Archive for ‘NZDF’ Category
Phil Goff is in the spotlight for supposedly leaking the results of a suppressed NZDF inquiry into the suicide of a soldier in Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan, on April 3, 2012. From what I can tell, what Mr. Goff has publicly commented about had already appeared in various media, so I do not believe that he leaked any suppressed details.
The inquiry focused on the deployment of the NZDF rotation to Bamiyan known as CRIB 19 (September 2011-April 2012). Besides the suicide, the inadequate training of CRIB 19 prior to deployment to Bamiyan has already been reported (as have complaints about the training of the ill-fated CRIB 20, which suffered five combat deaths in two ambushes). CRIB 19 only had three weeks (rather than five) of training prior to deployment (a 40 percent reduction), with some modules apparently taught on the flights into the theater or upon arrival. The deployment was also abruptly extended from six to eight months. The soldier killed himself in the last month of that extended deployment.
It appears that the NZDF is trying to suppress a full report on the command failures involved. The excuse that CRIB 19 could not receive full training prior to deployment due to RWC duties is laughable and an insult to the public’s intelligence. For example, since rotations to Bamiyan were planned well in advance, does it really seem plausible that those designated for deployment were diverted to crowd control and other logistical support connected to the RWC rather than to combat or at least conflict zone preparations? With a complement of 6000 Army and another 6000 in the Air Force and Navy, could not 100-200 soon-to-be deployed soldiers and sailors been spared RWC duties?
Given that there were/are serious hand-off and hand-on issues involving PRT/NZDF command leadership and personnel changes in foreign theaters, can it be true that the RWC threw a spanner into what was by that decision time an opened and extended international security commitment known locally as a longer tour of NZDF duty and commitment to major ISAF allies?
Put shorty: did successive New Zealand governments commit troops to Afghanistan (and Bamiyan) under false or changing pretenses and then blamed rugby for the contradictions in its policy enforcement?
As an aside, it should be noted that the size of the NZDF PRT contingent grew steadily over the years, from around 50 in the first rotation to nearly 200 in the last. That is one indication of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan during the course of the Bamiyan PRT mission. It would also indicate that more rather than less conflict-related training prior to deployment was advisable given the obvious mission creep.
If CRIB 19 personnel were diverted to RWC duties to the extent that their training time was shortened before they deployed into a combat zone and then their deployment was extended by two months without notice and without the usual leave provisions, then that is a command failure. Worse yet, if–and I emphasize that this is only an if–the training time was shortened as a result of cost-cutting measures undertaken by the NZDF as part of the government’s across-the-board spending cuts, then it was a political as well as a command failure. Whatever the case, the reasons for the shortened training needs to be explicated in better detail than the simple “they were on RWC duty” line.
After all, sending people into harms way without adequate training is nothing short of criminally negligent.
Whatever happened to the disinfectant impact that the light of public scrutiny has on government (and this case NZDF) behavior? If ever there was a need for such light, it is in the case of CRIB 19.
Journalist John Stephenson is a person of high integrity and a strong memory. He does not report anything until he is exactly certain he has the facts correct. Prime Minister John Key has a difficult relationship with the truth and suffers from memory loss well in advance of his age. He responds to unwanted or contrary facts and opinion with derision, distraction or insult.
John Key says that the SAS is in Bamiyan after the dual ambushes of NZDF troops to provide logistical and intelligence support. He initially said that only four SAS officers were dispatched but now admits there could be a couple of others in Bamiyan as well. John Stephenson reports that the SAS are actively engaged in the hunt for those who ambushed and killed NZDF personnel, and that their numbers exceed those offered by the PM.
Given their track records, if I had to take the word of one against the other, I would take the word of John Stephenson.
I also think that it is perfectly fine and natural for the SAS to deploy to Bamiyan after the ambushes. After all, the NZDF has been the lead ISAF force in that province since 2002 so has the best (albeit insufficient) knowledge of terrain, transit routes, local politics and the nature of the enemy. The SAS’s most basic role is long-range patrol, infiltration and surveillance. Thus they are a natural fit for the job of hunting down those responsible for the deadly attacks on NZ soldiers. The hunt for the killers involves but is not reducible to utu or revenge. It is about letting the Taliban know that attacks on the NZDF during the process of withdrawal from Bamiyan will not be tolerated. The Taliban understand utu. It is in fact part of their fighting culture. To not engage the SAS with the purpose of delivering a lethal response would be seen as a sign of weakness and encourage more attacks. Bringing the SAS into the equation reduces that possibility.
The Bamiyan PRT consists of approximately 4 platoons with an engineering and medical complement. The SAS officers deployed after the ambushes likely have assumed command of those platoons in order to sharpen the latter’s respective patrol skills. Although bad for the conventional officers who likely were relieved of their duties in the wake of the ambushes (one of them was seriously injured in the first attack), this is a smart thing to do given the worsening security situation in Bamiyan. It would also not be surprising if SAS enlisted personnel were sent to reinforce those platoons with their sharpened combat skills.
