AC-130 gunship was involved in the operation and hit targets as they fled the villages in which the operation was conducted. Some of these may have been women and children, although the NZDF changed the identification of civilians to possible “INS” (insurgents) once the raid became a matter of public attention. The after-action reports demonstrate that little difference was given to suspected INS and MAMs when calling in air strikes, and that the AC-130, which is a rather blunt instrument when used on people out on open terrain, was the primary instrument of death. Only one person was killed by an SAS trooper, that being a hapless unarmed shepard who stumbled towards a SAS sniper position providing cover from a ridge line above the villages.

The NZDF’s (unnecessary, in my opinion) deception and cover up will largely remain lost because of two things: there secrecy in which the Inquiry has been shrouded; and the tactics of some of those who brought the matter to public attention. Let me explain.

The Inquiry was set up as a result of the allegations in a 2017 book by Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager titled “Hit and Run.” The book followed a series of magazine stories by Mr. Stephenson about the SAS in Afghanistan and the Operation Burnham raid. Mr. Stephenson did almost all of the field research and original writing that went into the book, with Mr Hager joining later in order to add weight to the venture and bring it to quick publication in an election year. Although Mr. Hager got first author treatment on the cover page and in the media, the truth is that Mr. Stephenson was responsible for the majority of what was written in it.

As can be expected given their different roles in the project, the authors differed on some key issues, including the use of non-military maps to illustrate the location of the targeted villages and the tone of some of the language used to describe the SAS’s actions (which have been described by some as “war crimes” committed in revenge for the death of a NZDF soldier weeks earlier). One bone of contention was whether in fact any Taliban associated with the deadly attack on the NZDF land convoy were present in the village of Naik. That matters because the NZDF said that there were and that justified the raid. As it turns out, Mr. Stephenson subsequently reported that indeed, two Taliban commanders–the objectives of the “kill or capture” SAS-led mission–were present in the village but left before the raid commenced. However, the book claim is that no insurgents were present, apparently because none were found by the SAS in the targeted villages and Mr. Stephenson had not yet been able to secure interviews with the escaped Taliban commanders before the dateline for publication. The discrepancy does not invalidate the many other claims in the book but points to differences in journalistic approach between the two Hit and Run authors–differences that, along with other errors in the book (such as location errors on the maps used in the book), the NZDF and its supporters have been quick to seize upon.

The book came out, a furore ensued, the NZDF pretty much denied everything, then slowly began to correct its narrative and admit to much of what was written, and an Inquiry was eventually launched once the Labour-led government was installed (the previous National government refused to launch an inquiry and accepted the NZDF version of events).

The scope of the Inquiry was initially narrowly construed: determine what happened and whether the SAS and its Afghan and US partners contravened the laws of war. This is what led to the near-blanket extension of secrecy to the evidence and testimony given before it, as multiple agencies such as the GCSB and SIS had some involvement in the affair, SAS personnel are normally given anonymity during official investigations, and sources, methods, tactics and the names of individuals could be compromised if transparency was faithfully observed. This has led to disappointment in some quarters and increased tension between the Inquiry leaders and the accusers over the lack of transparency.

The bottom line is that whatever the legitimacy for the rationale behind keeping much of the Inquiry secret, its primary focus was always about the how Operation Burnham unfolded as a combat event. Questions about NZDF post-event misrepresentation could only be addressed once the facts on the ground were established.

I am ignorant of the exact timing of their entrance (perhaps even from the onset), but at some point the much celebrated team of Deborah Manning, Rodney Harrison QC and Richard McCleod (of Ahmed Zaoui fame) were invited to represent the victims of the raid in the Inquiry. It was at that point that things began to fall apart. The reason is that adding the villager’s perspective into the mix at the same time as responsibility was being determined muddled the Inquiry by stretching its terms of reference. Again, the original scope of the Inquiry was to determine what happened, whether illegal acts were committed and to attribute responsibility if so. Once that was established then the issue of reparations, compensation and other forms of victim redress could be discussed because it would be clearly established how they were victimised.

This is an important distinction. It is appropriate for the villagers to testify as witnesses. It is another thing to have them testify as victims. The former seeks to uncover other points of view on what was a chaotic nighttime operation. The latter presupposes culpability and concentrates on the matter of redress. Yet, judging from the legal team’s statements, it is this second matter that appears to be the focus of the villager’s representation in the Inquiry.

Under such conditions allowing villager legal representation to sit alongside the book authors who made the claims against the NZDF in the first instance is akin to putting the cart before the horse. To phrase it in political science terms, it is a case of methodological inversion because the focus on the villagers-as-victims selects on the dependent variable (the situation after the raid) rather than on the independent and intervening variables leading to the outcome (the reasons for and conduct of the raid). Put even another way: Yes, we know that innocent people died and were wounded in the raid and that the NZDF attempted to cover it up. But the question is whether they were killed unlawfully, and if so, by who, exactly? It is only when those questions are answered that discussion of what to do by way of redress can begin.

Unhappy with the proceedings, the villager’s legal team has quit the Inquiry (there is much talk about the villagers being disillusioned with the Inquiry but one has to wonder how much agency did they have and how conversant with the proceedings were they given the fact that they are largely illiterate peasants living in remote valleys 14,000 kilometres away from where the Inquiry is being conducted). Now Mr. Stephenson has publicly revealed that, based on interviews with them, two Taliban commanders were in Naik after all. That is problematic because it contradicts the villager’s original testimony as claimed in the book (which stated that no Taliban were present in the villages before the raid) and Mr. Hager’s supporting remarks to the Inquiry (which Mr. Stepehnson apparently contradicted in his testimony to the Inquiry months ago, where he left open the possibility that Taliban were present in the village before the raid but which he did not confirm publicly until recently). This still leaves a lot yet to be determined but certainly gives the impression that all is not well on the accuser’s side of the table.

I believe that the thrust of the book is correct even if mistakes were made on details and the language in it is a bit strong at times. Although controversial, Mr. Hager’s previous writing on matters of NZ security and intelligence have largely been proven correct. I have a ton of respect for Ms. Manning and Mr. Stephenson in particular, both of whom I know socially. I also believe that the SAS are very professional and are not prone to killing people for the sport of it. What I do not have much regard for is military superiors using secrecy and public relations to spin stories that evade the truth and which serve to shirk responsibility when things go wrong.

Alas, the NZDF brass may prevail in this instance. Most of those in leadership positions at the time Operation Burnham was conducted have moved on to other pastures and would not face punitive sanctions in any event. A few middle ranking soldiers might be called to account but it is doubtful that anything career threatening will happen to them. The soldiers who conducted the raid are very unlikely to be found to have committed illegal acts given the fog of war in difficult circumstances (I say this having read a number of the after-action summaries provided to the Inquiry).

Perhaps I am wrong and the Inquiry will find that the NZDF falsified documents and mislead the civilian leadership of the moment as to what actually occurred that night (one should recall then Defense Minister Wayne Mapp’s statements immediately following the raid versus later, once the book was published and he was revealed as a source for it). In that case perhaps some heads will roll. But I find that prospect unlikely.

What I do find likely is that, undermined by competing agendas amongst the principles involved in confronting the NZDF and shrouded by the mantle of secrecy afforded to it by the Inquiry, the military will pay no price even in the event that mistakes were made and innocents hurt as a result of them. I hope to be proven wrong and stand to be corrected if any of the above analysis is faulty, but at this juncture I think that in more ways than one the NZDF may well have dodged a bullet.

Media Link: The March 15 aftermath.

datePosted on 17:03, June 7th, 2019 by Pablo

I was interviewed as part of an Al Jazeera documentary on the aftermath of the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The program is well worth watching because it addresses subjects that most of the NZ media do not want to wrestle with.

You can find it here.

Hamstrung from the start?

datePosted on 09:47, May 30th, 2019 by Pablo

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terrorist attacks has begun its work. This represents an extraordinary moment in which to examine the mechanics of the event, i.e., how it was planned and prepared, who may have been involved beyond the perpetrator, the timeline that led him to the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Islamic Centre on that fateful afternoon on the Ides of March, and who dropped the ball when it came to preventing the attacks.

