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Raucous AUKUS Ruckus.

datePosted on 13:22, October 2nd, 2021 by Pablo

A significant strategic re-equilibration is underway in the Indo-Pacific. It may eventuate into a geopolitical tectonic shift but at a minimum it entails a reordering of the regional military balance, which in turn has diplomatic implications much further afield.

Agreement between the US, UK and Australia to build nuclear powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), and the military alliance between those states that will have that submarine fleet as its cornerstone (called “AUKUS”), has generated a lot of debate about its implications across a number of issue areas. Much heat has been generated as well, particularly from France (which saw its 2016 contract to build diesel-powered boats cancelled), China (clearly the reason why the Anglophone military partnership was formed and which is unhappy about it), non-proliferation and pacifist communities (who see the danger of nuclear arms proliferation amid a regional arms race as a result of the move) and NZ security conservatives who feel that Aotearoa was ignored and left out of the alliance because of its non-nuclear status. Now that much of the initial furore has died down, it is worth pausing to disaggregate what the creation of AUKUS entails.

First, a bit about the boats. The RAN boats will likely be based on the US Los Angeles (older) or Virginia (newer) class or UK Astute class fast attack submarines (SSNs). Most of their infrastructure, including their nuclear propulsion systems, will likely be built by General Dynamic Electric Boat Division and/or BAE, which have built these types of submarine for the US and UK. The keels and hulls will be laid by shipbuilders in Adelaide. The submarines will be around 370 feet in length and displace 6900-7700 tons. Armed with Mark 48 torpedoes, assorted mines and Tomahawk cruise missiles, they have a top speed of +25 knots (the exact speed is classified) and a diving depth of +800 feet (again, the exact depth is classified). With a crew of approximately 145-150, their primary mission is Surface and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), although they can attack land targets and engage in mining and intelligence gathering operations. 

The nuclear propulsion systems can be likened to a miniaturized version of commercial nuclear power plants with the the exception that the submarine reactors are fueled by highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium. That allows them to use much less fuel than less enriched uranium power plants and helps reduce the size of the entire propulsion system. They are much quieter than diesel engines, which along with other acoustic suppression technologies known only to the US and UK navies gives them greater stealth capability and allows them to deploy and stay on station longer than conventionally powered boats (up to 12 + months depending on the mission). In practical terms that means that the Australian subs will be able to patrol across the Indian and Southern Oceans and far into the Pacific east of New Zealand and north of Indonesia and Hawaii.

SSNs are not equipped with nuclear weapons. Those type of submarines, known as SSBMs, are almost twice the length and weight of SSNs and carry Sea Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) that have ranges of 10,000 kilometers or more. This is important to note because the missile tubes required to launch SLBMS are larger than those required to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles, which means that SSNs cannot fire SLBMS. Although theoretically SSN cruise missiles, mines and torpedoes could be armed with with nuclear warheads, the availability of other weapons options and practicalities of ASW and naval surface warfare make that option highly unlikely. Moreover, the nature of the reactor casing and absence of anything remotely resembling a detonator trigger make the possibility of an accidental nuclear explosion aboard an SSN extremely remote.

From a performance point of view, the switch to US/UK designed submarines is a great improvement over the French diesel-powered option even if the total number of boats delivered will be less (6-8 rather than 10-12). The issue that remains regarding the 2016 contract between the French and Australians is how much the latter will pay for canceling it (the contract was worth 34 billion Euros). There had already been time delays and cost overruns in the 5 years since the contract was let and not a single keel had been laid, so the cancellation and switch makes sense if the break price for doing so can be agreed upon (say, for example, ten percent of the original contract and expenses incurred through the cancellation date). That is not an insurmountable obstacle and the French are well aware of the advantages the AUKUS deal has over the initial contract. To that can be added the strategic benefit France accrues with the presence of the upgraded RAN submarine fleet, which at no cost to France improves defense of sea lanes of communication between Europe and East Asia without requiring an increased French naval presence in the Indo-Pacific (the French Pacific fleet, headquartered in Papeete, is the smallest of the French fleets).

The arrival of the nuclear-powered Australian sub fleet alters the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific and, along with ongoing upgrades to Australian Defense Forces (ADF) land and air components, will make Australia the first military Great Power in the Southern Hemisphere.

When added to the military pivot by the US and UK towards naval operations in that theatre, it means that the regional balance of power will undergo a major shift that greatly complicates the Chinese quest for maritime dominance in that potential conflict domain. The US Pacific fleet already has more than 30 submarines in theatre, the majority of them LA and Virginia-class SSNs, to which are added a few Seawolf-class guided missile multipurpose subs and Ohio-class SLBMs. The UK is re-positioning significant parts of its fleet, including Astute-class SSNs and Typhoon-class SLBMs, to the Indo-Pacific as part of the naval ring-fencing of the PLAN. That means that PLAN submarines, both SLBMs and attack submarines, will be more effectively shadowed and attacked by Western boats in the event of conflict. That in turn provides another layer of security to US carrier fleets and allied surface vessels (including Australian and New Zealand navy vessels), whose numbers help make up the difference between regional smaller fleets and the PLAN (which is the largest naval fleet in the world). It also puts the small PLAN aircraft carrier force at considerable more risk.

The strategy behind AUKUS is simple: make it much harder and far more costly for the PLAN to push its reach beyond the mythical “first island chain” that extends out beyond Japan to the Aleutians in the North and the Philippines and Borneo to the Southeast, encompassing all of the East China and South China Seas and the straits connecting them and the Pacific. The second island chain, which extends from Japan through Guam to Papua New Guinea, has already been mapped by PLAN strategic planners, who have been considering forward basing rights in places like the Solomons, Fiji and, much further to the West, ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, extending to the current PLAN base in Djibouti. The Chinese concern with maintaining a permanent maritime presence in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean is justified: over 95 percent of its oil imports and 80 percent of its trade with Europe, the Middle East and Africa cross the Indian Ocean and pass through the Strait of Malacca. PLAN power projection to the outermost island chain, extending from the Aleutians through Hawai’i to New Zealand, is at this point an aspirational target superseded by the drive to develop a PLAN Indian Ocean fleet while consolidating dominance over the first two island chains.

The Three Island Chain in Chinese Military Planning.

The PRC’s ability to protect its interests in the Indo-Pacific is complicated not only by the AUKUS alliance, but also by the creation of the so-called “Quad” security agreement involving Australia, India, Japan and the US and the reinvigoration of the 5 Powers defense arrangement involving Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand Singapore and the UK. This concentric and overlapping network of security partnerships constitute military-diplomatic tiers arrayed against PLAN power projection. That raises the material costs to the PRC when pursuing maritime expansion since it will need more platforms and weapons to overcome the assets arrayed against them, and it raises the risks to the PRC are starting a conflict or engaging in intimidating behavior towards its neighbors. In short, this collective deterrence strategy will make it much harder for the PRC to engage in coercive military and so-called “wolf warrior” diplomacy with the security alliances now being built against it.

The reaction of SE Asian and Western Pacific countries to this re-equillibration effort has been for the most part muted. For them the issue is not so much about the presence of more nuclear powered platforms since they already exist in some numbers in and around the Indo-Pacific basin. It is more about the collective action required to achieve strategic balancing in pursuit of, if not regional hegemony by the US or PRC, then a mutually satisfactory status quo grounded in that strategic balance. For countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Viet Nam, the Philippines and Singapore, a stable maritime security balance based on common respect for universal norms and rules is the preferred option, but if not ,a regional status quo rooted in the military superiority of and collective deterrence provided by the Anglophone-led powers is seen to be preferable given the nature of Chinese behavior in recent years.

At this point we must pause for a parenthetical aside. There is a difference between regional dominance and regional hegemony. Domination is achieved by the unilateral imposition of an inter-state status quo by a militarily and economically superior actor. Hegemony is achieved via consent and consensus, where weaker states agree to the leadership of a stronger state (or coalition of states) within given geographic limits. The former is rooted in overwhelming coercive and dissuasive power that enforces acquiescence. The latter is grounded in agreement on principles and norms that promote willing acceptance. 

That is what makes for the difference between the PRC and Anglophone approaches in the Indo-Pacific: the PRC seeks to secure its interests as it sees fit and uses coercive diplomacy (including military diplomacy) along with economic incentives (to include foreign aid in exchange for pro-PRC votes in international fora) in order to achieve its goals during peacetime. As seen by its island-building project in the South China Sea, aggressive use of maritime militias to assert territorial claims within the first island chain and “swarm” fishing fleet tactics across the globe, the PRC will not hesitate to violate international law should it deem it necessary. For its part, the Anglophone alliance seeks to uphold a rules based international order that, if admittedly constructed in its preferred image and resting on imperialist foundations that are a legacy from the colonial era, attempts to balance coercive and dissuasive uses of “hard” power with persuasive and inducement-focused uses of “soft” power as the preferred means of peaceful international exchange. 

The difference between regional dominance and regional hegemony appears to be the reason why the announcement of the Quad and AUKUS pacts have met with little resistance outside of China and Russia. In fact, many States see the moves as a natural response (and counter) to Chinese belligerency when asserting its interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Further afield, the ring-fencing or containment project against China in the Indo-Pacific will have a significant impact on European strategic interests. The arrival of AUKUS and the Quad signal to NATO that the US and UK are turning their gaze to the strategic threat in the Far East and will prioritize redeployment of maritime assets in that region. This forces NATO to subordinate US and UK perspectives within it in favor of a more “continental” approach that focuses on the original and primary threat that it was created to counter: Russia (formerly the USSR). Even more so than the PRC in East and Southeast Asia, Russia has asserted its dominance by occupying territory in Georgia and the Ukraine, annexing Crimea, backing the Belorussian dictatorship and Serbian nationalists, conducting hybrid warfare in border states such as Latvia and Estonia, bolstering its Arctic military operations and establishing itself as a major extra-regional interlocutor in the Middle East after its successful military defense of the Assad regime in Syria, machinations in post-Gaddafi Libya and military partnership with Iran.