Since all of this is pretty well understood in military circles, the question begs as to why Mr. Key insists with a cover story that is patently bogus. Has his experience as a money trader made him believe that he can bluff, hedge and bluster his way out of every corner? If so, then his condition is pathological and undermines his mana. After all, what worked amongst the closed community of money traders does not always work in an open society with a critical press and a political opposition looking for cracks in his leadership facade. With John Stephenson as his main counter when it comes to what the NZDF is really doing in Afghanistan, Key is on a hiding to nothing when he persists with his obfuscation on military-security matters.
Although I have no technical expertise in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), I have discussed in various fora the military, intelligence, domestic security and political implications of their use now and in the future. The hard fact is that, bad press notwithstanding, UAVs (aka “drones”) are here to stay and will dominate the air space in the years to come. Already the US air force is training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. Ninety percent of what drones do is non-lethal: reconnaissance; surveillance; search and rescue; maritime patrol; signal, thermal, optic and other forms of technical intelligence gathering; geological exploration and terrain mapping–the applications of these types of platform are many and will continue to grow in the years ahead.
The utility of drones is due to a simple calculation: the three “Ds.” They do jobs that are dangerous and/or dirty, and they do them dispassionately. To this can be added the fact that their operational costs of drones are less than those of manned aircraft and they do not expose pilots to the physical risks of flying. That combination guarantees that policy-makers will look to UAVs as the future of military and law enforcement aviation even if manned aircraft remain the bulk of commercial and private aviation for the foreseeable future.
Lethal drones such as the infamous Predators are constantly being refined so that their acceptable Circular Error Probable (CEP)–the chances that a missile fired from the UAV will fall within 100 feet of the target crosshair center–is now greatly increased. Since they loiter at 15,000 feet for up to 36 hours, US drone pilots (who work in 12 hour shifts and who must have experience flying manned aircraft prior to their assignment as drone pilots) spend hours and days watching a potential target before pulling the trigger. The protocols governing the kill shot are quite tight (for example, no shots at family compounds or while the targeted individual(s) is or are in the vicinity of innocents), which contrary to popular opinion has greatly reduced the collateral damage occasioned by drone strikes when compared to the early days of their use.
In fact, manned aircraft continue to cause the bulk of unintended civilian deaths in Central Asia, which most often is the fault of faulty or misleading tactical intelligence on the ground (the use of misinformation by local informants acting for their own purposes has been a major contributor to the unintended civilian deaths caused by air strikes). As a remedy, special forces teams are increasingly being used to track, spot and verify legitimate targets in conflict zones (to include Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as Afghanistan).
Although there have been many protestations about the use of lethal drones (so far the US is the only country to use them in anger), it is interesting to note that Pakistan has never attempted to intercept US drones operating in Pakistani air space even though the latter are slow, not particularly maneuverable and relatively easy to spot by electronic means (the recent downing by Israeli forces of an Iranian drone operated by Hezbollah demonstrates the case). This is not to say that drone incursions into the sovereign air space of foreign countries are always or even generally acceptable. What the different responses suggest is that the Pakistanis may not be aggrieved by US drone operations as they claim to be.
To be sure, the US military has tighter protocols governing lethal drones than does the para-military arm of the CIA. That has led to disagreements within the US security apparatus about who should be in control of lethal drones and under what circumstances are they to be used. The president currently has to authorize the CIA strikes, which are mostly directed at suspected jihadis operating in failed states. The military has a bit more latitude in targeting militants or insurgents in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, although all lethal strikes must be authorized by the chain of command. As of yet, that debate about unifying the command and control of lethal drones is unresolved and both the US military and the CIA continue to deploy armed and unarmed drones in foreign theaters using their own set of criteria (which if largely overlapped are not identical).
That is what brings me to the major point of this post: the fact that the legal apparatus governing the employment of drones in the international as well as the domestic arenas is very underdeveloped when compared with the technologies themselves. Already 60 countries employ drones, and domestic security agencies in a host of countries have explored their usage. The US uses them for border control and Coast Guard purposes, and true to form, some police department in Texas is reported to have expressed interest in a lethal version that could also dispense non-lethal crowd control justice from above.
Yet in no case are the legal protocols governing the use of drones in domestic arenas as well developed as are those used by the US military when engaged in foreign conflicts. This is worrying because the potential for abuse is great. UAV technology has outpaced the legislative framing of their fair use not only in undemocratic states but in liberal democracies as well.
New Zealand is not different in this regard. The Army and Navy are exploring drone technologies, as are other non-military government agencies. The Department of Conservation already has deployed a drone for geothermal and geographic research. The police are interested in UAV platforms as a substitute or complement to helicopters and terrestrial patrol vehicles. It is only a matter of time before drones are a regular presence in New Zealand skies, and the Civil Aviation Authority is already being tasked with drafting technical regulations governing their operations.
Even so, the legal structure governing the why, when, how and by who of UAV use in NZ is virtually nonexistent. Parliament appears disinterested in the subject and the agencies who would have the most use for drones have not been particularly proactive in drafting guidelines for their use. It is time that they did.