The inquiry represents an opportunity to uncover the systemic, institutional and individual errors that together combined to produce a catastrophic intelligence failure on the part of New Zealand’s security authorities—not just the Police but the dedicated agencies that together make up the larger New Zealand domestic security community. These include the SIS and GCSB as lead intelligence agencies but also intelligence “shops” in places like Customs and Immigration, all of whom failed to see or ignored warning signs in the accused’s movements in and out of the country during the last five years and who may have been organizationally blind to or dismissive of the threat that he represented to New Zealand society.

The inquiry is needed because the Christchurch terrorist attacks represent the worst act of ideologically-motivated non-state violence in New Zealand’s history. March 15 was not a normal day in Aotearoa and it should not serve as a baseline for a “new normal” in the country. A fully transparent and in-depth investigation into the acts of commission and omission that contributed to its terrible success should be of utmost priority.

The two commissioners, Sir William Young and Jacqui Caine, a former High Court Justice and diplomat, respectively, have seven months in which to conduct the investigation and return their findings. These will include the details of what they uncover as well as recommendations for remedies and future action. Their terms of reference include provisions for consultation with the NZ Muslim community and others who have a civil society stakeholder’s interest in the inquiry. The scope of the inquiry is broad, and includes examination of all potential contributors to the chain of events leading up to March 15.

However, there are causes for concern that suggest that the Commission’s work might be hamstrung from the beginning

First, there is the short time frame. Seven months is an inadequate period in which to conduct a thorough investigation into all of the contributing factors. That is complicated by the accused terrorist’s trial being held concurrently with the inquiry, with the Crown’s case overlapping with and mirroring the work of the Commission. Rather than separating the inquiry’s two investigative streams—one focused on the killer’s actions prior to the attacks using evidence from the trial and the other focused on broader factors that contributed to the successful execution of the attack—the inquiry will have to do both simultaneously while the trial runs in parallel (and perhaps beyond the December 10 deadline for the Commission to present its report). Assuming that the Commission will not be sharing evidence with the Crown while the trial is underway, this could limit the scope of the its work.

The second concern is the lack of intelligence-related experience and limited powers of the Commissioners in a context of official secrecy. Although well-respected in their fields, neither Sir William or Ms. Caine have experience with intelligence collection and analysis. They undoubtably have been consumers or evaluators of intelligence reporting in past roles and they certainly are able to keep secrets. But that may not be enough to resist push-back or “bureaucratic capture” by the agencies they are charged with investigating. This is facilitated by the Terms of Reference and its Minute One (“Procedures for gathering Information and Evidence”), which outline why most of the Commission’s work will be done in private on national security grounds. This is permitted by Section 15 of the Inquiries Act 2013 and justified by Clause 10(3) of the Terms of Reference and Section 202 of the Intelligence and Security Act 2017.

The agencies that have been granted secrecy include the SIS, GCSB, Police, Customs, MBIE, DPMC, Justice, MFAT and the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. No foreign derived information will be revealed in public. A blanket ban has been placed on identification of employees of these agencies whose names turn up in the investigation. In practice, that means that there will be no public accountability for those who may have contributed to the attacks via incompetence, bias or myopia. More broadly, the move to secrecy means that whatever skeletons are uncovered will remain buried away from public view.

The Commissioners do not have powers of compulsion or the ability to veto an agency’s decision to withhold classified materials. That leaves them at the mercy of those they are investigating when it it comes to access to sensitive data, even if what is “sensitive” about the data is not related to national security but to the reputations and orientation of individuals and institutions.

This is not unusual: security agencies under the spotlight often resort to a “get out of jail” card in the form of claiming that open discussion of their actions will compromise sources and methods that are vital for ensuring national security. But the truth that needs to be uncovered in this instance does not involve national security secrets but the derelictions, biases or pressures that might have contributed to the failure to detect and prevent the attacks.

Efforts to limit the openness of the inquiry and the accountability of those that are its subjects must be resisted. The Commissioners need to have powers to compel documents, data and answers from those in positions of authority within the NZ security community and they need help from experienced intelligence overseers when doing so. The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security is one such person, assuming that there would be no conflict of interest involved (since the IGIS has no operational role and hence would not have been part of the command chain that failed to detect and prevent the attacks). A panel of experts with the IGIS, an IGIS representative, or another retired official as chair would be a good compromise option between utter secrecy and full transparency.

A third source of concern lies in the staffing and budget allocated to the inquiry. At $8.2 million the allocated budget is adequate only if it goes towards the investigatory aspects of the inquiry and not public relations or administrative expenses. The Department of Internal Affairs is the host agency of the Commission, so it will be its staff that does most of the logistical footwork underpinning its work. Here again the question of expertise and powers afforded investigators remains an open question.

Another potential problem is the nature of the Commission’s victim outreach program, called the Muslim Community Reference Group. Divisions have emerged over who and how many people should be included in this advisory body. Concerns have risen that self-proclaimed community “leaders” are being shoulder tapped for official interlocutor roles without proper consultation with their purported constituents. This may be due to expediency given the time constraints operative, but it also follows a historically “thin” approach to stakeholder consultation by the NZ State, where what passes for outreach has traditionally been more symbolic than substantive.

Either way, the process of establishing the Reference Group augers poorly for the representative transparency or inclusiveness of the process, something that is acknowledged in the Commission’s Minute One. Plus, the relationship between the Reference Group and the investigation streams is unclear at best but, given the veil of secrecy wrapped around the inquiry, is likely to be little to none.

Finally, the scope of external input into the inquiry, while theoretically extensive, appears destined to be limited in nature. Few invitations have been issued to civil society stakeholders to testify before the Commission, no public meetings have been scheduled and no written submissions solicited (although all have been promised). Along with the mantle of secrecy, this will limit the amount of public review and consultation. That skews the investigation in favour of those under scrutiny.

In effect, on paper the terms of reference for the Commission look thorough and broad. In reality, its work could well be stunted at birth. With limited experience and powers on the part of the Commissioners, a lack of pertinent expertise to help them, unrepresentative liaison with the victims, limited budget and staff and statutory permission for the agencies under investigation to restrict public knowledge of their actions, both the transparency of the inquiry and its ability to identify sources of accountability are compromised.

It is therefore incumbent upon the Commissioners to broaden stakeholder participation in the inquiry, strengthen the Commission’s powers of compulsion, and extend the deadline for submission of its report. It is within their powers to do so even if a court challenge to secrecy clauses in the Inquiries and Security and Intelligence Acts is required. The question is, will they? At the moment that prospect looks unlikely.

UPDATE (June 14): The killer has just plead not guilty to 51 counts and denies being the Christchurch terrorist. His trial date is set for May 4 next year and scheduled to last 6-12 weeks. The nearly year-long delay in bringing him to trial means that the Royal Commission will have done its work and issued its report six months prior to the trial. What that means for the execution of justice and the content of the Commission’s report is unclear but at a minimum it removes court testimony under oath from the inquiry. Given what I have outlined above with regards to secrecy and the inability of the Commissioners to compel testimony under oath or the surrendering of classified material, the lack of access to court testimony and evidence weakens the inquiry even further.

Launching into trouble?

datePosted on 14:03, May 7th, 2019 by Pablo

On May 5 the NZ-US joint venture company Rocket Lab successfully completed a night-time launch of its Electron booster carrying three US Air Force small satellites (smallsats) named Harbinger, SPARC-1 and Falcon ODE. The STP-27RD mission is part of the DoD Space test program run by the US Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center in collaboration with the Defence Innovation Unit as part of its Rapid Agile Launch Initiative (RALI). Funding for the launch came from Department of Defence (DoD) Other Transaction authority to award service contracts to non-traditional commercial small launch companies. The latter is interesting because it is not a line item category in the DoD budget but instead falls into the discretionary funds allocations category usually associated with the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

In its second commercial launch from Launch Complex 1 on the Mahia Peninsula, the booster safely deposited its 180 kilogram payload into an orbit 500 kilometres (310 miles) above earth at an inclination of 40 degrees to the equator. It is also the second launch with a military payload. Harbinger is a US Army sponsored commercial smallsat developed by York Space Systems that will perform tasks that demonstrate its ability to meet US Army Space capability requirements (however vague they may be defined in public, but which are technically specific in nature). The Falcon Orbital Debris Experiment (Falcon ODE), sponsored by the US Air Force Academy, evaluates ground based tracking of space objects. The Space Plug and Play Architecture Research CubeSat-1 (SPARC-1) is a joint Swedish-US experiment testing avionics miniaturisation, software defined radio systems and space situational awareness.