With Brexit a fact and Germany transiting away from 16 years of strong centrist rule under Angela Merkel, this allows for two things. First, a return, after years of unfocused attempts at extra-regional peace-keeping, nation-building, regime change and prosecuting the “war on terrorism,” to the Cold War focus on land warfare across the continent should conflict with Russia eventuate; and secondly, the rise of France as a more integrated European military leader under the NATO banner (France is a NATO member but has not participated as an integrated command member since 1966). French protestations about the AUKUS deal notwithstanding, it appears that the US/UK shift in strategic perspective away from Europe may actually prove beneficial in that it will help revitalize NATO as a collective defense alliance in tandem with a more Euro-centric production and trade regime.

As for New Zealand, there is little downside to the AUKUS pact. Although it was not invited to join and will continue to officially prohibit the new Australian nuclear submarines from entering NZ waters (as far as it can), it will also continue to exercise and conduct joint operations regularly with the US, UK and Australia outside of NZ waters. Having committed to upgrading its ASW capabilities with the purchase of modern P-8 patrol and ASW aircraft to replace its small fleet of P-3s now in service, the HMNZN (RNZN for short) will be included in some of the technology transfers derived from AUKUS beyond the nuclear aspects of the deal (say, in computing and artificial intelligence sharing related to ASW). The RNZN has to replace its two ageing frigates in the near future anyway, so the cost to the NZ taxpayer for receiving an enhanced security umbrella as a collateral benefit of and complement to AUKUS will be minimal beyond what has already been envisioned under current systems upgrade plans. In terms of foreign relations, NZ’s non-involvement in AUKUS spares it the wrath of the PRC, something that for a country as trade dependent on China as NZ is, can only be a good thing (even if the Chinese well understand which side NZ is on when it comes to the regional military balance). As for domestic politics, non-involvement in AUKUS also is a positive given that the non-nuclear policy has broad cross-party and public support. Thus, politically, diplomatically and militarily, NZ’s stance vis a vis AUKUS is a net positive for the country.

Pacifists and non-proliferation activists have reason to be concerned that Australian acquisition of nuclear powered submarines could lead other States in the region to follow suit. India has nuclear powered aircraft carriers and submarines in its arsenal, so countries with similar levels of economic development and technological expertise like Indonesia, South Korea or Malaysia (or even Singapore!) might decide to join the nuclear powered club. However, this does not mean that nuclear weapons will follow from that, and in fact, the security alliances being used to contain the PRC’s ambitions are in part designed to mitigate against governmental insecurities and inter-regional rivalries that might prompt a move towards nuclear propulsion. Japan and Taiwan will not go that route due to the conflict-precipitating dangers that it would entail, and other countries in the Indo-Pacific simply do not have the resources to join such a “big ticket” arms race.

Hence, while understandable in principle, in practice the chances of nuclear proliferation increasing as a result of the AUKUS agreement are very low. What it simply means is that six more nuclear propelled platforms will be added to those already cruising the waters of the West and South Pacific, Indian Ocean and connecting seas and straits (to include more PLAN nuclear submarines).

A final point on strategic (re) balancing such as what is being seen in these recent developments. Moves of these sort are designed to influence behavior. On one hand, they are designed to reassure friends and allies of the coalition partner’s commitment to their common defense and in this case, collective deterrence of a common adversary. On the other hand, they are oriented towards changing an adversaries’ behavior in a contested space by raising the costs of it persisting with a belligerent course of action without the consent of the other countries in that geographic space. As such it is both persuasive and dissuasive in nature. 

This does not occur in a vacuum. Along with the “stick” of strengthened collective security alliances, economic and diplomatic “carrots” can be tendered to the PRC for lowering the tone of its civilian and military diplomacy while re-emphasizing the cooperative rather than conflictual orientation of its international engagements. This may not be possible so long as President (and General Secretary of the CCP) Xi Jinping remains in power, but it certainly will be an option that his successors will have to consider. And since the Australian submarines will not become operational until late in this decade at best, that gives them time to evaluate the pros and cons of sticking with his hardline approach to foreign policy. Time will tell.

This week’s “A View from Afar” podcast addresses the topic of this post. You can find it here.

Ideational and ideological in the construction of “isms.”

datePosted on 12:22, September 24th, 2021 by Pablo

A lot has been made in recent times about the dark and pernicious side of ideology, particularly its ability to incite hate or dispute obvious fact. In that regard there has been much discussion of political ideologies, particularly national populism such as that practiced by the likes of Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Dutarte, Jose Bolsonaro and Donald Tump. In fact, “Trumpism” is synonymous with a combination of ignorance, arrogance and bullsh*tting bluster all rolled into one racist, bigoted, xenophobic, ball-of-hate worldview. However, although the subject of national populism is topical, the discussion about ideology extends into fields other than the political, even reaching into debate about what properly constitutes “scientific” reasoning and discourse. As a way of framing how to understand what ideology is as an intellectual construct rather than just a set of ideas about the organization of particular things, please humour me this indulgence.

Ideology is a product of the imagination, a construction of the mind. Unlike flights of fancy and other ideational inventions and to be specific, an ideology is a coherent set of value principles that organises reality over time and specifies the relationship between the imaginary and the real. The imaginary is what is ideal, preferred, unknown, inexplicable and/or fantastic. Reality is the material, physical and social conditions in which we exist. Ideology is the glue that binds them together in human consciousness. It is not just some random assortment of ideas and opinions. It is an intellectual framework for interpreting the world around us.

We come into the world hard-wired but  tabula rasa, and over time we are conditioned, schooled, instructed and otherwise taught about the ways things are either by direct experience or imparted knowledge. In that light ideology serves as an interpretative device that explains the connection between lived or actual experience and how things can, were and should be. Taken over time and as Gramsci once noted, passing through a “complex tissue of vulgarisations to emerge as common sense,” ideology defines how we see the world around us and our position and role in it.

Think of it this way. What is considered “unimaginable” is so only because of what we are. What makes science fiction creatures and worlds “alien” and “fantastic” is that they are not materially like us or anything in our collective existence. Our imagination not only processes what is materially and physically real in our world but also frames how we imagine that which is not observable in our reality. To paraphrase something that Rod Sterling of “Twilight Zone” TV show fame said in the mid 60s, “fantasy is translating the impossible into the improbable; science fiction is the improbable translated into the possible.” We address what is real and unreal based on mental constructs, not on immutable laws even if we render homage to divinity or the mysterious workings of Mother Nature and the Universe in general. 

There is a difference between ideational and ideological. Ideational refers to how we perceive the world we know and what lies beyond. Ideological refers to how we interpret that which is around and ahead of us.

Ideology explains realities to ourselves as well as the infinite possibilities that may exist beyond us. It is ideational in origin and its practical result is organisational: it serves to explain, categorise and regulate human society and the physical world in which it exists, and separates what can be known in human terms from that which is imaginable but unknowable. Broadly speaking, I refer here to ideologies that primarily address the physical and material world in which we live as scientific; and those that address the human condition as social.

In Carl Sagan’s (1996) words, “(s)cience is more than a body of knowledge. It’s a way of thinking, a way of skeptically interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility,” For the physical world, scientific ideology is the belief in employing a particular type of methodology for achieving observable, reproducible, objective and therefore predictable results, which in turn lead to classifications of physical phenomena based on their shared and unique characteristics. That allows humans to comprehend the world in and around them. 

Taxonomies are one such means of doing so. They identify, separate and classify natural phenomena based on reproducible facts. This is generally considered the realm of so-called “Western” science although the appellation is a misnomer given the scientific observations of pre-modern Arabs, Chinese and Persians and a range of indigenous peoples as well as Greeks and Romans and their European successors. The “scientific method” employed by these cultures varied in their specifics but sought to produce the same thing: value neutral organising, explaining and predicting when possible the nature of things. 

This has led to some interesting ways of thinking. For example, “Borges proposed a very peculiar animal classification system. He attributed it to a certain unknown, apocryphal Chinese encyclopedia, entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. It divides animals into: “(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in the present classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that look like flies from a long way off” (Cited here).

While undoubtably true in whole or in part, the trouble for Borges is that while his zoology may have elements of scientific fact, his classification is not reproducible and in some cases, not observable or predictable. In is therefore invalid as a Western scientific ideology even though it provides a good study in contrasting approaches to ways of thinking involving scientific observation. And, if one is agnostic about such things, it can be considered as valid as any other way in which to classify the animal world. I mean, what animal does not look like a fly when seen from a long way off?

Given the possibility of variance in observable classification, many taxonomies developed by scientific indigenous cultures are founded on ideologies based on reproducible facts. These are different than myths and legends derived from, tangental to or substitutive of observable natural phenomena. The methods used to develop indigenous science ideologies may not be exactly those of the “West,” but in the measure that explain and in some cases predict the physical world they can be considered to be a type of scientific ideology. They originate in the mind in order to explain material reality and therefore share the same ideational origins of those in the West. This shared value can be called positivism or objectivism—the grounding of explanation in concrete material facts. Everything after that is a question of which approach is more accurate or best explains a given phenomenon.

Social ideologies are less precise than scientific ideologies when it comes to methodological foundations. The emphasis of social ideologies is not on categorising observable, reproducible and predictable phenomena over time (even if some so-called social sciences attempt to do so by replicating quasi-scientific methodologies). Social ideologies seek to explain the connection between actual and preferred human society. The posit the relationship between the real and the ideal, what is and what should be, and the penalties for transgression. They are, in other words, normative in nature.