One reason is because the future of drones is not only in their greater use but in their increasingly varied configurations, to include miniaturization based on developments in nano technology. Consider this gem:
Sent to me by a friend borrowing from an unnamed source, the following blurb came with the photo.
“Is this a mosquito? No. It’s an insect spy drone for urban areas, already in production, funded by the US Government. It can be remotely controlled and is equipped with a camera and a microphone. It can land on you, and it may have the potential to take a DNA sample or leave RFID tracking nanotechnology on your skin. It can fly through an open window, or it can attach to your clothing until you take it in your home. Given their propensity to request macro-sized drones for surveillance, one is left with little doubt that police and military may look into these gadgets next.”
UPDATE: The source for the photo is this: http://www.snopes.com/photos/technology/insectdrone.asp
In light of the implications of developments in UAV technology and the growth in their employment, it seems appropriate that New Zealand confront the legal aspects of said use. New Zealand could, for example, be the first country to prohibit the use of lethal drones either in foreign conflicts or for domestic security (no other country has of yet discounted the use of drones for lethal purposes). Likewise, because there are no regional or international protocols governing their use, New Zealand could try to introduce resolutions in international and regional bodies that would lead to the regulation of UAVs on a broader level. At present the field of UAV operations is basically uncharted, much less regulated, so the opportunity now exists to try to match advances in UAV technology and deployment with advances in the legal architectures governing them.
Since New Zealand has in the past shown initiative and boldness in enacting policy with both domestic and international import, the field of UAV regulation might be another way in with it can demonstrate its fore-sightedness when it comes to areas of universal concern.
John Key will not attend the funerals of the NZDF troopers killed in action in Bamiyan because he has a prior commitment to attend his high school aged son’s baseball tournament in the US. He says that his son has sacrificed a lot for his dad to be PM and he needs to return the favor.
I do not know what to say. Check that: actually, I do.
Is he elevating his son’s supposed sacrifice above that of the dead troopers he sent into a forlorn war? Is he serious or are the funerals a scheduling inconvenience? Does he not comprehend the gravity of the situation to which he has committed other people’s sons, who have died for the cause he supposedly champions (whatever that is)? Can he possibly not understand that his son’s penchant for a US sport may not be, in the large scheme of things, more important than the loss of life of courageous New Zealanders fighting in a hopeless conflict already abandoned by most Western allies?
Sure, Barack Obama and Julia Gillard do not attend every military funeral for their fallen soldiers in Afghanistan. But the military commitment of both countries far exceeds that of New Zealand and has an explicitly combat role. They both acknowledge that death comes with the commitment. John Key denies that New Zealand has a combat role and is still involved in peaceful reconstruction even though the security situation has “worsened.”
This is a disgrace of the first order.
John Key seems to believe that being a CEO is equivalent to being a statesman and prime minister. He seems to think that other peoples deadly sacrifices are just part of doing business. His bottom line needs no genuflections to the niceties of grief or reconsideration of the rationale of deploying NZ’s sons and daughters in conflict zones. It is all about his “big picture”, except of course when he can use an official visit to watch a high school game in an American sport.
He may claim that family matters most. He has already said as if it was somehow better, that the dead soldiers either had little family or were childless. So perhaps he feels he does not have to front to the funerals of soldiers killed in the worst military incident in forty years because his family priorities exceed his official obligations.
I find his attitude to be despicable and proof that he simply does not understand the full scope of the responsibilities and obligations that come with being Prime Minister, beyond whatever he thinks that being CEO of Kiwi, Inc. entails
This is a spit in the face of the NZDF. It is a dishonor to the fallen soldiers. It shows utter contempt for all the families who grieve.
Note to General Rhys-Jones and the rest of the NZDF brass: he just owned you in a very bad way.
It may seem insensitive to ask questions about the ambush that killed two and wounded six NZDF troops in Bamiyan, but I do not trust the government or NZDF brass to come clean on what really happened. They have spent too much time lying about the real security situation in Bamiyan and the real nature of what NZDF troops are doing there and elsewhere, such as during the SAS deployment.
The official story is that Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) personnel were ambushed in a village when they went to arrest a suspect, suffered losses, and called for reinforcement from the NZDF. The village is located in a narrow high mountain valley. Four NZDF patrols were in the area and at least two responded, although it took 2 hours for the convoy to slowly climb up to the village. The original story was that after laying down suppressing fire, an NZDF armored vehicle was hit by an “anti-tank rocket,” resulting in one NZDF death, and when the troops dismounted to secure the area another was killed and the others were wounded by a separate group of insurgents hiding in the surrounding terrain (it is unclear if some of the wounded were injured in the missile attack on the armored vehicle). A subsequent official version states that both soldiers were killed by rifle fire from a distance of 50-100 meters after they dismounted from the armored vehicle. A number of insurgents are claimed to have been killed, and 17 were seen withdrawing from the area carrying their dead and wounded. No enemy bodies were recovered although two insurgents were captured.