Rocket Lab is a commercial pioneer in Small Lift (SL)/Low Earth Orbit (LEO) booster technologies. Small lift refers to payloads under 500 kilograms and low earth orbit refers to orbits below 1,200 miles. Rocket Lab specialises in boosting payloads of less than 250 kilograms into orbits of 150-300 miles from earth. Smallsats are now broken down into mini-, micro-, nano-, pico- and femto-categories, increasingly in cubesat configurations (with the latter being 4x4x4.5 inch cube units that weigh less than 3 lbs. There are currently more than 900 cubesats deployed in LEOs). The majority of these satellites are used for telecommunications and geospatial mapping. The average cost for a Rocket Lab Electron booster launch is USD$5.7 million, which is very cheap by any comparison, and the company sees future cost reductions when monthly launch schedules give way to biweekly launches from Launch Complex 1 and dedicated facilities operated by NASA in Virginia.

Rocket Lab is touted as a NZ entrepreneurial success story. Indeed it is, although it is now a US based company headquartered in Huntington Beach, USA, with a NZ subsidiary based in Auckland and on the Mahia Peninsula. Most of the capital invested in Rocket Lab now comes from US based funds and companies. The Electron engines are built in Huntington Beach and the launch vehicle assembled in Auckland.

There can be no doubt that Rocket Lab is revolutionising the space industry. But the launch of foreign military satellites by a NZ based company from a launch site on sovereign NZ soil raises some important political, practical and legal questions.

With regard to legal matters, it is worth asking what legal framework is in place governing the use of NZ assets and soil for foreign military satellite launches. Foreign military deployments in NZ are governed by formal agreements, as are NZDF deployments on foreign lands in support of bi-lateral or multilateral missions. Exports of sensitive, dedicated or potential “dual use” (civilian and military) technologies by NZ companies require special export licenses and in some case prohibitions apply to said exports to specific countries. But what is the framework governing foreign military use of NZ-based launchers? As far as I know neither the NZDF or any other government agency have been part of a foreign military satellite launch in NZ, so there is no legal precedent for specifying the terms and conditions governing that activity, much less launches conducted by a NZ-based private firm on behalf of a foreign military partner.

That matters because launches of foreign military non-weaponised payloads, even if they involve signals and technical intelligence gathering technologies, are largely non-controversial and can be covered under the rubric of “scientific research” in any event. But without specific clauses in NZ law prohibiting the launch of foreign military weapons platforms from NZ soil and/or by NZ companies, the field is open for that to happen. With space weapons platforms undergoing the miniaturisation mania that has impacted all aspects of combat from drones to autonomous infantry fighting machines, it is only a matter of when, not if they will be deployed (if they have not been already. India and China have both recently tested satellite killing probes against LEO targets and the USSR and USA have long had larger sized offensive hunter-killer satellites tracking each other’s military communications space platforms, even if these are little more than “dumb” bombs that are guided into the target in order to destroy it). So the scene is set for the eventual deployment of space weaponry from NZ territory.

The question is whether there is a legal basis to permit or prohibit foreign military satellites, especially weaponised satellites, being launched from NZ soil with NZ technologies. I am unsure if that is the case one way or another and have heard of no parliamentary or ministerial discussion of the matter. Amid all of the applause for Rocket Lab there has been no pause given to consider the implications of its partnership with a foreign military, albeit a friendly one. If readers know more than I do on the legal governance structure surrounding Rocket Lab’s partnership ventures with the US Defence Department or any other foreign military, please feel free to illuminate me in the comments.

At a political level, it must be asked whether the current government or its predecessor had much input into the decision to accept US military “sponsorship” of smallsat launches using Rocket Lab technologies and facilities in NZ. Was there NZDF and MoD input? Did DPMC and/or cabinet consider the longer-term geopolitical implications of the association, or was the discussion limited to the commercial opportunities presented by it? For a country that works hard to show a commitment to peace and independence in its foreign policy, would not linking US military interests and a NZ-founded company in a dual use venture that uses NZ territory for US power projection in space raise as many concerns as accolades?

There are practical implications to consider. Is Rocket Lab prepared to contract for payload launches with foreign military “sponsors” other than the US? Or have contractual impediments already been put in place to preclude that possibility, or at least preclude the likes of the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, North Koreans and/or others from participating in the opportunity? Is there anything in Rocket Lab’s contracts with the US or other foreign military partners that specifically prohibits weapons platform launches, no matter how small they may be? Absent a law covering that eventuality, it is left to the company to draw the line on who gets to fill the booster nose cones and what gets put in them. Is it fair to ask if Rocket Lab has put any type of restrictions on who it contracts with and what gets loaded onto its military-sponsored payload delivery systems?

If the contract to deliver military payloads is solely and exclusively with the US, then Rocket Lab has painted a target on Launch Complex 1 in the event that the US becomes embroiled in a large-scale conflict with a major power. Even if it allows nations other than the US to launch military payloads on Electron boosters, Rocket Lab has made the Mahia Peninsula a target whether or not weapons satellites are launched from there. After all, the main use of smallsats is for surveillance, tracking, mapping and telecommunications, all of which are essential for the successful prosecution of contemporary wars. So even if smallsats launched from the Mahia Peninsula do not carry weapons on them, the site becomes a potential target.

Put another way: Smallsats are difficult to target once deployed, so space warfare planners in countries that have the ability to do so and are antagonistic to Rocket Lab’s foreign military client/”sponsors” will aim to prevent their deployment from the Mahia Peninsula. That means that they have likely added Launch Complex 1 to their potential target “packages” in the event that great power hostilities break out on Earth or in space. As it turns out, the low cost and quick launch capabilities offered by the Electron booster also make it a great choice for rapidly replacing military satellites of all kinds when lost to hostile action, so prudent military planners will ensure that Rocket Lab’s vehicles do not get off the ground should push come to shove. And given that NZ air space and launch sites are less defended than similar territory in larger countries, the relative ease of launching pre-emptive or follow up strikes on Launch Complex 1 encourages its targeting by adversaries of Rocket Lab’s foreign military partners.

That means, of course, that NZ could be drawn into a land/space war in which it is not a principle but where its soil and facilities is used by one or another party to the hostilities. So the bottom line is this: does NZ have any control over or even say in who and what Rocket Labs gets to work with? Is there any contingency plan in place for the possibility that association with a foreign military in commercial space ventures could lead to the uninvited and untoward intervention of another foreign military power on NZ soil?

Beware the false narrative.

datePosted on 11:19, April 25th, 2019 by Pablo

ISIS and a junior defense minister in the Sri Lankan government have claimed that the terrorist attacks on churches and hotels in the island nation were a response to the white supremacist attack on mosques in Christchurch on March 15. The claims need to be treated with skepticism. Here’s why.

Having been defeated on the battlefields of the Levant, ISIS now urges its followers to return to decentralized terrorist attacks as a form of irregular warfare. It wishes to show continued strength by claiming that it can orchestrate attacks world-wide and that no country can escape its reach. The Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka fit that narrative.

The truth is otherwise. The Sri Lankan attacks may have taken inspiration, and perhaps even logistical support from ISIS but planning and preparation began well before March 15. It is true that ISIS called for retaliatory attacks after the Christchurch attacks, and it could well be possible that March 15 was a precipitant event for the Sri Lankan bombings. But there was and is a larger and yet more local picture in play.