They can be religious (to include atheism as a belief in the negation of divinity) or secular. Since religious ideologies reduce human agency to subordination to Divine will, they will be not be elaborated upon here. Suffice to say that like all social ideologies they are a means of imposing social conformity and control, ostensibly under Godly direction. I shall leave it at that.

Secular social ideologies can be divided into political ideologies like Fascism, Marxism, Leninism, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Maoism, Communism, Social Democracy, National Populism and anarchism; economic ideologies such as socialism, capitalism and variants such as neoliberalism, welfare statism, market capitalism or state capitalism; managerial ideologies like Fordism and Taylorism and their sub-groups; cultural ideologies like feminism, vegetarianism, racism, (whatever its particular manifestation), speciesism, communitarianism, ecologism and environmentalism; artistic such as cubism, surrealism, impressionism and many other variants to “plastic” expression—the list of approaches to interpreting social reality is not meant to be exhaustive as to type of human endeavour or approaches to them but to illustrate that all “schools of thought” are just that—someone thought them up in order to explain (at least some aspects of) human behaviour.

Think about how we conceive of work, play, sports, commodification (which itself is ideational derived from larger ideas), the calendar versus 40 hour week, etc. This is not given by nature. It is thought up by people trying to understand and gain some measure of control over the world around them.

This may all seem like high school philosophy 101 or David Seymour regaling members of the Lindsay Perigo appreciation society during a circle group-grip youth session about the finer points of Ann Rand’s thought, but the point here is to reinforce the fact that how we view the world is a product of the imagination. It is in a sense a subjective interpretation—even if scientific–of the world around us given the constraints of human physiology, intellect and consciousness. The subjective assessment of objective phenomena is especially true for social ideologies. What differentiates between the latter is not their origins (in the human mind) but in the consequences of their application.

For example, consider collectivist versus individualist conceptualizations of the preferred social order. One starts with the assumption that the individual matters more than the collective or vice versa, and everything that follows originates with that idea. These ideological starting points are value neutral. It is in their application in real life where they acquire positive or negative worth. In other words, the idea(s) behind a given “ism” may be all be equally good in intent or neutral in principle, but it is in their implementation and outcomes where their differences are most heavily felt.

That is what make social ideologies “good” or “bad” in the subjective eye. The more holistic they are, the more prescriptive they are, the more comprehensive and certain that they claim to be, the more controlling that they will be. The more controlling they are, the more dictatorial their implementation given the variety of human opinion on any given subject. The more controlling and authoritarian that ideologies are in practice, the more restrictive of human freedoms they become.

Conversely, the less organizational and prescriptive in focus, the more an ideology becomes a license to excess, disorder and chaos. Again, that is a subjective interpretation based on the value preferences of this author, not any immutable law.

Once we accept the fact that all of how we interpret the world and beyond is rooted in the depths of the imagination, the easier it is to understand that truth is subjective rather than objective. The process is two-fold: first, in the assumptions and methods imagined in order to interpret reality; and second, the prescriptions and conclusions drawn from those interpretations. The assumptions and methods used are pre-modern, modern or post-modern in nature because they are born of the moment in which they are imagined by real people living in real time, even when looking to the future or past. So are their prescriptions and conclusions.

This is what makes me a relativist rather than an absolutist when it comes to social thought. Not that I believe that all ideologies are to be considered intellectually relative to each other or that there are no absolutes in life. I simply understand that when it comes to ideation and ideology, what is relative is the absolute value that we put into any given “ism.”

The supermarket stabbing spree was not a terrorist act.

datePosted on 14:33, September 8th, 2021 by Pablo

Blood had not even been mopped up from the floor after the supermarket stabbing spree when the prime minister strode to the parliamentary theatre podium and declared it to be an act of terrorism committed by an individual following an extremist ideology. Within minutes of her pronouncement the media sped to get reaction to the event. I declined nearly a dozen interviews in the first day after it occurred because I did not want to speculate on an ongoing investigation, but the terrorism studies industry jumped into action and joined the bandwagon labeling the stabbings as an act of terrorism committed by a “lone wolf,” followed by cheerleading the official line arguing that the powers of the State needed to be expanded so as to include acts of preparation and planning along with actual crimes of ideologically-motivated violence in the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA). That several of the critically unreflective media-ordained “experts” who featured over the following days are associated with research centers that receive government (including security community) funding does not appear to have given a second of pause to the media booking agents.

I have written about terrorism on and off for 30 plus years. I have written about it in professional journals and on this blog. In a previous life I was involved with the counter-terrorism community in the US as an analyst and part of contingency planning and profiling teams, and more recently have consulted with various entities about the phenomena. I believe I have a pretty good idea of what terrorism is and is not. Because of this I would like to outline some basic facts and offer a brief defense of why I do not believe that the supermarket stabbings were terroristic in nature. I am a minority voice swimming against the current of official discourse, but have confidence in my view on this matter and ask that readers please consider what I write below.

There are several forms of terrorism. These include state terrorism (the most common form), where a State terrorizes its own people or other targets; state-sponsored terrorism, where a State uses a proxy to commit acts of terrorism against an enemy or its core interests (think of the Iranian relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah, or—dare I say it–the Saudi relationship with al-Qaeda); non-state terrorism, including criminal (for example, Mafia) and ideological terrorism perpetrated by non-state irregular warfare actors (al-Qaeda, Daesh, the IRA, Sendero Luminoso in Peru, Mano Blanca in El Salvador or “Triple A” in Argentina). The list is extensive and covers the entire ideological spectrum. The bottom line of non-state ideological terrorism is that it must have an explicitly political focus—it has a political end or endgame in mind.

There is also terrorism committed during war time and terrorism that occurs during peace. War terrorism is mainly a sub-set of state terrorism but is also found in irregular warfare. The fire-bombing of Dresden had little military purpose but was designed to have a psychological impact on the German population. Likewise, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were done not so much because of the military importance of these targets but because of the psychological impact that a single bomb annihilation of a city would have on the Japanese. In both cases the purpose was to terrorize, not gain a military advantage per se. Likewise, beheadings and other atrocities committed by jihadists do not improve their military positions but do have a psychological impact on those who are witness or subject to them. Terrorism during peace are those that occur outside of recognized (declared or undeclared) conflicts. Again, this includes terrorism by the State against dissidents and criminal terrorism against authorities or non-compliant members of the public. As of 9/11, the focus has been on non-state ideological terrorism even if the specific ideology behind many acts of terrorism has shifted over time.

Terrorism can involve large-scale mass attacks or small cell and solo operator (“lone wolf”) attacks. The tactical logic at play is to commit acts of seemingly random and disproportionate violence against soft targets with the purpose of instilling fear, dread and a sense of powerlessness, if not hopelessness in the population. As I wrote professionally more than two decades ago, the terrorist seeks to atomise and infantilize the social subject so as to isolate and paralyze it in the face of the perpetrator’s actions. That facilitates surrender or acquiescence to the terrorist will.

Terrorism has a target, subject and an object. The target are the immediate victims of a terrorist act, the more vulnerable and helpless the better. The subject(s) is the wider audience, including the public, government and even sympathetic or like-minded groups and individuals. The object is to send a message and to bend the subject to the will of the perpetrator, that is, to get the subject(s) to do or not do something in accordance with the perpetrator’s objectives and desires.

Having said all of this, by way of illustration let us run a comparison between the Christchurch attacks and the supermarket stabbings.

The Christchurch killer meticulously planned over at least 18 months an act of mass murder, stockpiling weapons and ammunition in order to do so. He did so in secrecy and without drawing attention to his actions (or so the Royal Commission of Inquiry would like us to believe). He displayed cunning, situational awareness and observed operational security as he counted down to the attack date, which was chosen for its historical significance (the Ides of March). He wrote a lengthy manifesto detailing his ideological views and reasons for committing the attacks. As believers gathered in houses of worship on a day of prayer, his targets were highly symbolic and chosen after considerable observation and research. The acts of mass murder were carried out in a cold blooded, calculated, methodical manner, live streamed on social media and eagerly shared by his co-believers world-wide. After capture, he was determined to be sane if narcissistic in personality and interviews with those who knew him prior to March 15 said he exhibited no signs of mental illness. In fact, even though a foreigner, he had friends and socialised normally (I use the last term neutrally as opposed to differentiating between so-called “normal” and “abnormal” or “unusual” conduct).

Now consider the supermarket stabbings. By way of a broad summary, let’s note the following. The perpetrator—I will refer to him by his suppressed identity “Mr. S”– had been granted refugee status in NZ after leaving Sri Lanka in 2011 (he was Tamil) and yet for years had publicly spoken of his desire to kill infidels and his hatred of the West. He was said to be lonely and homesick, with few social contacts in NZ. After being arrested in 2015 he was assessed as being depressed, subject to wild mood swings, prone to violence as a result of having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from experiences as a Tamil in his homeland. He had come to the authorities’ attention by openly posting jihadist supportive rants online, making threats to others (including muslims) on social media, and for seemingly preparing to wage jihad in NZ or abroad. When searched his flat contained violent extremist literature and videos and hunting knives. After being arrested while trying to leave NZ on a one way ticket (which the authorities believe was to be a journey to the killing fields of Syria), he was bailed and promptly went out and bought an exact copy of a knife that had been confiscated from him, apparently from the same store that he had bought the first one. He was then re-arrested and charged with possessing an offensive weapon (charges later dropped) and with posessing objectionable materials in the form of jihadist literature and videos. 

When in court he railed against the injustices done to him, threatened the judge and openly spoke about his desire to do harm to others. But, because his refugee status was being disputed, further cases against him were pending and he had served three years already while waiting for and then during trial, he was sentenced to community supervision for a year, then released on July 16 and bailed to a mosque that, as it turns out, did not have its own Imam but did have a bed. He was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation but refused to do so and was never forced to comply. Then came Friday Sept 3.