My questions are these:
Knowing that the valley was narrow with much high ground cover above the village in question, and given the time it took to reach the scene, why did the reinforcements not dismount, spread out and walk into the fire zone rather than drive all the way in? I say this because a standard guerrilla tactic, which has many variations, is the “sucker ploy” whereby a small ambush is staged on local forces so that the call for reinforcements is made. A second, larger ambush is staged using better cover and heavier weapons on the reinforcements, which in Afghanistan are inevitably foreign. The real target is the reinforcing forces, and faulty intelligence feeds are often used to lure the initial responders to the scene. The idea is to hit the reinforcements hard and disengage as rapidly as possible.
One way of preventing losses to such a sucker ploy is to have infantry dismount away from the point of contact and walk in from a range of 300-500 meters in a spread formation so as to minimize the risk of mass casualties and to provide better coverage of the tactical battle space. This is especially true for theaters in which the enemy uses remotely triggered IEDs as a tactical weapon against armored columns. Such a counter-move is taught as a basic defensive measure in most infantry courses.
One alternative that conventional armies rely on is to have an armored column carrying infantry move in tight on the enemy position, although this is usually an urban rather than rural tactic given tight space constraints and the limited lines of sight involved. It also assumes that the armor in question can withstand small arms fire, to include RPGs, at relatively close range. My question is therefore two-fold: why did the NZDF troops move in so close before dismounting, and what was the “armored” vehicle that was hit (and in fact, was any vehicle hit by “rocket” fire)? If one of the convoy vehicles was hit, what was it? An armored Humvee? An up-armoured Hilux? A LAV? If it was the latter (and I have seen video of NZDF LAVs being used in Bamiyan), what was the nature of the “anti-tank” munition used against it? Or was it hit by an RPG? I say this because one of the biggest flaws of the LAV, should it not be up-armored, is a relatively thin skin which is vulnerable to both RPGs and 50 caliber rounds. That flaw was the focus of much criticism during the debates about the LAV purchase, but the government and NZDF have consistently discounted the apparent vulnerabilities of the platform. Both the Humvee and Hilux, even if armored, are vulnerable to RPGs and large caliber rounds, to say nothing of IEDs.
>>Update: The NZDF have now reported that LAVs were involved and that one soldier was shot while sitting in the roof well position. The other was shot on the ground. There is no updated reports on whether the LAV took incoming small arms or RPG fire. Sanctuary and I discuss the issue of LAV vulnerability to such fire in the first two comments below.<<
Another question is about the report that 17 insurgents were seen leaving the scene, moving towards an area “not under the control of coalition forces” carrying their dead and wounded. First of all, the Taliban do not carry their dead, as that would be suicidal given that it would slow them down and make them vulnerable to pursuing forces or air strikes. Although they do at times carry their wounded, that also slows them down and makes them vulnerable to hot pursuit, particularly if they are climbing away from the battle zone. So why the claim that Taliban dead and wounded were being carried away and why no pursuit? What does “area not under control of coalition forces” mean? Given that the fire fight was supposedly over in 2-3 minutes according to the NZDF, how were the enemy forces able to escape in full sight of the patrol? Were they fired upon while retreating?
Why was no air cover called in before or after the initial ambush? Since the dead and wounded were evacuated by chopper in a relatively short period of time once the call for help went out, that means that air assets were in the vicinity (there is an airfield at the Bamiyan PRT). Were they otherwise occupied?
From what I gather in the press, this looks like a classic sucker ploy double ambush in which the NZDF was specifically targeted. That no enemy bodies or wounded were recovered, and that no pursuit of the fleeing insurgents was undertaken, suggests that this was a significant tactical victory for the “bad guys” (I presume that no pursuit was launched because the priority was to stabilize the wounded and secure a landing zone for the rescue choppers). It also suggests that there may be some issues with the patrol and response tactics used by the NZDF, particularly if these had been used before and established a pattern of behavior that the Taliban/insurgents could observe and learn from. The patrol in question was in its third month of deployment (the 19th PRT rotation), so questions of experience and local familiarity on the part of the troops involved are fair to raise.
I do not mean to question the actions or valor of the NZDF troops, nor do I claim any superior military expertise. I certainly do not have all of the facts on the ground. I can only speculate on what has been reported by the mainstream press so far. However, I do know a little about irregular warfare and about the tactical nature of that warfare in the Afghan theater. It is for that reason that I ask these questions, which I hope someone in the mainstream press will be courageous enough to ask of the government and NZDF. After all, there is still at least another year to go before the NZDF withdraws from Bamiyan, and whoever conducted this attack is clearly signaling what is in store in the months ahead.
Postscript: In his latest press conference held today Gen. Rhys-Jones stated that the NZDF troops were not specifically targeted, but were fired upon by insurgents protecting a valuable bomb-maker who was the object of the initial NSD search. He claimed that both soldiers killed as well as those that were wounded were dismounted when struck by small arms fire, and that the insurgents engaged in a fighting retreat before air strikes were called in. He asserted that the insurgents “took a battering” even though no bodies are found. This raises more questions even as it answers some of those outlined above. I shall leave it for readers to decide whether to take the General at his good word.