The Easter Sunday bombings occurred against a backdrop of rising violence against both Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka by Buddhist militants, something that has accentuated in the last year and is the underlying motive for the attacks. These were not random or foreign in origin, but represent a violent response by one oppressed minority using terrorism against another minority and tourists in order to make a sharp point to the constitutionally empowered majority that it sees as increasingly oppressive in nature (70 percent of Sri Lankans practice Buddhism, which is the official religion of the country and which has constitutionally protected privileges). Christians were the targets because they were left unprotected by an indifferent or incompetent government, while tourists were attacked because the country depends on them for hard currency revenues. Neither targeted group were the real subject of the attacks, nor was the objective of the attacks strictly about them.

Operationally speaking, the effort to engage in coordinated, simultaneous attacks against multiple soft targets using significant quantities of explosives and involving at least 7 suicide bombers requires months of target surveillance, stockpiling and concealment of bomb-making ingredients, manufacture of human-portable bombs, coordination and communication between perpetrators and accomplices and logistical support in at least three cities, all under the veil of secrecy. Whether or not Christchurch served as a precipitant or ISIS called for revenge attacks in its wake, the making of the Easter Sunday plot was long in the works well before the white supremacist gunman walked into the Masjid al Noor.

Simply put, the Easter Sunday bombings simply could not have been put together in the month after the Christchurch attacks. Moreover, the Sri Lankan security services were warned several times before March 15 that Muslim extremists were preparing to launch attacks, followed by specific information two weeks ago that Catholic churches were being targeted on Easter. The complexity of the attacks and the repeated warnings of them strongly suggests that ISIS’s claims are opportunistic rather than truthful.

Likewise, the uncorroborated claim by a Sri Lankan junior minister that Christchurch was the reason for the Easter Sunday atrocities appears to be reckless attempt to deflect attention away from the gross negligence that led to the intelligence “failure” that facilitated them. In an atmosphere of rising ethnic and religious tensions, the Sri Lankan government received repeated and specific warnings about the impending attacks and yet did nothing. It did not increase security around churches and hotels and did not seek to preemptively arrest suspects on various extremist watch lists. Instead, rendered by partisan infighting and weighed down by incompetence, the security forces cast a negligent eye on what was going to happen. That may be because the attacks can serve as an excuse to crack down on the Muslim community, something Buddhist hard-liners have been seeking for some time. Whatever the reason, it was not an intelligence “failure” that facilitated the attacks. The security services knew, or at least were warned about what was going to happen. They either could not or chose not to act.

In truth, ISIS and some Sri Lankan government interests converged in making Christchurch part of the narrative. Falsely claiming that the Easter Sunday attacks were revenge for Christchurch makes it seem as if they are part of a larger struggle in which Sri Lanka is a pawn. The reality is more simple: the attacks were a local Islamist response to increased ethno-religious conflict in Sri Lanka in recent years, which itself is part of a larger struggle within South Asia between Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims as their lines of division continue to harden.

Therein lies the danger of the false narrative embedded in the ISIS and minister’s claims about Christchurch. They feed into the “clash of civilizations” argument put forward by ideological extremists that the world is in the midst of an cultural and religious conflict in which only one side can win. Subscribing to this argument justifies so-called “tit for tat” responses, whereby an attack by one side leads to an attack by the other, creating a cycle of violence that is designed to spiral into an existential confrontation between antithetical “others.” Although the vast majority of religionists the world over are non-violent and tolerant of other beliefs, this is the apocalyptic vision that extremists want to propagate.

The antidote to this is to place responsibility where it belongs and to not buy into false opportunistic narratives about revenge-based existential conflict. Sometimes the blame for atrocities lies closer to home, both in terms of root causes and inadequate responses.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Radio New Zealand web site (rnz.co.nz) on April 25, 2019.

About that silly Mr. Bridges.

datePosted on 15:53, March 26th, 2019 by Pablo

In the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, Simon Bridges wants to expand the powers available to the NZ security community when it comes to search and surveillance. He apparently believes that resurrecting “Project Speargun,” a 5 Eyes/GCSB 2013 effort to place a meta-data mining probe into the Southern Cross fiber optical cable connecting NZ to the world (via LA), would have prevented the attacks. He seems to not realize that Project Speargun was not fully abandoned but superseded by newer technologies, and that it would not have prevented the domestic terrorism attack in any event because it was foreign focused and used algorithms to reflect the concerns of NZ’s 5 Eyes partners (which were not focused on violent white supremacism).

He seems to think that the cyber-security program Cortex (designed to protect NZ firms and government agencies from hacking attacks) was somehow linked to Project Speargun (as some sort of inner-outer perimeter system). Yet the two are completely separate projects. As Leader of the Opposition Mr. Bridges sits on the Intelligence and Security Committee and gets regular briefs from the SIS and GCSB Directors, so the confusion and attempt to resurrect Project Speargun reflects a fundamental disconnect.

It also seems odd that a leader of a center-right party founded in part on classic liberal principles in defense of the right to privacy and the primacy of civil liberties would decide that there is political mileage to be gained by calling for more intrusive State powers at the expense of individual rights. Cynical opportunism, perhaps?

I was interviewed by RNZ about his comments. My observations are here.

After doing the interview and listening to Mr. Bridges remarks once again, it seems to me that he is a special piece of work. So I decided that the best thing I could do was honor him with a tweet from the consulting firm (which among other things does political leadership analysis). Here it is:

“When it comes to Simon Bridges calling for enhanced powers for NZ spy agencies, he is like a guy who says that he needs a telescope because his binoculars don’t work well enough, only to find out that the lens caps are still on the binoculars.”

Owning It (updated).

datePosted on 12:00, March 21st, 2019 by Pablo

Earlier versions of this essay were published by Radio New Zealand and Australian Outlook.

The terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques, which resulted in the deaths of fifty people and injuries to dozens of others, is a watershed moment in New Zealand history. In the days, months and years ahead much soul-searching will be conducted about the social and political factors that contributed to the massacre. Here the focus is on two: the spread of hate speech via social media; and the intelligence failures that may have contributed to the event.

With the proliferation of social media platforms during the last decade there has been a steady increase in their use by extremist groups. Be it Wahabbist and Salafists calling for jihad, 9/11 conspiracy theorists or white supremacists, social media has given them global reach in a measure never seen before. This allows extremists in disparate parts of the world to instantly communicate and reinforce their views without having to be in physical contact. They can even plot acts of violence using encrypted platforms and the so-called “Dark Web.” This was the case with the Christchurch gunman, who went on extremist platforms in real time to announce his intentions shortly before he began his attack, then live streamed it on Facebook. As the massacre unfolded from the killer’s perspective (he was wearing a popular sporting camera on his chest), hundreds of people cheered him on (and later debated the merits of the action. See, e.g., here).

That is what is different today when compared to twenty years ago: the threat of decentralized, even autonomous extremist violence has increased commensurate with the emergence of social media outlets that allow them to disseminate their views.

This produces both an echo chamber and megaphone effect: not only do kindred spirits find common space to vent and practice their hate against the perceived “Other,” but more moderate, mainstream outlets begin to pick and emulate some of the language used in them. Language that was once socially unacceptable in most democratic societies has crept into mainstream social discourse, be it about immigrants, minorities, sexual minorities or indigenous groups. Hate speech is increasingly normalized under the mantle of free speech, where the hate-mongerers turn the tables on civil libertarians by claiming that their freedom of expression is being trampled by political correctness gone mad. That in turn has crept into the rhetoric of politics itself, where mainstream politicians and political commentators adopt some of the language and policy positions that once were only championed by a rabid yet marginalized political fringe. One only need to remember the anti-immigrant language of certain politicians and the mysogynist, homophobic and/or xenophobic rantings of assorted radio hosts and television personalities, to say nothing of the comments section of what used to be moderate political blogs, to see how the discursive trend has evolved in New Zealand.

The problem is almost exclusively a democratic one. Authoritarian regimes censor as a matter of course and control the flow of information in their societies, so what can be seen and heard is up to the regime. Unless authorized or condoned by the State, extremists are not given space to air their views in public.

Democratic societies uphold the right to free speech no matter how noxious it may be because it is exactly the unpopular views that need defending. But the principle of free speech never reckoned with the practice of social and mainstream media outlets using business models that are at least in part founded on the idea that there is money to be made in catering to extremist views. If advertising can be sold on extremist sites and offensive speech is protected, then the bottom line advises that it is not for the media conglomerates to determine what is and what is not acceptable social discourse. That is for others to decide.