Rather then the culmination of months of meticulous planning and preparation, that day we saw a spontaneous act of white hot rage (which makes suggestions that strengthening the TSA to include acts of planning and preparation would have prevented the attack utterly ludicrous). He grabbed a knife off a shelf and started stabbing other shoppers (who, fortunately, were observing social distancing rules during the Level 4 pandemic lockdown). His targets were chosen opportunistically and at random–they were simply close enough to attack. He ran through the aisles yelling and shouting, thereby alerting other potential victims to impending danger. He ran from victim to victim rather than pause to finish them off in deliberate fashion. He had no manifesto and he he did not video his actions or communicate or transmit his attack to others. He had no subject other than his immediate targets and he had no object other than to satisfy his own bloodlust and sense of being wronged by society.  His message was to himself.

He had no connections to any jihadist network because even if he once did (and that has not been alleged, much less proven) his internet access was cut off after his arrest and he was largely isolated within the Sri Lankan and Muslim communities because of his notoriety. He had no affective relationships to speak of since his family remains in Sri Lanka and he had no partner or romantic attachments. Described as normally behaved before he arrived in NZ, he descended into personal and political darkness in the years after, linking the two in his public and private utterances. In fact, although he glorified ISIS violence and fetishised bladed weapons, it is unclear how deeply rooted he was in the Salafist world view that underpins ISIS’s ideology.

After he was released in July he developed, according to media reports, an obsessive focus on someone whose identity is suppressed but who was deliberately distanced from him after concerns were raised about his behaviour towards that individual in the days before the stabbings. One can only wonder if this was a case of what is known as affective displacement or transfer in which his emotional focus shifted from jihad to something more immediate and personal, and when that object of attention was removed, he snapped. If so, his ideological focus was more an opportunistic product of his mental state than of true devotion to the extremist cause. Put another way, his homicidal ideation may not have primarily been driven by ideology, which may have been more of a convenient crutch for his grievances rather than the root cause of his sociopathy.

To be clear: I am no mental health expert and defer to them on the subject, but I have learned enough over the years to believe that something more than ideological zealotry may have been at play here.

What S did have is a constant armed police surveillance presence around him because unlike the judge who released him in the hope that he could be rehabilitated, the police had no illusions that he was anything but a danger to himself and society. They therefore devoted considerable resources to surreptitiously monitoring him. As it turns out, he received no rehabilitation as well, which meant that the police emphasis on covert surveillance from a distance was certainly not designed to be pre-emptive or preventative in nature (since an intensive rehab counselor could have given them daily updates on his state of mind). As quick as the police reaction was to the stabbings, they were at a disadvantage given the nature of their surveillance technique, which apparently did not benefit from regular psychological updates. This is no slight on the police. They did what they thought best given the difficult circumstances that they were put in, and in the end they saved lives.

Even lumping Mr. S with the Christchurch killer as “lone wolves” is problematic. The Christchurch killer clearly was such a threat, quietly stalking his prey and preparing his attacks. Mr. S, however, acted impulsively and without the type of deliberation usually associated with lone wolves. Rather than “flying under the radar” of specialised and dedicated counter-terrorism units in NZ (as the Royal Commission would like us to believe with regard to the Christchurch terrorist), he was a known, clear and present danger, at least as far as the police were concerned. Likening him to the March 15 killer as a lone wolf is , again, drawing too long a comparative bow. In fact Mr. S seems closer to the May Dunedin Countdown stabber (four wounded in that attack) than the Christchurch killer, even if the demons inside the Dunedin stabber’s head were fueled by meth rather than ideology and/or mental illness.

For those who would differentiate terrorism from other violent crimes by consequences or effects, here too Mr. S’s actions fall short of the definitional threshold. The Christchurch attacks had immediate and longer-term impacts at home and abroad. While championed by white supremacists and rightwing extremists and causing wide-spread fear in NZ society in the immediate aftermath, it had a more dramatic influence on counter-terrorism threat assessments and approaches world-wide. It occasioned considerable reflection within NZ about tolerance and community and has produced numerous government initiatives to address its root causes. Its message was heard globally, albeit in different ways by different audiences/subjects. In contrast, the supermarket attacks caused a media frenzy, some political debate, assorted commentary and much questioning of how S came to be loose in public. That focused scrutiny lasted about five days, but soon the story receded on media outlets and from the public eye, replaced by coverage of the lowering of Covid lock-down levels and the usual political and social news. Beyond the victims, immediate witnesses, some politicians, pundits, activists and police, NZ society is already moving on and the consequences of the attack outside of (and arguably even within) NZ is minimal. The Christchurch attacks had long-term and wide-ranging effect; the supermarket stabbing spree has had a relatively narrow and short term impact. In other words, in consequence it does not rise to the level of a terrorist attack.

Put another way. Although the supermarket stabbings were certainly terrifying to those who were in and around the store, they were not terroristic in intent or effect.

It is interesting to consider that Andrew Little is both the Minister of Health as well as the Minister of Intelligence and Security. While this may promote efficiency in the discharge of portfolio obligations, it meant that there was no ministerial cross-check on the decision about Mr. S. Instead it presented Mr. Little with a choice when it came to Mr. S: treat him as a mental health case or as a national security threat? The institutional bias underlying the decision about him given the portfolio arrangement is now clear. National security was the priority, not Mr. S’s mental health.

The government says that it considered ordering Mr. S into compulsory treatment under terms of the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act, but was advised that it was not realistic to do so because he did not meet the threshold for involuntary commitment. This is presumably because even though he was diagnosed with PTSD, depression and other ailments, it did not rise to the level of a recognized clinically diagnosed disorder. Fair enough, because the bar for involuntary commitment must be set very high. But what about him being a clear and present danger to himself and society? Should that have factored into the decision as to whether he should be held for assessment and treatment? Had he not held ideological views, would have national security even entered into consideration even if the threat he presented to the public was the same? What would have been the decision then?

Because the decision was made against the mental health option, the government tried to revoke his refugee status so that he could be deported as a national security threat. That is easier said than done given international protocols governing the treatment of refugees, but what seems clear is that even though (or perhaps because) the High Court struck down prosecuting S under the Terrorism Suppression Act since “planning and preparation” is not part of the language in it, the Crown was determined to treat him as a jihadist rather than someone who was violently unwell. However coincidentally, Sept 5 fell into the government’s lap when it came to pushing under urgency amendments to the TSA that incorporated “planning and preparation” into the definition of behaviour covered by the Act, and the chorus of experts all sang in harmony the government line that the law, as it stands without the amendment, is unfit for purpose.

Three things should be noted as an aside. This is the second time that the Crown has attempted to invoke the TSA when no act of violence was committed, only to be rejected by the Court. The first was after the Urewera raids, when the not-so-merry band of activists and misfits were initially accused of being terrorists for playing Che Guevara in the bush. That attempt to lay charges under the TSA failed even though people were in fact terrorised: the innocent Tuhoe who were held at gunpoint (including children on a school bus) by Police. The second point is that even though the TSA does not allow for prosecutions for planning and preparing for a terrorist act, the Crimes Act has enough in it to do so. Just imagine if police had evidence of someone about to commit a “common” (non-ideologically motivated) murder. Would they not step in to prevent the deed by using the evidence collected under the Crimes Act? If so, what is the difference with an ideologically motivated crime that makes it only prosecutable under the TSA? As it turns out, the Crown went for six and tried to test the TSA a second time on Mr. S. And for the second time, it was given out by the Court.

The third point is that the government had a legal remedy on national security grounds that would have kept Mr. S confined indefinitely while being assessed and treated but chose not use it: issuing a Security Risk Certificate against him recommended by the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and once used in the Ahmed Zaoui case (even though Zaoui never threatened or committed any act of violence). The Certificate calls for the preventative detention of an individual deemed to be a threat to NZ’s national security while legal processes are pending. Unlike Zaoui Mr. S was a well recognized threat to himself and others and yet, also unlike Zaoui, the Security Risk Certificate remedy was not explored or was rejected (perhaps because it too was “unreasonable” to do so). Which is odd given that he could have been subject to the strictures of the Security Risk Certificate during and after his trial regardless of sentence on lesser charges and therefore would not have been free on September 3 or required a constant resource-draining police surveillance presence in the weeks leading up to it. (Hat tip to Selwyn Manning for alerting me to this angle of inquiry).

In any event, rather than an act of terrorism or terrorist act (take your pick), what I saw on Sept. 5 was the commission of a hate crime. I recognize that NZ does not have a hate crime statute (as far as I know) and understand that hate crimes are usually designated as acts of violence committed against individuals or groups because of who they are (e.g. gays, Muslims, redheads). Here I use the phrase “hate crime” because Mr. S’s hatred and rage was directed at non-Muslim society in general and because of the lack of compliance with the definitions and description of terrorism mentioned above. It does not make the supermarket attacks any less heinous than those done deliberately as terrorist attacks with the same (thankfully non-fatal) outcome. But it does help distinguish between underlying motive and rigorousness of method, which in turn helps prevent us from being suckered into agreeing and complying with the agendas of security officials and vested “experts” alike.

Disclosure: After a day of thought and research into the case, I agreed to selective media interviews in which I outlined the views expressed above. That included raising the question as to whether invoking the Mental Health Act was considered. That was not well-received by some in the mental health community who felt, to quote someone, that I “had strayed from my lane.” I was surprised by that comment because I did not realise that I was in a lane, much less that I was “supposed” to stay in it. I still think that it was a legitimate question to ask and as it turns out the government answered it, however vaguely, shortly after I posed the question to a reporter. A few days later it turns out that I was on to something.

In the years that followed the post 9/11 US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, I wrote several essays about how, wittingly or wittingly, Osama bin Laden had successfully employed the well-known guerrilla tactic known as the “sucker ploy” on a grand scale. The sucker ploy is a tactic by which guerrillas commit an outrage or stage a provocation of some sort that draws a disproportionate response from the military that they are fighting, thereby shifting popular support from the latter to the former. A classic example is for guerrillas to shoot at passing military vehicles or aircraft with small arms fire from a village, then retreat into the surrounding countryside while the military responds by annihilating the village and its occupants. 