It looks like the NZDF will pull out of Afghanistan next year, one year earlier than originally planned. According to the government the situation is so good in Bamiyan Province that responsibility for security has been turned over to local Afghan forces and the NZDF has downscaled its armed patrols as it concentrates on packing up. The Hazaris who populate Bamiyan are said to be happy with what the NZDF has done with the Provincial Reconstruction Team and will assist the UN and other international organizations in continuing the reconstruction work once the NZDF has left the theater. According to the NZDF and National government, the PRT experience in Bamiyan has been exemplary and is a model for such military-led reconstruction efforts in other future theaters.
But there appears to be wrinkle in this happy picture. Five Afghan translators who worked with the NZDF have unexpectedly approached Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman during a press junket to the PRT (which also saw MSM types like Garth Bray along for the photo op dressed nattily in body armor while posing in front of dusty military hardware and encampments). They did so to request political asylum. The translator’s approach was unexpected, which speaks to the NZDF not being aware of their intentions in advance of the Minister’s visit (which left him at loss for an answer since refugee issues are not part of his portfolio–not that such subtleties matter to Afghans). That suggests a failure in communication between the NZDF and the people it relies on to convey its message in Bamiyan, which is problematic because since one would assume that the relationship between the translators and their patrons would be close and trusting. That the translators kept their concerns a secret until the Minister arrived speaks to underlying differences between them and the NZDF command in Bamiyan.
The translators claim that they will be harmed or killed once the NZDF leaves Bamiyan. Eh? What happened to that much vaunted security situation? If the NZDF did such a good job and was well received by the locals, why would these men fear for their lives? More generally, did the NZ government give any thought to the post-withdrawal security concerns of its closest Afghan interlocutors? Did the NZDF command in Bamiyan flag any such concerns to the government? If the security situation for allied locals in Bamiyan is not as good as has been announced, did the NZDF or NZ government mislead the public as to the truth of the situation?
The translators want special consideration rather than wait for the UN refugee-granting process to take its years-long course (by which time, if their fears are true, they might well be dead). In other words, the translators want to jump the queue because of their extenuating circumstances. That puts the NZ government in a difficult position. If it denies their claim and tells them to get in line like everyone else, they might die as a direct and immediate result of their association with NZ troops. If they get favored treatment then it opens the government to accusations that it responds opportunistically and plays loose with the rules for granting political asylum.
The government has already caused itself a problem. Minister Coleman, caught off-guard by the request on what was supposed to be an easy Anzac Day-related “meet and greet” with the troops, said that NZ has a responsibility to the translators because of their service to the NZDF. That opens a can of worms, because if NZ grants the translators refugee status on special grounds, that sets a precedent for anyone else in Afghanistan who worked with the ISAF coalition to make similar claims based upon fears for their post-withdrawal security. Cooks, cleaners, drivers, translators, lovers–the list of people who could claim persecuted status based on their association with ISAF is bound to be long. NZ offering asylum to these men consequently becomes a thorny diplomatic issue not only with its ISAF coalition partners (who face the possibility of being inundated with similar requests), but also with the Afghan National Government that is supposed to be capable of guaranteeing security once ISAF is gone.
Whatever the decision on the translator’s request, the episode has raised more questions about conditions in Bamiyan than the NZDF appears willing to answer. One thing is certain. No matter what the outcome someone is bound to be left in the lurch, and that includes the NZ MSM types who failed to realize the full significance of what they witnessed when the translators were introduced to Mr. Coleman.
Given that foreign policy has rarely been addressed in this year’s election campaign, and then only briefly in the form of PR releases and sound bites rather than genuine debate, I used this month’s Word from Afar column at Scoop to point out why that is not such a good thing.
When John Key authorized the re-deployment of an SAS company to serve as counter-terrorism advisors to the Afghan Police’s Crisis Response Unit (CRU) in 2009, he was authorizing a mission that differed from the long-range patrol, tracking and infiltration missions that are the mainstay of SAS deployments and which were the basis for its original deployment in that theater from 2001-2005. In doing so he was placing the SAS at the forefront of the urban guerrilla war in and around Kabul (to include Wardak Province) that was part of the Afghan resistance’s two-pronged (urban and rural) irregular war conducted against the foreign occupying force led by the US and NATO under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). By the time Key authorised the deployment the security situation in Afghanistan had evolved into a civil war involving the Western-backed Karzai regime, the Pakistani-backed Haqqani network, and various Taliban factions based in and outside of Afghanistan (with Pakistan facilitating cross-border cover for those based inside its territory).
The SAS inherited the counter-terrorism advisor mission from the Norwegian special forces, who had advised the CRU from 2007-2009. The CRU has its origins in 2005, so rather than a new unit it is almost seven years old and has had foreign professional military training and advice for nearly five years. In most modern militaries the time taken for specialisation beyond basic training (such as sniping, sapping, intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorist response) varies from 6 to 18 months. That means that the CRU, which has 285 members, is lagging behind when it comes to being able to autonomously respond and fight on its own.