In other words, the cover of free speech gives media conglomerates the excuse to continue to pursue profit by hosting extremist sites and allowing vile content on their platforms. The more that extremist views are filtered through outlets like Fox News and talk-back radio, the more they tilt public perceptions in a xenophobic, paranoid, fear-driven direction. This is not healthy for democracies.

This is the public policy conundrum. Where to draw the line between free and hate speech? When does offensive speech become dangerous speech? One would think that the answer would be simple in that any calls for violence against others, be it individual or collective in nature, is what separates offensive from hate speech. And yet to this day democracies grapple, increasingly unsteadily, with the question of what constitutes censorable material on-line. In a world where hard core pornography is increasingly available and normalized, it is hard to argue that people expressing ugly views are any worse than what is allowed in the skin trade.

With regard to whether there was an intelligence failure. Obviously there was because the massacre occurred. But the question is whether this was due to policy errors, tactical mistakes, some combination of both or the superb stealth of the bad guy.

At a policy level the question has to be asked if whether the intelligence services and police placed too much emphasis after 9/11 on detecting and preventing home-grown jihadists from emerging to the detriment of focusing on white supremacist groups, of which there are a number in Aotearoa. Given a limited amount of resources, the security community has to prioritize between possible, probable and imminent threats. So what happened that allowed the killer to plan and prepare for two years, amass a small arsenal of weapons, make some improvised explosives and yet still fly under the radar of the authorities? It is known that the security community monitors environmental, animal activist, social justice and Maori sovereignty groups and even works with private investigators as partners when doing so, so why were the white supremacists not given the same level of attention?

Or were they? The best form of intelligence gathering on extremist movements is via informants, sources or infiltration of the group by undercover agents (who can target individuals for monitoring by other means, including cyber intercepts). Perhaps there simply are not enough covert human intelligence agents in New Zealand to undertake the physical monitoring of would-be jihadists, other domestic activists and white supremacists. Perhaps white supremacist groups were in fact being monitored this way or via technical means but that failed to detect the Christchurch gunman.

That begs another question. Was the killer, even if a white supremacist himself, not an associate of groups that were being monitored or infiltrated by the authorities? Could he have maintained such good operational security and worked in absolute secrecy that none of his friends and associates had a clue as to his intentions? Was he the ultimate “lone wolf” who planned and prepared without giving himself away to anyone?

If the latter is the case then no amount of intelligence policy re-orientation or tactical emphasis on white supremacists would have prevented the attack. As the saying goes in the intelligence business, “the public only hears about failures, not successes.”

In his apparent radicalization after he arrived in New Zealand, in his choice of targets in Christchurch and in his ability to exploit domestic gun laws, in the fact that although he was socially active no one knew or ignored his plans, the killer was local. In the inability of local authorities to detect and prevent him from carrying out the attacks, the intelligence failures were local.

It is in this sense that New Zealand must “own” the Christchurch attack.

PS: I have been criticised for initially claiming, before his arrest, that the gunman may have come from Christchurch. Many people, including a prominent music and pro-cannabis blogger, felt that I was “reckless” for doing so, especially after it emerged that the suspect was Australian and lived in Dunedin (on and off since at least 2014). Let me explain why I made that initial error.

Within minutes of the gunfire I received links to the 4Chan and 8Chan platforms in which the shooter announced his intentions and linked to the live stream of his attack. As I read the commentary on the extremist platforms and watched the news over the next hour a source in Christchurch called and said that given his escape and the failure to initially detect and apprehend him (it took an hour to do so), the speculation by those chasing him was that he was a local. I repeated that live on radio as events unfolded, using the qualifier “apparently.” It was a mistake but not a reckless one, and in the larger scheme of things it simply does not matter.

I also made a mistake when I said that the weapon used was likely sourced on the black market from organised crime and may have been a modified hunting weapon with a suppressor on it (that much was clear from the video). As it turns out it was a legally purchased weapon by a licensed gun owner. My bad.

Finally, for thoses who keep on insisting that because the killer is Australian that absolves NZ of any complicity or guilt in the event–get real. Christchurch is the epicentre of South Island white supremacism and for all we know the killer may have chosen his targets not only because the Muslim population is fairly large in that city but also because he could show off to his mates on their home turf. If reports turn out to be true that he had kindred spirits at his gun club, then perhaps he was not as “alone” as is currently believed when planning and preparing for the attacks.

The unwanted jihadist.

datePosted on 11:31, March 6th, 2019 by Pablo

It turns out that Kiwi-born Mark Taylor, known as the so-called “bumbling jihadist” because he left the GPS tracking feature on his phone while he made pro-Daesh videos (including one where he burns his NZ passport and another where he calls for jihadists to stab police and military officers at ANZAC Day celebrations), has surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish peshmerga alliance that is part of the mostly Western military coalition fighting Daesh under the name “Operation Inherent Resolve.”

He was fortunate or smart enough to surrender to the Kurds, who respect the laws of war and Geneva Convention when it comes to captured jihadists, something neither the jihadists themselves or the Syrian Army are in the habit of doing. This means that he can be transferred to other, Western members of the coalition for juridical administration. He is merely being held by the Kurds after he admitted who he was and that he was a member of Daesh. As far as the Kurds are concerned he has committed no specific crimes under their laws (beyond, perhaps, criminal association), so he is taking up space in a cell reserved for more unpleasant characters.

The issue of what to do with him has become a political football in NZ. The PM says that there is little the government can do for him because it has no diplomatic representation in Syria, much less the East Syrian conflict zone. But she then says that as a NZ citizen he is “our responsibility” even if NZ cannot help him where he is. The Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister says good riddance to him, in part because he turned his back on his birth country and in part because he is a bigamist. The Opposition and Right-wingers of all types set to xenophobic baying about his betrayal of his home country, the risk he poses and the amount of taxpayer dollars that would be wasted on his return both in terms of travel as well as monitoring and incarceration of him.

The PM went so far to say that NZ has “no relationship” with “the forces” fighting in Eastern Syria even though it is well known that US, UK, Australian, French and German forces are fighting alongside the Kurds and NZ SAS troops are rumoured to be doing so as well. The NZDF has senior officers on the Joint Task Force staff assigned to Operation Inherent Resolve, so the notion that NZ has “no relationship” to those fighting in Syria (the same forces who drove Daesh out of Mosul and westward into Syria) is disingenuous in the extreme.

What is worse, the Australian journalist who interviewed Taylor in the Kurdish jail claims that Taylor told him that he was interviewed by NZ intelligence officers (presumably SIS) shortly after his capture/surrender in December. If that is true, then the government has not only known for a while about his whereabouts but is claiming no possibility of contact with him even though he has had face-to-face meetings with NZ agents. Be that as it may, I am still of the opinion that he may have some useful intelligence value left in him, as questioning in a Kurdish jail in winter is a bit different than interrogations conducted in a NZ detention centre at any time of year.

Given the amount of dissembling and ignorant ranting going on, I thought that I would clarify some of the issues at stake.

On the matter of whether or not Mr. Taylor has NZ citizenship in light of his renouncing it: Only a State can confer and withdraw citizenship. A person claiming to renounce citizenship without State sanction is just stating intention, not deed. Burning a passport (a token of sovereignty) just prevents one from legal inter-State travel. Citizenship is conferred by birth or by application and only lost when the State withdraws its recognition of it. That has not happened with Mr. Taylor. He remains a NZ citizen.

Under international law undocumented criminal suspects, including terrorists, are to be returned to country of birth if known. If an undocumented suspect is captured in battle or surrenders to an allied belligerent in a recognised conflict, s/he is a POW and must be treated as such. This includes irregular non-State belligerents captured by non-State actors like the SDF working alongside State militaries during an internationally approved (in this case UN-sanctioned) conflict against a common (in this case non-State) foe.