When the US stayed in Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted from government and al-Qaeda was eliminated from its territory (end of 2002), and then invaded and occupied Iraq under the false pretense that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qaeda and was going to use weapons of mass destruction on the West or allow al-Qaeda to do so, it took the sucker’s bait. It embarked on a global “war on terrorism” that saw the US and others expend much blood and treasure in places like the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and Libya, Mesopotamia down to Mali, Kenya and many more places in between and beyond, stretching to Europe and Australasia. The US expended trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on these “forever” or “endless” wars, feeding a relentless military-industrial complex while spinning off the militarisation of US policing and some sectors of civil society that is creating the conditions for civil war, hints of which have already been seen over the last couple of years.

Whatever goodwill existed towards the US in the immediate wake of 9/11, it gradually dissipated as a result of US foreign policy recklessness and arrogance over the next twenty years. Yet partisan logics of saving face by “staying the course” or, if that is not enough, patriotically respecting the sunk costs invested rather than simply “cutting and running” locked the US into continuing the folly of pursuing forever wars in far-off places with little strategic value or which posed no existential risk to the country. Those wars have not resulted in any significant change favorable to the geopolitical position of US but have contributed to the polarisation of its internal politics.

Meanwhile US adversaries like the PRC and Russia built and rebuilt their military forces into peer competitors of the US and expanded their spheres of influence. Mostly as a result of US bungling, Russia is now the most important extra-regional power in the Levant and North Africa and is poised, however ironically, to become a major interlocutor between the Taliban and the global community. Chinese economic and diplomatic influence is world-wide in scope and its aggressive military presence is now a constant in East and Southeast Asia as well as along its land borders. Other actors such as North Korea, Iran and Turkey have been emboldened by perceived US weakness while traditional US allies fret about the stability of the international order without its central presence as a stabilizing force.

The Great Satan has seemingly turned into a Paper Tiger.

It gets worse. Across the world authoritarianism has replaced democracy as the dominant political form. Rather than embrace democracy as an antidote to the hatreds that produced 9/11, autocrats of all types have taken advantage of the post 9/11 moment to impose their rule. In another irony, this includes the US, which nurtured the conditions that led to the election of a bigoted sociopathic narcissist to the presidency and the unleashing of long pent-up hatreds within the body politic. “America First” in reality means “America in Retreat” into neo-isolationism and xenophobic defenses of borders, Anglo-Saxon Christians within those borders, economic nationalism and, when it comes to foreign relations, coddling of foreign dictators who shared the former president’s biases and/or his transactional view of how politics should be conducted. The Obama interregnum notwithstanding (and even he seriously compromised on the original idealism of his foreign policy perspective, which won him a Nobel Prize), the US continued to cast a blind eye on the misdeeds of “friendly” dictatorships like the Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis or Emiratis while barking about those in Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela (and even there, with relatively little bite).

US political/diplomatic leadership is on the wane at home and abroad. The truth is inescapable: since 9/11 the US has been in decline, for the most part due to its own ignorance and excesses.

Needless to say, there were other intervening factors and variables that contributed to the slow-moving, partial success of bin-Laden’s strategy. Sure, he was not around to see it come to fruition. Sure, there has not been a global awakening of Islamicism that threatens the socio-economic and political parameters of most established nation-states. Wahhabism and Salafism are not the dominant sects in the Muslim world. So bin-Laden’s strategy failed in that it did not produce the specific results that he desired. But 9/11 did set into action a chain of events that has left the international community very different that what was before, with the US diminished and divided and no longer the undisputed global “hegemon.” That must be acknowledged.

A key result of this decline is the collapse of the concept of liberal internationalism as a guiding foreign policy principle in the US. This principle, which long enjoyed bipartisan support in US foreign policy circles and which is premised on the notion that the combination of market economies and democratic governance is the best political-economic form (regime), was thought to be imposable by external actors—meaning the US and its democratic capitalist allies—on unstable or failed underdeveloped states where extremism was believed to breed and prosper. From that belief came the pursuit of nation-building and regime change as foreign policy objectives, even if the targets of such ambition had no history with democracy, maintained pre-modern economic, cultural and social structures in which notions of consent and compromise (two hallmarks of all democratic social interaction) were absent, and were ill-disposed to have an occupying force impose anything on them other than temporary physical security and material aid.

The futility of military and civilian “capacity-building” in such contexts is summed up by an essay written by a former US Army Green Beret about his time in Afghanistan titled “Throwing Rocks at a Fire.” The essay recounts the story of a fire in an Afghan commando barracks at an outpost outside the capital. The fire was started by a gas burner used to make morning tea, which was set on the floor of the barracks and surrounded by blankets pulled from beds for the commandos to sit on (the preferred to have their tea on the floor rather than on tables when inside due to the cold weather, much as they did in their home villages). One of them inadvertently knocked the gas burner over, which set fire to a blanket. Rather than smother the fire with dirt or water or toss the burner out a window or door, the commandos–the best of the best Afghan soldiers–threw more loose blankets on the fire, which then rapidly spread to the barracks beds and wooden floor and walls (which unlike village huts, were not made from earthen and clay materials). They then ran out of the building. When the SF trooper arrived, he found the commandos throwing rocks at the fire through the front door of the now fully engaged building. It burnt to the ground.

Rather than chalk it up to the actions of ignorant primitives, my reading is that for the Green Beret the moral of the story was the futility of attempting to impose modernity, to include modern concepts of rationality and logic, on deeply rooted pre-modern cultures and societies that were uninterested in the social aspects of so-called modern democratic living. Learning to fight better with modern weapons was one thing, but re-learning basic forms of social engagement was quite another. Their traditions worked fine for them and imposition of other forms of social organization only complicated things and turned out bad in the end. In hindsight, the Green Beret came to understand their view, but by then he was physically, psychologically, occupationally and temporally far away from that outpost.

As it turns out, for all the lip service paid to promoting democracy, the world is now governed by more authoritarians that democrats, and many of the places in which authoritarianism has flourished are those in which the US intervened the most heavily. As for the promotion of market economics, the major consequence has been greater global income inequality within a context of increased concentration of commodity production, demand and exchange. Contrary to what its adherents and proponents claim, market capitalism does not lead to a “rising tide raising all boats” phenomenon and trickle down (supply side) economics does not lead to a watering of the seeds of a budding middle class emerging out of poverty world-wide. Instead, it has baked in a socio-economic landscape of structural disparity and deprivation juxtaposed against and subordinate to a parallel world of opulence and waste.

In sum, there is very little that is politically or economically “liberal” about the world today.

More can be added to this litany of unhappiness but for the moment the point is this: the era of liberal internationalism has come to an end as both a practical objective and a foreign policy theory. It remains to be seen what will emerge in its stead once the repercussions of the pandemic and US decline fully filter throughout the global community. But therein lies a basis for hope, because in a multipolar world in which no one actor can impose its vision of the “proper” order of things and yet the need for international cooperation is more apparent than ever, perhaps the makings of more equitable and balanced global society can be made organically rather than by imposition even in the face of cultural and social difference.

The price of neo-imperialist hubris.

datePosted on 14:21, August 15th, 2021 by Pablo

One adage of warfare is that when a clearly weaker actor fights a clearly stronger actor to a standstill, then the weaker actor has won the contest. This is particularly so for asymmetric, irregular warfare where one side has the advantage of disproportionate force but the other side has time and willpower in its favour. So long as the weaker actor can remain steadfast over time when resisting the superior force, then not only will stalemate be achieved but eventual victory for the weaker actor is more likely. Where the weaker actor is fighting on home territory against a foreign force, the probability of its eventually prevailing are significantly improved. For the stronger actor fighting on foreign soil, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more likely that it will be defeated, especially if domestic support at home (political and social) for the fight wanes over time. If the foreign power is simultaneously fighting another major land war (or wars), then its chances of victory in any of them are significantly reduced. Instead, such “forever wars” become deaths by a thousand cuts for the militarily stronger foreign power.

The Vietminh/Vietcong provide a good example of this. They resisted colonial and post-colonial French and US-led Western forces for more than two decades and eventually achieved independence, then fought off Chinese aggression to consolidate their hold over what is now the Republic of Vietnam. Like the VC, the Taliban have no Air Force, have no Navy, and what sophisticated ground warfare equipment they employ (which is not much), they captured from foreign forces or were clandestinely supplied by anti-Western states such as China and Russia. They used cross-border allies to good effect in getting supplies through (Iran and Pakistan in particular but not exclusively), and used guerrilla, hit and run tactics to extend the occupiers territorially until individual units or outposts could be surrounded and overrun by highly mobile and locally massed Taliban forces using surprise and local knowledge to their advantage.

The Taliban are, in a nutshell, a resilient, extremely determined, ruthless, cunning and resourceful adversary who fights on its home turf against foreigners and foreign-backed locals who (in the case of the former) do not understand them and who (in both cases) do not have the will to continue fight without an end in sight. For the Taliban it is Allah’s will that they fight and die for him, so there is no time horizon on or particular end point to their struggle against infidels. In effect, we may not like their medieval ideology, but we must recognise their will to impose it at all costs.

That brings up another maxim of warfare: The actor who prevails is the one that is willing to suffer the most losses and continue fighting. The Taliban have shown their mettle in this regard. To that we can add the historical observation that unlike secular (say, Maoist or Marxist-Leninist) guerrilla groups, religiously-inspired irregular warfare actors are seldom fully defeated, but instead ebb and flow like the tide depending on the political and social conditions of the day and the strength of countervailing forces.