The SAS initially sent a light company’s worth of troops (70) in 2009, but the number has been reduced to 38 in the last year. The job consists of providing training on-base in which counter-terrorist assaults are mounted in various scenarios, using abandoned buildings, vehicles and other simulations that replicate the dense tactical environment in which the CRU must operate. Close quarter clearing and entering, airborne rappelling, hostage rescue and a host of other skills are initially imparted in these exercises. But the mission also includes accompanying the CRU into real situations, which means taking leadership roles in responding to live incidents when the CRU forces prove unable to cope on their own. As Taleban attacks on symbolic and military targets have increased over the last year in concert with the announcement that the US will be withdrawing the bulk of its forces by 2014, with other ISAF members already doing so, the pace of these “live” responses has accelerated as well. Most of the operations conducted by the SAS/CRU consist of pre-emptive strikes against imminent threats based on intelligence flows provided by Afghan and ISAF forces. A smaller percentage is dedicated to responding to terrorist incidents in progress such as the attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel and British High Commission. The accelerated pace of operations now sees the SAS/CRU deployed in “live” mode 2-3 times a week on average.
Urban guerrilla warfare has no fixed lines or fronts. In fact, by definition the battle space in a guerrilla war is amorphous and permeable. Thus the counter-terrorism mission is a combat mission within an irregular warfare context. Training and advising in such contexts means involvement in close-quarter small unit kinetic operations, which given the dense (heavily populated and urbanised) environment in which they occurs means that support and leadership roles are indistinguishable to the enemy. Thus the SAS has always had a combat role in this mission.
It is evident that the CRU is not performing up to professional standard, particularly when confronted by a committed and well-prepared enemy. This may be due to a lack of will on member’s part, which in turn may be rooted in the deep divisions extant in Afghan society and in the knowledge that a post-ISAF political settlement that avoids massive bloodshed will have to include the Taliban and the Haqqanis. Under such conditions in may appear foolish to be closely identified with foreign forces working with the Karzai regime. That could sap the desire of some CRU members to engage robustly in the counter-terrorism effort, no matter how eager they may appear to their SAS advisors when back on base. This is compounded by faulty intelligence flows in which individuals or groups with personal vendettas supply misinformation about rivals so that ISAF forces, including the CRU/SAS, launch raids against innocent people. There is already at least one incident in which the SAS has engaged in an operation that resulted in the deaths of innocents based upon faulty intelligence. The manipulation of intelligence by Afghan sources, in other words, raises the probability that the SAS will be involved in the deaths of civilian non-combatants.
The SAS dilemma is compounded by the fact that, given CRU unreliability, the risks to SAS troopers increases every time they deploy with them. It is one thing to deploy with fellow SAS on long-range patrols or in a counter-terrorism situation. They are a tightly knit and cohesive fighting unit playing off the same tactical page. But adding the CRU to the mix brings with it a lack of discipline and resolve, which forces the SAS troops to compensate by leading by example. Doing so exposes them to a degree seldom seen when fighting on their own.
The latest raid that resulted in the second death of an SAS soldier in a month demonstrates the problem. In a pre-emptive raid against suspected bomb-makers (or a family feud, depending on who you believe), the SAS deployed 15 advisors along side 50 CRU troops. This is a ratio of 1 advisor for every 3.1 CRU soldiers. That is remarkably low if the SAS were merely “mentoring” in a support role. The fact that the SAS trooper was killed while climbing a ladder to gain a better vantage point on the compound in which the raid was taking place shows that even such basic tasks, usually assigned to the most expendable soldiers of lower-rank, are having to be done by SAS troops. This demonstrates a lack of faith in the competence or reliability of the CRU personnel and the need for first-responder proaction on the part of the SAS in such situations.
Given that the Afghan resistance have increased the tempo of their operations in and around Kabul, the likelihood is that the CRU/SAS will be involved in an increasing number of armed incidents. That may force the NZDF to re-increase its complement of SAS back to the original 70 personnel, and raises the question as to whether it will be asked to extend the SAS deployment past its March 2012 withdrawal date. Given the strategic dynamics at play in Afghanistan, that is a sticky question.
It also raises the question as to why Mr. Key has from the day he announced the re-deployment insisted that the SAS are in a non-combat “mentoring” and support role. The NZDF and Minister of Defense have now admitted that combat is part of the mission. Mr. Key continues to deny that it is so. Besides the lack of synchronization of the government PR spin, the question rises as to whether the government has misled the NZ public on the true nature of the mission, or the NZDF deliberately misled the Prime Minister and his cabinet on the matter at the time the request for SAS assistance was made by ISAF (it should be noted that Mr. Key’s agreement to redeploy the SAS was based on his eagerness to curry favor with the US, which may not have seen a trade deal as a reward but which has seen NZ elevated to the status of full US security partner with the signing of the Wellington Declaration of November 2010. This may well mean future involvement in US-led military operations that have little to do with NZ’s national security per se).