If possible, captured undocumented enemy POWs must be returned to their known country of origin to face justice. They can be kept in allied and home country military custody during transfer. There is no need for consular assistance or travel docs if they remain in military custody, just access to legal advice during process. Conversely, the military can transfer the prisoner to a location where his country of origin has diplomatic representation, whereupon he can be issued emergency travel documents. NZ has representation in both Iraq and Turkey, both of which have ties to the anti-Daesh coalition. It is therefore relatively easy to move Mr. Taylor out of Kurdish custody, into Western military custody and onwards to a location that either has NZ diplomatic representation and /or NZDF presence to whom he can be delivered (think, for example, of moving him from Kurdish-held Eastern Syria to Camp Taji in Iraq).

Should Mr. Taylor be returned to NZ he can be arrested and charged at the border under the Terrorism Suppression Act for being a member of an internationally-designated terrorist entity. To that can be added other charges depending on what he is suspected of having done while with Daesh and the evidence compiled of him doing so. At a minimum he could receive a 6-7 year jail term for aiding and abetting a criminal organization. At a maximum he could he found guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity if he is found to have participated in atrocities or collective acts of violence against civilians (such as the enslavement of Yaziri women and girls as sex slaves. He has admitted he would have liked to have had a sex slave but could not afford one, so the question remains as to whether he participated in any act of kidnapping or enslavement while in Syria). NZ has legal authority to prosecute its citizens for war crimes and even though it does not have the death penalty (except, apparently, for treason), a guilty verdict on a war crime could result in life imprisonment.

Concerns have been voiced that if he returns home the leniency in the judicial system could see him freed and out on the streets. There is a possibility of this if his defence attorneys ask for psychiatric evaluations that prove that he is not mentally competent to stand trail. He clearly is intellectually sub-par (an uncle of his claims that he suffered brain damage as a toddler during a fit of some sort), and his actions over the years indicate that he may be a bit of a lost soul. Even his co-religionists at the mosque that he worshipped at in Hamilton say that he was more interested in companionship and a sense of belonging than in waging jihad.

If he is released he undoubtably will be monitored closely, not only by the security services but members of his own religious community. In fact, I would not be surprised if he is shunned by the latter because of the disrepute he has brought upon them. So as far as posing an on-going risk to society if he returns and is freed, I would hazard the guess that it would be very low.

The more likely scenario is that he will return in custody, be held on remand during the time he is on trial, be found guilty of terrorism-related crimes and sentenced to a significant period in prison. Some believe that if that happens he will then work to radicalise fellow inmates, as is often a common practice in US and UK jails and which has some precedent in NZ. But the truth is that Mr. Taylor is a follower not a leader and does not have the cunning and agile thought processes that would make him a convincing jailhouse preacher. So here too my reckon is that he will not pose a threat of radicalisation to other inmates. If anything, other inmates will pose a threat to him (think white supremacists, gang members and others who make take a dim view of his citizenship renunciation and embrace of Islam and jihad).

There is question as to whether he has wives and/or children in Syria. That is a humanitarian concern because arguably they are innocents caught up in his mess. If it turns out that he does in fact have family in Syria, the question is then what to do with them? If they have no connection to NZ it is perhaps best for them to return to their hometowns, but that is a question that refugee resettlement and immigration officials will have to address in the event that he is returned to NZ.

The most sorry aspect of this is that the fate of Mr. Taylor has become yet another pawn in the partisan bickering in Wellington. The truth is that the case is straight-forward: he is a NZ citizen and member of a terrorist organisation who was captured by allied forces. His return is mandated by international law. NZ law requires that he be arrested, charged and tried according to provisions in the Terrorism Surpression Act and perhaps other related laws. Anything other than this is an abdication of responsibility by the NZ government and a denial of his democratic rights to a fair trial and legal defence (because even bad guys have legal rights in democracies).

For NZ there is opportunity in this process. Returning him and putting him on trial demonstrates that NZ is a responsible international citizen that assumes the burden of dealing with its own when they misbehave (because let us be clear: membership in Operation Inherent Resolve is not just about contributing to the military campaign against ISIS in the Levant; it is also about accepting responsibility for deciding the fate of coalition member citizens who joined ISIS and lived to tell the tale after capture). It gives the Crown an opportunity to test the TSA after the fiasco of the Urewera 18 case (the so-called “dog’s breakfast” case that saw seven people eventually tried on firearms, not terrorism charges). It shows that NZ is a a nation where the rule of law supersedes political cynicism and popular sentiment. It serves as a cautionary tale and possible deterrent to other home-grown would-be jihadists. And it keeps at least one foreign fighter from returning to Daesh any time soon.

The Bully’s gambit.

datePosted on 12:54, February 28th, 2019 by Pablo

It has been an open secret in US foreign policy circles that Donald Trump wants to go to war with Venezuela. He has said as much on a number of occasions, not always disguised by the “all options are on the table” rhetoric his advisors urge him to use. In his recent book former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe mentions that Trump asked his national security team “why can’t we go to war with Venezuela,” claiming that it should be easy to do so. He may soon get his wish.

Let’s be clear on why Trump wants to wage war on a southern neighbour. It stems from the fact that he is an ignorant bully who believes in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine (or as much as he is told of it, especially the part about being the Western Hemisphere’s police force) and pines for the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders and gunboat diplomacy. He covets Venezuelan oil even though its decrepit pumping and refining infrastructure, US oil surpluses and relatively low oil prices make his notions of “controlling” it a bit more complicated than his simple mind can grasp. But as a deep-seated xenophobic racist he hates Latinos in any event, and the corruption and incompetence of the olive-skinned Venezuelan leadership led by Nicole Maduro feeds into all of is prejudices about them. Add to that the fact that, even though he himself is a draft-dodging silver-spooned coward who has no real comprehension of the sacrifices and costs of going to war, he revels in it and the bloodlust it incites amongst the MAGA morons who follow him.

What he is not interested in is the plight of the Venezuelan people or the nature of Maduro’s rule. After all, he heaps praise on Kim Jong-un, Mohammed bin-Salman, Rodrigo Dutarte and Vladimir Putin, so respect for human rights, providing for the common good and freely-chosen open government are not high on his list of priorities. Instead, the Venezuelan crisis, which essentially is an economic crisis brought about by government mis-management, corruption and incompetence that evolved into a national humanitarian crisis and now a political crisis–or what Gramsci called an organic crisis of the State–provides Trump with a window of opportunity for him to act out his fantasy of being a war-time president.

The machinery for going to war appears to have been switched on. Since I have been involved in such things in a past life, let me explain how it works.

The move to war starts with the White House via the National Security Council (NSC) asking the Department of Defense (DoD) to draw contingency plans for an armed confrontation with Venezuela. The request is conveyed to the regional units responsible for Latin America, in this case the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for the Interamerican region (OSD-ISA-IA). The request is also sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and its directorates responsible for war-planning in Latin America (especially J2 (Intelligence) and J3 (Operations)), as well as the Undersecretary of Policy and Plans (OSD-US-PP). These agencies often combine resources into a Joint Task Force (JTF) that games out a number of scenarios.

Military intelligence agencies such as the DIA are tasked to gather actionable intelligence on key targets, and the regional military command responsible for Latin America, the Southern Command based in Miami, is assigned the role of drawing up battle plans. The US Special Operations Command in Tampa will also be involved, and between these commands and the JCS the specific mix of airforce, naval and ground forces will be calibrated, then activated (the US favours an air-sea-land approach to conventional warfare, especially if special operators are involved). This will include units with regional focus such as the US Atlantic Fleet and 12th Air Force, as well smaller detachments like Special Boat Units and Air Force special operations wings.

Strategic planners in DoD will narrow down feasible options using multi-level cost/benefit analyses. Interagency working groups will be formed in order to coordinate information flows and policy feedback across affected bureaucracies (for example, the State Department, Homeland Security, Treasury and Customs, since all are involved in the pre-and post conflict response). US military attaches will be ordered to liaise with their Latin American counterparts in order to gauge reaction to any hostile US move (and explore the possibility of cooperation in operations in the case of Brazil and Colombia) and diplomats will be dispatched throughout the region to shore up support for the US and explore the possibility of material assistance from individual countries.