That is because of the nature of their respective ideologies. Religion is a pervasive, deeply imbued primordial cultural organizing principle that, if driven underground, continues to reaffirm commonly shared traditional social values even in modern secular societies. In contrast, secularist ideologies, particularly anti-capitalist ideologies, start as minority belief systems that run contrary and seek to undermine the traditional or “proper” way of things. That makes it more difficult for them to clandestinely sustain themselves. Religious irregular warfare actors seek to reaffirm what traditionally is and has been; secular irregular warfare actors seek to overthrow and replace what is and was. Depending on the relative depth of religious belief in a given society, the former has a much better prospect of long-term success than the latter when it comes to asymmetric conflict.

Because of their lack of ideological support in most societies, secular irregular warfare actors either win or lose, the first via protracted irregular conflict culminated by conventional military victory and the latter via short intensive kinetic campaigns waged by overwhelmingly superior military actors. Faced with unfavourable warfare conditions, religious irregular warfare actors use society’s ideological depth as a subterranean means to avoid definitive kinetic and political outcomes and instead sink into the fabric of society and pursue guerrilla warfare as a form of counter-hegemonic struggle (often using terrorist tactics). Secular irregular warfare actors also attempt to do this, but their lack of ideological depth in society exposes them to relatively quick detection and elimination. Conversely, the deeper the religious culture into which religious irregular warfare actors can dive, the more likely that they will resurface as an intact fighting force once the stronger opponent has left the battlefield. That has now happened in Afghanistan.

The price paid by the Taliban during this conflict has been enormous. They have been killed in astronomical numbers by land, air and sea. A generation and more of their leadership cadres have been decimated. They lost control of cities and then rural areas, in some cases fleeing across borders in order to avoid complete annihilation. And yet, after two decades on non-stop warfare and the inter-generational destruction of scores of fighting cadres, they have regained control of Afghanistan now that the US and its ISAF partners have left the country.

In contrast, after twenty years of foreign-led military and civilian capacity building and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure in pursuit of national unification, the ISAF/UN-backed Afghan central government’s control throughout the country collapsed with astonishing speed. In the space of two months once the foreign forces withdrawal was announced, the Taliban gained control over the majority of Afghan territory. Kabul has fallen and the foreign-backed president Ghani has fled (along with millions in cash), leaving his subordinates and foreign patron remnants to fend for themselves. Taliban patrol the capital’s streets and assassins lurk in and around the Kabul “Green Zone” where foreigners and local elites lived and worked, selectively murdering journalists, pilots, teachers and other skilled labourers seen as associated with the occupiers or opposed to Taliban rule. The spectre of a genocidal, gendered bloodbath is a real possibility and there is a mass refugee migration underway from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries, especially from non-Pashtun, non-Sunni regions. Over a quarter million people have fled their homelands in the last two months alone, and the international airport in Kabul is a scene of chaos as thousands seek airlift rescue. It is not a stretch to draw parallels with the fall of Saigon, especially after seeing scenes of Chinook helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the US embassy.

Even more so than the failed experiment in post-Saddam Iraq, the US-led push to democratise and secularise Afghan politics and society has fallen hard on the double swords of corruption and traditional culture. The Western-backed governments that have held power once the Taliban were overthrown in 2002 have been little more than kleptocratic distribution wheels for the favoured and connected. Modernization in the form of aid programs to foment the likes of female education, road building, health and sanitation facilities, reticulated sewage systems, electrical power grids etc. have not only been a source of corruption but have been accepted without producing the cultural shifts that were assumed by Western patrons to be the logical and inevitable end result of such efforts. As a former US military officer noted with reference to the locals, “they will smile and gladly accept our help during the day, and then they will sneak back and kill us at night.”

In other words, the physical infrastructure of the country may have been modernised, but by and large the societal value structure was not.

The hard fact is that the seeds of the latest Western defeat in Afghanistan were sown the moment the nation-building project in that country began. Had the US and its allies defeated the Taliban and then left Afghanistan to sort itself out along traditional ethno-religious and tribal lines (say, by allowing warlords and tribal militias to contest local authority with central government advocates), the process of national reunification or reorganisation would have been violent but in all likelihood shorter and more durable when it came to the distribution of and balance of power between local and central authorities. As a Pentagon colleague of mine said when surveying the wreckages of US military intervention there and in Iraq, “we should have declared victory and gone home after the bad guys were defeated, then left (them) to it.”

Instead, the US-led ISAF coalition attempted to impose “democracy” on a country with extremely limited historical or practical experience with that concept. The project was therefore bound to be a failure in form (procedure) and substance (outcomes), both of which were manipulated to serve the ends of local elites. To put it in more general terms: attempting to impose modern and post-modern Western-style political forms, social norms and cultural mores on populations dominated by pre-modern (authoritarian) social hierarchies was akin to trying to get a fish to ride the proverbial bicycle.

The irony is that the notion of “nation-building” was a bastardisation of the counterinsurgency (COIN) axiom about psychological operations, where the point is to win the “hearts and minds” of a disputed population via provision of security, health care and other amenities of civilisation in order to gain their acceptance and trust while diminishing that given to the insurgent enemy. The original COIN focus was on very localised populations for relatively short periods of time, not entire countries for long periods of time, and involved using local grievances against domestic insurgents in order to gain information that allowed for their detection and elimination as part of what came to be known as the “inkblot” strategy of incremental taking and holding of enemy social space. In other words, it was one aspect of an irregular warfare strategy used against insurgents and was not an end of itself.

This was all known before the nation-building exercise began, not only by counter-insurgency specialists in military communities, but by anthropologists and sociologists who study places like Iraq and Afghanistan and their respective sub-cultures. It was/is also known by political scientists (aka “transitologists”) who study regime change from authoritarianism to democracy and vice versa–in short, it is hard to impose from the outside unfamiliar and often unwelcome types of governance on tradition-bound and/or pre-modern societies even if improvements to material standards of living are part of the package. The reasons are many but the conclusion is clear: external imposition of foreign social norms and political structures, no matter how well-wrapped in developmental assistance, is most likely to fail.

All of this accumulated wisdom was ignored in Western capitals (including Wellington) when the macro-level dimensions of the ISAF mission were operationalised. Instead, intelligence and military organisations attempted to use social scientists to develop micro-level conceptual maps of the “human terrain” on which the military and civilian capacity-building campaigns were undertaken. Although they enjoyed some tactical success, at a strategic level these efforts ultimately failed and proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

Never has that phrase “graveyard of Empires” been spelled out in so much lost blood and treasure. But beyond the waste of Western efforts to construct a unified country in territory that is home to more than one nation, or the brutal toll taken on innocent Afghan civilians looking to live in whatever peace might come to them, what exactly has been lost? Is the impending calamity of a Taliban takeover as described by Western media and politicians really likely to come true?

As it turns out, after I started writing this post I got a call from my friend Jon Stephenson, the war correspondent and investigative reporter. Jon probably knows as much as anybody in NZ about that country, and it was fortuitous that he got in touch while I was thinking about what is written above. What follows is my distillation of some pertinent parts of our conversation.

The Taliban are not monolithic. They have moderate and militant factions and political and military wings. They exert more control and influence in the rural, less modernised countryside than they do in cities, especially the capital Kabul. The political leadership in Doha is more moderate than the military leadership on the ground in Afghanistan, and its degree of control over military commanders is comparatively looser than, say, that of the political leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas. The Taliban have been relatively well-received in Pashtun/Sunni dominant regions such as their birthplace, Kandahar Province, but have encountered local resistance in non-Pashtun/Shiia regions such as Bamiyan Province. In other words, their degree of support and control in areas outside of Kabul is uneven and at times contested by local warlords and militias. As for Kabul, the issue is pretty stark. The Taliban can infiltrate, surround, isolate and attempt to choke the capital into complete surrender in the face of significant armed resistance from foreign military forces and what is left of Afghan security units linked to them, or the capital can keep supply lifelines going by air and (perhaps, but unlikely) secure land corridors until a negotiated settlement is reached. Western military help will be needed to stave off or forestall a Taliban takeover of Kabul but if that is forthcoming (and it appears to be) a peaceful handover of power or power-sharing compromise may be possible.

In any event issues of national governance may prove problematic for the Taliban. After all, what they will have to do even if complete military victory is achieved is to build a State out of the ruins of the current one. They will need to provide public goods and services, organise a (Sharia) legal system, re-create a public bureaucracy that includes everything from health and education administration to border (immigration and customs) controls and transportation regulations, civil aviation rules, document issuance and certification, etc. For that they will need bureaucrats and other skilled labor, many of whom are fleeing the country as I write. They will need an institutional edifice–actually buildings with people and communications apparatuses in them– in order to discharge their nation-wide public service functions beyond those involved in local repression. Hence, although they may be adept at fighting and some may be willing to return to the Medieval Era when it comes to organising Afghan society, it is more likely that the Taliban will have to compromise on the extent to which Afghanistan will return to the Dark Ages and what aspects of modernity it can live with. The question is therefore how much will the Taliban be willing and able to compromise, and on what subjects and policy areas?

This is all the more true because other foreign actors, the PRC, Russia, India and Iran in particular, have their sights on mineral-rich Afghanistan as a geopolitical buffer and/or investment opportunity. Pakistan, as always, will be a major player in Afghanistan’s future because it would prefer to see Afghanistan weak and internally divided rather than unified and strong (if for no other reason than the latter encouraging cross-border irredentist sentiment in Pakistan). Islamicist groups in bordering countries and further afield may be emboldened by the Taliban’s success and seek to emulate them while looking for their support. That is bound to be of concern to the leaders of the above-mentioned countries as well as the other geographically contiguous “‘Stans,” all of which have indigenous Islamicist groups to contend with.