All of this makes the government and NZDF attacks on the credibility of Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager, two journalists who exposed the true nature of NZDF missions in Afghanistan and the duplicity surrounding them, all the more contemptible and desperate. It also was very stupid to do so because the conflict environment in which the SAS operates has deteriorated rather than improved since it arrived back in theater, which made the deaths and wounding of its personnel much more likely if not predictable. Once that began to happen (there have been about a half dozen SAS troopers wounded in combat on this mission), it was only a matter of time before the corporate media began to focus attention on the dubious explanations about the nature of the deployment. With that now happening the house of cards that is Mr. Key’s justification for authorizing it has begun to crumble, and it will not be surprising if senior NZDF heads will roll as a result.
Timing is everything, so they say. The Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was a masterpiece of symbolic defiance. Apparently modeled on the Mumbai attacks of 2008 (which suggests the possibility of links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) Islamicists that carried out that attack and which are reported to have links with the Pakistani Intelligence Service ISI), the assault comes on the very week that overall security responsibility for Kabul was being transferred from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Afghan hands. It comes in wake of the announcement of the US withdrawal plan, which sees 33,000 US troops headed home between July 2011 and September 2012, and the bulk of the remaining 70,000 withdrawn by late 2014. It occurred during a conference held at the hotel between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on the subject of “anti-terrorism,” considered against the backdrop of an overall ISAF reduction in presence along with the US military draw down.
The first areas to be handed over to Afghan control are Kabul and Bamiyan Province. NZ troops are stationed in both places, with the SAS company located in Kabul while the majority of the other NZDF personnel serve with the PRT in Bamiyan. If the Taliban logic holds true, they will accelerate the pace of attacks on remaining ISAF forces in areas that are handed over to Afghan security control. It is therefore plausible to think that NZDF troops will be the subject of targeted hostilities in both theaters, with the timing and intensity of Taliban attacks increasing. As the symbolic centre of the foreign occupation, Kabul is a target rich environment for urban guerrillas. In Bamiyan the local ethnic Hazari population, long victims of Taliban discrimination, now must ponder a post-PRT future in which the Taliban will be a major player. That advises them to look to negotiate with the Taliban on post-PRT terms and to consequently distance themselves from the PRT. That will have an impact on tactical intelligence gathering as well local logistics, to say nothing of the security of the NZDF personnel stationed there. PRT force protection, rather than combat patrols, could well be the objective of the day once Afghan security forces assume control in Bamiyan.
In terms of the assault itself, the Intercontinental Hotel operation demonstrated sophistication and professionalism. The combined grenade, IED and small arms fire tactic involved a mix of attackers, apparently disguised as guests and Afghan police. It is speculated that some may have checked into the hotel days before the assault, while other reports have the 9-man assault squad launching the attack from the hill that the hotel backs on to. The five rings of road block blast barriers on the road leading to the hotel were ineffectual against the assault. Afghan security forces at and around the hotel are said to have run rather than engage the attackers from the onset, which allowed them to move beyond the lobby and pool areas and into the floors above. While the bulk of the guerrillas fought floor to floor and room to room with the eventual responders, a few made the roof and used it to engage sniper fire on reinforcements (thereby demonstrating knowledge of standard counter-terrorism tactics using troops rappelling from helicopters onto rooftops). The fact that the battle lasted 5 hours indicates the planning and tenacity of the Taliban fighters, with the last one killing himself at 7AM (the attack began at 10PM).
That is where mentoring comes in. “Mentoring” in the context of the NZSAS relationship with the Afghan anti-terrorist force known as the Crisis Response Unit means training and combat support. The SAS trains the CRU and follows them into battle in incidents precisely like the hotel siege. That is what they train for, in a variety of scenarios. Should the CRU vacillate or prove ineffectual, then the SAS mentors assume leadership roles and coordinate the counter-attack. The involves them at the initial point of contact with the enemy–at the pointy end, if you will. The two wounded troopers were engaged in such roles, which along with the duration of the battle suggests that the initial CRU response was less than optimal.
If reports are true that SAS snipers platformed on a NATO Blackhawk hovering near the hotel killed the rooftop snipers (at night), it will have brought valuable and highly specialised combat experience to to the unit. Re-taking the hotel will have given the rest of the SAS team (reported as “around a dozen”) equally important live fire exposure (and at least two scars). Should this scenario be true, from an SAS standpoint the engagement was a mixed bag, with the CRU not holding its own without help against a determined and prepared enemy, but where SAS troops combat tested a range of tactics and skills.
The bigger issue is what does this attack mean for ISAF and the NZDF. Let me suggest this: it means that whatever the technical skills and material improvements imparted by NZDF forces in reconstruction, nation-building and “mentoring” roles, the balance of forces vis a vis the Taliban indicates that their efforts have not prospered as hoped, and their security is increasingly compromised as a result.
The hallmark of professional militaries is that they are non-partisan, subordinate themselves to elected civilian leadership in exchange for corporate autonomy and serve the nation as a commoweal organisation–that is, as an agent providing a universal public good (in this case national defense). The same is true for intelligence agencies, which are supposed to provide objective, factual and politically neutral analysis of threats, current trends and longer-term strategic developments. Conversely, praetorian militaries (named after the Roman praetorian guards that made and unmade emperors) are highly politicised, overtly partisan, permeated by sectarian or class interests and prone to manipulating threat assessments or broader strategic evaluations for corporate or political gain.