The CIA, NSA and DIA will assign regional and country specialists to the planning and covert assets and signals specialists will increase their reporting on the Venezuelan regime’s internal dynamics and its military’s behaviour, movements and communications. In a case like Venezuela’s where the regime is under siege and the US backs the opposition, the CIA will facilitate backdoor talks between exiles, opposition figures, disgruntled military personnel and US officials so as to ensure that all are playing off of the same page in the lead up to war. If needed, a cover plan–say, the need to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to desperate people as requested by the US friendly opposition–is drawn up in order to pre-position assets and material in preparation for hostilities.

All of this has already been or is being done by the US with regards to Venezuela. Reports have it that numerous flights operated by a CIA-front air charter service from a civilian airbase adjacent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina (home to US Army special forces) have departed for Colombia carrying humanitarian aide. The US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, and the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Interamerican Affairs traveled to the Colombian-Venezuelan borders last weekend to meet the Opposition leader Juan Guaido and oversee the unloading of provisions destined for Caracas (a move that was blocked by Venezuelan National Guardsmen). Cuban authorities have reported that US special forces have deployed to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands in a pre-positioning move (the Cubans have their own reasons to make such claims but their intelligence is very often accurate).

If plans are in an advanced stage, contact with opposition resistance groups in the Venezuelan capital and other population centers will have been made and perhaps weapons supplied. A plan to neutralise the regime leadership and its intelligence networks will be readied. A provocation ploy (say, murder of a US-backed Opposition figure) or excuse for action plan (e.g. threats to US citizens) may be drawn up should it be required as a justification for war.

These things take time, so it is safe to say that if by this point the battle plan is well developed, Trump gave the war order very early in his presidency. DoD and JCS cannot refuse the president’s request even if they oppose it; their duty is to comply with what the Commander-in-Chief has requested. This may not preclude them from approaching Congress about concerns regarding the proposed operation. After all, this is would not be a war of necessity but rather one of opportunity (if not vanity), and the costs involved may not justify what is achieved even in a best-case scenario. But with people like Senator Marco Rubio baying for regime change in Venezuela, the congressional mood to resist the president at this stage is mixed at best, so military concerns about it may not find a receptive audience on the Hill.

In any event, the CIA and US Air Force planes ferrying supplies to Colombia land and take off from the town of Cucuta, located on the Venezuelan border and the site of a violent confrontation last weekend on the transnational bridge linking the two countries. Abrams flew in a USAF aircraft to that town’s airport, which is home to an Army mobile infantry brigade and conventional infantry brigade (largely made up of counter-insurgency companies). This reminds the Venezuelans that Colombia is the US’s closest Latin American military ally, having fought decades together against drug traffickers, the FARC and other guerrilla groups. Colombia is signalling that it will, at a minimum, allow the US to stage and pre-position forces on its territory, even if just on military bases. The Colombians have despised the Bolivarian regime since Chavez’s times, and now their ideological enmity has been practically reinforced because the crisis has seen a mass refugee migration from Venezuela into Colombia at the same time that increased smuggling flows head in the other direction. Social cohesion in border regions has been negatively affected and the public purse is being stretched by the need to provide for the refugees as well as maintain public order and border security. The Colombians have had enough.

Usually the Brazilian military would be reluctant to allow the US to stage and deploy military forces from Brazilian territory. But the election of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, who explicitly modelled himself on Donald Trump during the 2018 campaign, means that things have changed. Bolsonaro is keen to cultivate the White House’s good graces, and offering forward positioning rights along the Venezuelan border is one way of doing so. Brazilian and US commandos will welcome the opportunity to hone their skills together in a real operational environment. Here too ideological enmity dovetails with practical necessity, as Venezuelan refugees have fled into Brazil in increasing numbers over the past few months. It is therefore likely that Brazil has agreed to a US military presence on its border with Venezuela.

As the crisis accentuates and the impasse continues, US military planners will pour over maps and powerpoints, then hammer down the details of the means, methods and tactics to be used, as well as Plan B and C scenarios. Assets will be discretely transferred to staging areas and liaison with host militaries and resistance groups will be established. Strategic targets such as oil derricks and refineries will be given special attention.

Trump has a short term reason to activate the war plan: the 2020 elections. His political rationale in the upcoming election year is to influence the outcome via manipulation of nationalistic sentiment at home. This comes naturally to him given his vulgar political mind, and he sees Venezuela as an easy nut to crack. Aided by his allied media outlets, the drumbeat for war has been banging loudly for the last few months and is getting louder. Given the potential results of the Mueller investigation as well as those of several Democrat-controlled House Committees (such as the Michael Cohen hearings now underway), to say nothing of his failed summits with Kim Jong-un about denuclearising the DPRK (as if that was a realistic prospect), Trump might not be able to wait to pull an “October Surprise” even this year (they usually happen in the month before the election, not a year before). So we can expect that the pace of war preparations will increase over the next weeks to months.

For the Maduro regime, the issue is simple: raise the costs to the US (and possibly others) of any armed intervention in the country while either exhausting the opposition via attrition or negotiating a transition pact with it. The military will need to use stealth, manoeuvre and cover against a superior force, hoping to prolong the conflict so that Trump begins to pay a price for his folly. In this it will have the help of Cuban advisors skilled in the art of guerrilla warfare, including proficiency in tunnelling (learned from the Vietnamese) and the use of tactics such as helicopter trapping (where attack helicopters are lured into range of anti-aircraft weapons by small arms fire). If the conflict can be prolonged and US soldiers begin to die in significant numbers, then the bully gambit may just backfire on Trump.

I may have omitted or erred on a few details, but this will be the general thrust of things should Trump decide to pull the trigger that starts a war. I have not included post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building scenarios, but I assume that State Department planners, including those from the Agency for International Development (AID, already on the ground in Cucuta) will be hard at work figuring out post-conflict plans (although truth be told the US is not very successful at producing post-conflict outcomes that are clearly favourable to it). The matter of “what happens next?” once the war is over remains open to conjecture.

The bottom line is that a lot of preparation and resources go into contingency planning for war even against a relatively weak opponent, and even if the costs and fallout are uncertain and multidimensional in nature. This is true even if war is avoided: the costs of the preparations alone are monumental. One thing is therefore certain. The US path to war with Venezuela would have to have started some time ago and the costs are real even if battle is not joined. And if it is, the consequences will be felt for a long time to come way beyond Caracas.

Interest, values, trade and security.

datePosted on 14:59, February 18th, 2019 by Pablo

The media frenzy about the NZ-PRC relationship got me to thinking, but as I got to thinking I found myself meandering off of my original train of thought. You see, at first I was pondering the one-sided, hectoring nature of the media coverage, where pro-China shills like the business writers at the Herald and assorted corporate types and National Party flunkies like Tod McClay were allowed to run their mouths about how the relationship with China was headed down the tubes. There was the Kiwi coward resident 34 years in China* who implicitly disparaged Anne Marie Brady by saying that “(i)t’s unhelpful for politicians and a few anti-Chinese professors to feed uncorroborated McCarthyite conspiracies about Chinese spy networks in their countries and targeting anyone who doesn’t share their view.” There was Audrey Young’s reference to “ivory tower” eggheads in her regurgitation of business lobby bullet points. All of this was offered without a single rebuttal.

  • *I am not going to mention this useful fool’s name but it would have been nice if a “journalist” has asked him, given his long residency in China and successful business ventures there, whether he was a dual citizen and/or member of or has ever had any formal contact with the Chinese Communist Party, whether he has ever had to “facilitate” transactions or provide pay-offs to party or local officials and whether he is on any Chinese government payroll as a spokesperson, business “ambassador,” representative, go-between or in any other capacity. I say this because it is unusual for Chinese authorities to allow non-diplomat Westerners to comment on official reactions to PRC-related events in foreign countries even if they are citizens of the country in question.