Getting these foreign interlocutors to invest diplomatically and economically means that the Taliban must offer self-binding assurances and guarantees and assume contractual obligations of various sorts, negotiated by people competent enough to engage with sophisticated foreign counterparts and legitimately representative enough to ensure that any deals they make or promises made are binding. That is by no means assured at this point because if one thing is certain is that Afghans are generally disposed to look at any foreign presence with suspicion and distrust. That includes non-Western foreigners as well as those from the West, who in any event will have to confront the compounded obstacles posed by corruption and traditional values.

At a minimum, besides the need to operate domestically-focused public bureaucracies, the Taliban will need a diplomatic corps capable of dealing with foreign entities. Those must include people competent to engage with aid agencies given the inevitable requests for reconstruction assistance as well as those responsible for interacting with various potential military and diplomatic partners. That requires significant levels of education and experience, which given the brain drain now underway in Afghanistan means that the Taliban cannot afford to go full Pol Pot on the country and kill all infidel locals off and in fact will likely have to employ foreign nationals in any event in order to operate their public sector, to say nothing of staffing the private interests that may establish a presence in the country.

This is not entirely unusual–Singapore would collapse in less than a week if “ang mohs” (Europeans) were withdrawn from upper and middle management ranks in all bureaucratic sectors of the Little Red Dot–but the retrograde cultural dispositions of at least some of the Taliban leadership may make that difficult to achieve and will require internecine settlements between moderate and militant Taliban factions in what may well turn out to be the “old fashioned” Afghan way of resolving conflicts. The larger point is that the world does not end with a Taliban takeover, they cannot survive as a regime governing a nation-state if they kill and repress everyone who is not an adherent of their ideology, they therefore need to know how to play nicely with a range of interlocutors, foreign and domestic, all of which means they need to get their house in order before they present a cohesive if not inclusive face to Afghan society as well as the global community.

Twenty years of foreign occupation has changed Afghan society, at least in the urban and suburban areas where Western influence and development projects were the most heavily felt. Just as the degree of religious density in a society facilitates the subterranean presence of religious irregular warfare actors, the degree to which that social fabric is imbued by new conceptions of the proper cultural order makes more difficult a return to the original Taliban past, especially when the return involves material and social deprivation for all or some of society’s component parts–say, for example, women, who are now an integral and vital part of Afghan public services.

In parallel, the Taliban of today are not exact replicas of their fathers. The intergenerational passage mentioned earlier with regard to warfare extends to how the contemporary Taliban differ in their view of how to rule post-occupation Afghanistan. As Jon Stephenson mentioned with regards to the situation in general, it is hard to predict what will happen but things have certainly changed for the Taliban when it comes to governing in coalition or alone. The society that they will now inherit is not the society that they left behind when the foreigners arrived to remove them.

In a signal of its defeat, the US has asked the Taliban not to attack its embassy in Kabul and warns that it will use aid assistance as leverage against future Taliban provocations or transgressions once it office. Both scenarios may come to pass but the truth is that the the Taliban will be looking for new international partners rather than redraw contracts with those who backed the deposed regime. For those Afghans who placed their bets on supporting the US and ISAF and worked with and for them, the moment is indeed uncertain and tragic. Like the Kurds, Iraqis and Vietnamese before them, many of those who sided with the US will lose their lives and livelihoods in the months to come. Others may find refuge in ISAF coalition member countries, including New Zealand. But the hard reality is that siding with a foreign occupier was always a fraught proposition based on significant inter-temporal (current and future) risk, and for many that dark future has arrived. What is puzzling is that even in the face of such foreboding prospects, many non-Taliban Afghans have chosen to surrender (in the case of security forces) or flee (in the case of civilians) rather than fight.

What this means is that indeed, there is a tragedy at play in the return of the Taliban. But it may not be the calamity that many in the West think that it will be because the circumstances surrounding the return mitigates against rather than in favour of wanton destruction and mass blood-letting. The Taliban need to demonstrate that they can rule over a society that is in significant ways different than the one they governed two decades ago, and they need to engage with an international community that also is different than the one that blamed them for harbouring al-Qaeda. The Taliban themselves are different in many ways, as are the foreign interests willing to engage with them on economic and diplomatic matters. Their domestic threat environment now includes co-religionists in the form of al-Qaeda and Daesh, to which can be added splinter groups from adjoining countries and local warlords and militias with foreign ties. It will not be easy for them to re-impose the status quo ante 2002 even if that is their unified desire (which it does not appear to be judging from the political leadership’s statements).

This is the basis for a glimmer of hope in the Afghanistan regime transition now underway. If not born of compromise, Taliban rule will likely be different out of necessity. It is important that the international community do all that is possible to ensure that the political necessity of the moment becomes long-term governance fact not only for the good of the Afghan people but in order to pay the fair price of making amends for what ultimately is the result of Western neo-imperialist hubris.

Postscript: What was heard from above. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/what-i-learned-while-eavesdropping-on-the-taliban/619807/

Monsoon over Tucson.

datePosted on 16:18, August 10th, 2021 by Pablo

From time to time I get asked about the prettiest places where I have lived. I am lucky that way because I have lived–not just visited or passed through–some pretty interesting places, including Rio de Janeiro, Southern Arizona, South and West Florida, Monterey, California, Washington DC, Chicago, Boston, San Diego, Lisbon, Athens, Singapore, Buenos Aires and the indomitable Auckland West Coast. I have been lucky to travel and visit many other beautiful places as well. Among the conversations about pretty places I get asked about which have the best skies, both for sunrises and sunsets as well as for stargazing. My answer is always the same. As much as the skies over the Waitakere Ranges and Tasman Sea are a great place to watch sunrises, sunsets and the trajectory of the stars, the single place where my eyes have been “filled” the most is the Sonoran Desert. It is particularly spectacular during the summer monsoon season, currently taking place. This is one reason why:

A note on the “jihadi bride.”

datePosted on 14:40, July 28th, 2021 by Pablo

I ruffled a few feathers by referring to Gerry Brownlee as a “buffoon” during a radio interview this week. The subject in question was the involuntary repatriation of Suharya Aden and her children to NZ after Australia cancelled her citizenship. Brownlee was blathering about her being a terrorist security threat, how she jumped the que ahead of deserving Kiwis in the MIQ line and how the government needed to be more transparent about the process under which Ms. Aden was to be returned and administered. He said that NZ should adopt citizenship-stripping laws like those in Australia so as to prevent the likes of MS. Aden returning voluntarily or otherwise.

Truth be told, what I really wanted to say but could not because of time constraints was that Mr. Brownlee was/is a “racist dog-whistling, grasping-at-straws-on-the-security-angle tool.” I say so because Brownlee is the guy who ran the Christchurch earthquake “relief” efforts and sent private investigators to spy on insurance claimants and residents asking for help; who said that there were no white supremacists in Christchurch after the March 15 attacks; who hinted at dark conspiracy theories about Covid during the 2020 election; who railed about refugees during debate about the Control Order Bill last year when the Bill was strictly about returning Kiwis suspected to be involved in foreign conflicts. He was part of a government that regularly hid, misled or deliberately lied to the public on a number of issues, including those involving national security. He was an atrocious Defence Minister, more interested in junkets than full metal jackets, and a piss-poor Foreign Minister (among other failures) who was every diplomatic reception’s worst nightmare. He is long past his expiry date as a politician, so being a public buffoon is a step up. If you wish you can call him a tool, but either way, Pablo don’t suffer the fool.

As part of the debate on the Control Orders Bill (now Act) Brownlee knows that Control Orders come into effect once a person is on NZ soil and that invocation of the Act automatically triggers suppression orders on the name and case details of the person(s) targeted by the Act. His claims for more “transparency” about Ms. Aden’s case in progress are therefore disingenuous at best. Also, as a former Defence Minister, he should know something about operational and information security, so demanding to know how/when she is being returned is also a cynical ploy.

In any event enough about him. For the sake of clarity, let me outline some facts about Ms. Aden’s case, but without breeching any secrecy protocols.

Suhayra Aden was born in Mt. Roskill in 1995 of Somali refugee parents. At age six her family moved to Australia, settling in Melbourne, and took Australian citizenship. Her family is still there. in 2014, at age 19, she travelled to Turkey and from there was smuggled into Syria in order to become a so-called “jihadi bride.” How and why she became radicalised in Australia is not publicly known but likely to be known to Australian authorities. She may have been radicalised on-line. She may have been subjected to family or peer pressure. She may just wanted to see the world or get a taste for adventure. She was young, gullible, perhaps manipulable and clearly made some bad decisions. And yet she is still quite young at 26.

Two aspects of the Turkey/Syrian phase of her life are worth noting: First, according to Australian journalists who interviewed her in 2019, that she had second thoughts about the venture once she got to Turkey and tried to call her mother to seek help in escaping. She was unsuccessful and was taken by her minders/smugglers into Syria instead. This raises the possibility that everything that happened to her afterwards was done under duress, without her informed consent. Second, she was not “married” in the traditional Western sense of the word. In the medieval world view of ISIS, women are domestic servants, sex toys and breeders, that is, reproductive vessels of future fighters. They are assigned “husbands” and required to submit to them in every way. They are therefore not so much “wives” as they are domestic servants, sex slaves or, in historical terms, concubines. Concubines have interpersonal and sexual relationships with (often polygamous) men but do not hold the status of “full” wives whether or not there is a “full” wife in the picture. I have been told that my characterisation of Ms. Aden as a concubine or camp follower has been labeled as sexist by some NZ fourth wave feminists, but I suggest that they read a dictionary and get back to me on that one. Remember–it is ISIS that is medieval when it comes to gender roles, not me.