The reason I make these distinctions is because there appears to be a disturbing trend at play within the NZDF. Evident in the official misrepresentations and dissembling about the reasons for, and rules of engagement governing the SAS re-deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, the NZDF appears to be following the NZSIS approach to its charter. That is worrisome because the SIS has shown itself to be extremely politicised and prone to praetorian behaviour under the protection of national security legislation that prevents transparency in the reporting and investigation of its activities. The Zaoui case, the branding of Jane Kelsey as a security threat, the spying on peace and environmental activists engaged in lawful dissent, the attempts to portray the Urewera 18 as something far more sinister than they are–all of this is symptomatic of the deep institutional malaise and anti-democratic propensities of the SIS. Hopes that the praetorian culture within the SIS would change with the appointment of Warren Tucker as director have been dashed as time goes by, and instead its powers of surveillance and scope of authority have been expanded under National-led reforms of the Terrorism Suppression Act and attendant security legislation.
That is why current developments within the NZDF are troubling. Unlike its intelligence counterpart, the NZDF has a reputation for professionalism and straight talk. That remains true for the bulk of the armed services, which for a small fighting force perform admirably within the budgetary and operational constraints incumbent upon them. But over the last decade or so the NZDF leadership–those of field and flag rank–have increasingly shown a propensity to dovetail their assessments with those of the government of the day. While consistency in approach between the military and civilian leadership is needed for security policy to be effective, this marrying of political interests has begun to look suspiciously like incipient “praetorianisation” of the NZDF. Rationales for foreign deployments, operational requirements, assessments of legal authority and liability, weapons procurement policy, justications for alliance commitments–in virtually every sphere of corporate interest the NZDF leadership appear to be taking their cue not from the objective requirements of the security environment in which NZ operates but from the political necessities of the government.
Although the Clark government manipulated the NZDF for its own purposes, this trend towards praetorianism has become amply evident with National in power, particularly in its reaffirming of security ties to the US (which is now confirmed by a “strategic partnership” codified in the Wellington Declaration of November 2010). This relationship certainly has benefits for the NZDF but it also has potential drawbacks in the measure that NZ is now tied to US (and Australian) strategic interests that are not necessarily those of NZ or which do not enjoy public support within it. There may be good reasons for this, but if so they have not been well enunciated and defended by the NZDF on autonomous grounds. Instead, without public consultation or debate, the government has agreed to the strategic partnership and the NZDF has followed the party line. The same is true for the Defence White Paper issued this past year, which rather than reflect a broad public consensus on the orientation and configuration of the NZDF given the security environment of the next decade, has arguably responded more to the internal logics of the defence establishment and the government (in other words, the public consultation process was ritualistic window-dressing on what amounted to the adoption of largely pre-determined decisions). None of this conforms to the military professional ideal in a democracy.
The politicisation of the NZDF leadership became acutely apparent in the response to Jon Stephenson’s article on the SAS in Afghanistan. The commander of the NZDF, General Rhys-Jones, parroted John Key’s slanderous denigration of the reporter and refused to consider the possibility that his predecessor, Sir Jerry Mateparae might have overlooked or whitewashed reports that the SAS were handing over prisoners to agencies involved in torture and violations of the Geneva Convention. There may be convincing reasons why this happened, but instead the NZDF closed ranks around Mateparae and Mr. Key, the former apparently out of corporate solidarity and the latter out of political obsequiousness. The trouble is that while the NZDF leadership and civilian policy-makers may find common defense in public stonewalling on matters of contentious security policy, it leaves troops in the field exposed to criminal accusations and undermines the professional ethics of the force as a whole.
That is not good. Although the NZDF is a long way off from being a coup-mongering praetorian military, the increased politicisation of its leadership is a troubling development. Obviously enough military leaders need to have good diplomatic skills and political sensitivities in order to ascend the ranks and interact with their civilian counterparts. There are certainly many–the majority–of NZDF officers who are full professionals. But for some in leadership roles to “spin” the military perspective to suit the political interests of the government of the day is a step too far, as it not only violates the responsibilities of the leadership to the troops that serve under them, but also the duty the military has to the nation as a whole as part of its commonweal orientation.
Perhaps the root of the problem of military politisation in NZ is more fundamental. Because NZ does not have a constitution NZDF uniformed personnel do not swear an oath to a foundational charter. Instead, they swear a loyalty oath to the Government and the Crown (“Crown” presumably referring to the State but which could also be taken as reference to the Queen given NZ’s ongoing allegiance to the monarchy). Little wonder, then, that the corporate logic of the NZDF parallels that of the SIS, because at the end of the day and regardless of the rhetorical commitment to the nation as a whole, its sworn loyalty is less than universal. In other words, rather than a commonweal organisation at the service of the State and Nation, it is merely a tool of government, with all of the partisan implications that entails.