There were even pro-China academics featured in the media and assorted pundits opining that the Labour-led government needed to pull an about-face and correct things ASAP. There were the usual skeptics about the GCSB rational for advising against using Huawei in the 5G roll-out. One of them, a well known rightwing blogger and pollster, used a 2012 junket to Huawei headquarters paid for by the company to proclaim that all the security concerns were a stich up up of an honest company so that Western telecom firms could gain a competitive advantage. There were the usual shouts of racism from the Chinese language media and wanna-be “influencers.” There was even something that looked suspiciously like a planted fake news article in an English language mainland media outlet that was extensively and uncritically quoted in the Herald that said that Chinese tourists in Aoetaroa complained about being “stabbed in the back” by the Kiwis. I shall leave aside the curious fact that the article only appeared in English and used rather odd quotes to describe the reaction of tourists to a minor diplomatic row involving their home and host countries–a row that had zero effect on them.

It was all so sickly obsequious to the Chinese that my initial thought centred on whether most of NZ’s business and political elites (and their lackeys in the media and academia) were so obsessed by self-enrichment, greed and short term opportunism that they completely lost sight of their moral compasses. After all, China is a one-party authoritarian state that uses mass internment camps to control a restive ethno-religious minority, mass surveillance as a form of social control, violates human rights in systematic fashion, transgresses international norms and laws as a matter of course (such as in the island-building projects in the South China Sea) and uses bribery, corruption, fraud and intellectual property theft as an integral part of its business development models. This would seem inimical to the values of the paragons of virtue extolling the “special relationship” between the PRC and NZ but nooooooo. The Chinese are good for the NZ economy and that is all that matters. It would seem that the trade-oriented business elites and their political puppets are China’s Vichy representatives in Aotearoa.

That sent my thoughts in a more academic direction. I recalled that Marx wrote that the combination of private ownership of the means of production and universal suffrage could not hold because if everyone got an equal vote and only a few were property owners (capitalists), then capitalism would be voted out of existence. He was wrong about that due to the reform-mongering function of the capitalist State, but that got me to thinking that he also wrote that capitalists were incapable of being patriots because profits were made globally and hence their interests were not confined to their countries of origin. People may recall that in the Manifesto he wrote “workers of the world unite!” as a response to capitalism as it entered the Gold Age of imperialism, a topic that Lenin subsequently developed a greater length.

It occurred to me that in the arguments about China we see a NZ variant of this. NZ capitalists and their toadies do not give a darn about democratic values, transparency, norms, a rules based order or the security concerns of Western states. They are in it for the buck and if that means kowtowing to a dictatorship then so be it. Given that NZ business and political elites have kowtowed to the likes of the Saudis, this should not be surprising. In their view if there is money to be made then the less impediments to doing so the better.

The smarter types will show the structural impact of Chinese trade with NZ by citing the usual $27 billion in 2018 bilateral trade figure and 8,700 jobs connected to it. But this trade is mostly in milk powder, tourism and English language and tertiary education (as NZ exports) and consumer non-durables (electronics, light machinery and plastics, mostly) as imports, so it is not as if NZ is going to turn into a high tech artificial intelligence and robotic hub thanks to the Chinese. The bottom line, then, is the bottom line: NZ capitalists by and large will cling to the window of opportunity presented by the opening of the Chinese market even if it confirms our trade dependency on primary goods and agro-exports and even if it means sacrificing NZ’s commitment to principle when it comes to exercising an independent foreign policy.

That was going to be the end of my thought process on the matter. I was going to balance the criticism of China by noting that the US and traditional Western partners have less than stellar records in their foreign relations and spy histories and that the US under Trump is an insane clown posse when it comes to international affairs even if the intelligence and security professionals who staff the 5 Eyes network would not be swayed by the craziness swirling around them and would make assessments about security matters on objective grounds. But then I got to thinking about something I read repeatedly on right-wing political sites: values.

One of the major objections to the Chinese and NZ’s relationship with the PRC appears to be the issue of values, or the fact that we do not share values. People point out the long cultural ties that bind NZ to the UK and Anglophone Commonwealth as well as the US. They point to joint sacrifices in war and peace, common sports, notions of good and bad, proper behaviour, etc. These folk do not want these shared values to be usurped and replaced by Asian values, or at least the Confucian-derived cultural mores that contact with China brings to NZ. The list of fears and concerns is long but the bottom line is that many on the conservative side of the political ledger have real fears of the Chinese “other” that go beyond the “Yellow Peril” of the Cold War.

That prompted a turn in my thought. You see, although I have a fairly idealistic streak and understand the utility of constructivism in international relations practice, I am a realist at heart. And realists are not sappy snowflakes looking for a global group grope. Instead, they focus on two things as the currency of international relations and foreign policy: power and interest. As the saying goes, in an anarchic world or Hobessian state of nature where values are not universally shared and norms are contingent on voluntary acceptance by independent State actors as forms of self-imposed restraint, then what matters is the exercise of power in pursuit of national interest.

That leads me to the following pseudo-syllogism:

States have interests, not friends.

Foreign partnerships are based on interest, not friendship.

Trade and security relationships are therefore interest-based.

They may overlap, complement but should never countervail.

A State’s degree of interest in any matter is self-defined.

Values help define but do not determine interest.

Interest may be influenced by values and values may involve shared cultural mores, norms and history that make for notions of “friendship,” but interest is not reducible to them.

Interest prevails over values when interest and values are at odds.

It is the relationship between values and interest that concerns me now. If I accept that values are only part of the definition of interest, then I must accept that shared values do not necessarily place some forms of interest above others. Nor does the absence of shared values do likewise in the negative. And if that is the case, then the matter of trade versus security must be weighed based on the degree of value-free interest in each and the impact each has on the ability of NZ to wield what limited power it has on the global stage.

The issue is problematic because NZ has long claimed to have a “principled” foreign policy that is based on the values of independence, multilateralism, transparency, non-proliferation, human rights adherence and assorted other good things. I do not believe that NZ actually adheres to these when push comes to shove or even as a foreign policy bottom line, but if virtue signaling in international relations is characterised as lauding the role of “principle” in foreign policy, then NZ is the semaphore of that movement.

To be sure, NZ is a trading nation and is committed in principle to it. Securing a favourable balance of trade that helps GDP growth and distribution is a matter of economic security and must be included in any national security estimates, to include threat assessments. There are as a result practical and principled reasons why the issue of assessing relative interest is so important and why it may favour the trade whores.

Put another way, what are the interests at stake in NZ’s security relationships and what is their worth to the national well-being when juxtaposed against the country’s trade relationships (since security and trade have been uncoupled in the NZ foreign policy perspective)? If the benefits of trade are real and immediate while the benefits of security partnership are more ethereal or hypothetical than real (especially given the actual and opportunity costs involved), interest would dictate that trade should be favoured over security. But what if the benefits of security relations are more like those of insurance policies, in which you only fully realise them when you need them? How do you calculate the pluses/minuses of the trade-security dichotomy over the medium to long-term?

I do not have the answer to this. I have written plenty about the NZ-PRC-US strategic triangle and the unfortunate balancing act NZ has to engage in because of the misguided attempt to trade preferentially with China, on the one hand, and seek security guarantees through partnership with the US, on the other. Either could have worked in isolation or when the two great powers were not in competition, as it seemed when the two-track foreign policy approach was developed and refined in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But those days are long gone. There are ascendent and descendent great powers contesting for dominance in the Western Pacific, and we are just another pawn in their increasingly acerbic game.

So the question now is how do we measure “interest” in our trade and security relationships and which, on balance, should we favour given the centrifugal pull of each on our policy-makers? Do we give up our Western-centric security ties to fully embrace a China-led Asian/non-Western foreign policy orientation? Or do we give up the material benefits of our Asian-focused trade, learn to live within our means and reaffirm our security ties to our “traditional” partners? Is there a middle road or happy medium that can be pursued without suffering the consequences of alienating our partners on either side?

That seems to be the preferred option for the moment. But that assumes that NZ has a choice in the matter and that its behaviour will influence the corresponding behaviours of its larger, contending interlocutors because their respective interests are maintained by our dichotomous foreign policy approach. That is a very tenuous assumption to make because it is also quite possible that in the end it will be a larger partner who, exercising its power over us in its own national interest within a strategic context dominated by great power rivalries, that makes the choice for us.

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