In Ms. Aden’s case, she had two “husbands,” one or both of them apparently Swedish (I have read conflicting reports on this). Both were killed in Syria, presumably fighting Western or Assad’s forces. She had three children with these men, one of whom died at an infant or toddler age of pneumonia. In 2019 she fled to the Al-Hawl refugee camp in northwestern Syria. That means that during the four years (2015-2019) she was actually in Syria, she was pregnant for 27 months of that time (2 years and 3 months). She presumably nursed her infants concurrently with and after those pregnancies. Along with the gender role assignation described above, that strongly suggests that she was not an ISIS fighter and therefore is unlikely to have been involved in committing atrocities even if her husbands were. And even if she was or knew about such things, the fact that she was likely acting against her will from the onset mitigates against accusations that she was actively engaged in terrorism. Evidence to the contrary, labelling her as a “terrorist” therefore seems to me to be smear of the most vile sort, something that many corporate and social media outlets, Gerry Brownlee and Judith Collins have all done.

In February 2021 Ms. Aden and her surviving children were caught by Turkish border authorities while attempting to cross into that country from Syria. At the time Turkish officials called her a “terrorist” but after questioning about evidence to that effect they dropped the claims. Instead, the narrative changed to her fleeing Al-Hawl in order to escape ISIS. Unlike the Kiwi “bumbling jihadist” Mark Taylor, who is in Kurdish custody, the Turkish authorities are keen to have Ms. Aden and her children deported. Lucky for her and unlucky for him, NZ feels obliged to help with that process. But how did NZ come to be involved?

In the 2019 interview with Australian journalists conducted at Al-Hawl, Ms. Aden expressed a desire to return to Australia. After the interview was made public, in early 2020 the Morrison government stripped her of her Australian citizenship under section 35 or the 2007 Australian Citizenship Act, amended in 2015 (after she had left Australia). The 2015 amendment to the 2007 Act stated that citizenship could be revoked because of “conduct inconsistent with allegiance to Australia,” although what constituted “inconsistent conduct” is not specified. What this means is that when Ms. Aden left for the fighting fields of Syria in 2014 she was doing nothing illegal, and that both the 2015 amendment to the ACT and the 2020 revocation of her citizenship were applied retroactively without due legal process or recourse.

In fact, sometime during the interim between her departure from Australia and arrest in Turkey, Australia requested that INTERPOL, the international police consortium, issue a “Blue Notice” on Ms. Aden. Unlike “Red Notices,” which are arrest warrants based on criminal charges, “Blue Notices ” are requests for information about persons of interest to the requesting party, such as missing persons. Louisa Akavi, the Kiwi nurse kidnapped and held hostage by ISIS, is also the subject of an INTERPOL Blue Notice. She is not only welcome home–she is wanted home by her whanau. Ms. Aden may also have family support in Melbourne but her country of choice has turned its back on her and her children. In NZ she has no such support and yet, as a citizen, her right of return is the same as Ms. Akavi. Therein lies the dilemma.

The Australians not only issued Ms. Aden’s non-criminal request for information to INTERPOL (how could they issue a criminal warrant since she had not committed any crime before and when she left Australia?), but they nevertheless went ahead and stripped her of her adopted citizenship after the fact based on assumptions about her agency and volition when it came to personal associations, travel and residence. Unlike the “bumbling jihadi,” she is not seen on tape calling for jihad and denouncing her home (Crusader) country. But they have called her a terrorist nonetheless.

That left NZ no other option but to return her and her children back to NZ, following international law and practice (which states that citizenship cannot be stripped from natural-born subjects and that States must recognise and assume responsibility for their subjects when asked to do so by foreign powers). Ms. Aden is a native born Kiwi and her children assumed citizenship by birthright. They have no other place to go now that Australia has rejected them. Should NZ adopt an Australian approach, as Brownlee and Collins suggest, then they would be left stateless and bereft. I would argue that whatever the sins of the mother, vesting them upon the children is a grotesquely callous act unbefitting a liberal democracy. As an international good actor and as a civilised society NZ has to make the best of a bad thing by offering them repatriation. Thankfully that is about to happen.

When Ms. Aden and her kids arrive in NZ it is likely that she will be the first person subjected to the Control Orders Act. As mentioned, that involves suppression of her name and details of her case. What is known is that the Act prescribes restrictions on her freedom of movement, communication and association. She will be monitored by security agencies and supervised by social welfare agencies, including psychological counselling services. This management program may even involve electronic bracelet usage (again, details of what is involved will likely be subject to suppression orders). She may be granted permission to engage with local civil society organisations specialised in the treatment of refugees from conflict zones and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. She and the children may receive new identities so that they can better lead “normal” and productive lives.

The need for those sort of extreme privacy measures is due to the dual nature of the security concerns involved. On the one hand, NZ security authorities must be vigilant that she pose no risk to NZ society. Were she in any way to encourage extremism in any forum or venue, she would likely be charged and prosecuted accordingly (perhaps even under proposed hate speech legislation, if not the Terrorism Suppression Act). The good news is that data from Europe suggests that returning “jihadi brides” statistically have a near-zero chance of continuing their support for Islamic extremism. Perhaps it is the traumas that they suffered, the trials that they endured, the tribulations that they encountered or the travails of their existence in war zones, but the likelihood of their returning to jihadism is very remote at best.

On the other hand, Ms. Aden and her family need to be protected from harm themselves. There are many Islamophobes in NZ who wish her (and her children) ill or worse. Some have vented in social media abut their desire to do her harm, so the threats must be taken seriously. That poses problems for the Police if her address, name or locations of schools, mosques and social service organisations that she frequents are made public. Given that there are innocent children involved, the authorities must be proactive on their behalf.

In the end, the NZ government has to make the most of a difficult situation and appears to be doing so, barking from the Opposition notwithstanding. It will be for Ms. Aden to make the most of her second (or third) chance in life, if not for herself then for the future of her children. The Opposition would be wise to cease and desist trying to score political points on the matter, less they find themselves confronted by a similar dilemma in the future when in government.

Most of all, it is time for the buffoonery to stop.

Nuclear strategy in a post-deterrence age.

datePosted on 14:20, July 9th, 2021 by Pablo

As circumstances would have it, while pursuing my Ph.D. I was a student of one of the US’s original nuclear strategists, someone who had been a targeter during the planning for the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In his old age he taught nuclear strategy and wrote several books and articles that outlined the logic of nuclear deterrence that obtained from the end of WW2 through the early 1980s (One was titled “Moving Toward Life in a Nuclear Armed Crowd”). It was from him that I learned that the original logic of deterrence, Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) was being replaced as early as the late 1970s with something known as Flexible Response. That evolution continues to this day, with additional nuclear armed actors now factored into the equation.

I had already met some strategic analysts and active and retired military officers during my MA studies at a different university, something that had introduced me to the concept of MAD and piqued my interest enough to want to study under the famous nuclear strategist. Over the ensuing years after I graduated and before I immigrated to NZ I encountered several Air Force missile officers and Navy submariners who at various stages in their careers were responsible for deploying nuclear weapons in operational environments with the real possibility of their being ordered to launch. Without exception these were very sober people, and although they would not share secrets with me they confirmed in casual conversations that US nuclear strategy had come a long way since they days of dumb bombs and MAD.

One things that has remained constant, however, is the deterrent nature of nuclear weapons. The bottom line is that nuclear weapons, although offensive rather than defensive in nature due to their characteristics, are never to be used in anger. They are a form of protective shield for the States that have them, and designed to ward off attacks by more powerful actors or actors that may be inclined to launch nuclear strikes in opportunistic or otherwise irrational fashion. There is an old saying (often attributed to my former professor) in the nuclear strategic community that a maniac with one nuke puts everyone else in check. That is not exactly true for a variety of reasons, but having even a small but demonstrable nuclear force greatly complicates the strategic calculations and physical costs of would-be aggressors. Think of it this way: what if Saddam Hussein did in fact have nuclear weapons and could have delivered them on top of the Soviet SCUD replicas in his arsenal to other regional capitals? What if Gaddafi had that capability? How about the DPRK today or Iran down the road? Would anyone attack them knowing that they could and would retaliate with nukes but without being certain that an attack would fully eliminate their nuclear weapons before use? Who and under what circumstances would take that risk?

Then there is the NonProliferation Treaty (NPT). Entered into force in 1970 it recognized five nuclear states–the US, UK. Soviet Union (now Russia) China and France. They are included in the NPT in spite of their weapons status, so the intention of the NPT was to cement that status quo and direct non-proliferation efforts at other aspiring nuclear powers. Responsibility for controlling nuclear arsenals in the five nuclear states was left to their respective governments. The latter produced the strategic arms limitations (SALT 1 and 2 and START 1 and 2) treaties and intermediate range ballistic missile (INF) agreements between the US and the USSR/Russian Federation. No other multilateral nuclear arms limitation agreements have been signed, and over the years four countries have violated the NPT and developed their own nuclear arsenals: India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan. Iran may be on the cusp of doing so and from time to time threatens to do exactly that. To their credit, Argentina and Brazil began to develop their respective nuclear weapons programs but abandoned them by mutual consent in the 1980s. South Africa is reported to have detonated a nuclear device in the 1980s but never went on to developing a full-fledged weapons program.

When I arrived in NZ in 1997 I was surprised to learn that many Kiwis still believed that MAD remainedl the operative logic behind nuclear deterrence. In some quarters it remains a common belief even to this day. Rather than revisit the history of nuclear deterrence and strategy, I thought it would be worth while to break it down into component parts in order to get to the state of play in the current age.

First, a glossary:

ICBM: Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. With ranges over 5,500 kilometres (currently reaching 15,000 kilometres), these missiles are the most powerful weapons ever developed. They are multi-stage boosters that use solid fuels that eliminate the need for rapid fuelling required by boosters that use liquid propellants and are launched into low altitude space orbits before re-entering the earth’s atmosphere and engaging targets. They are the subject of the START Treaties between the US and Russia.

IRBM: Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile. Boosters that have a maximum range of 5,500 kilometres. They are single stage, high altitude liquid or solid fuel propelled and may be armed with conventional as well as nuclear warheads. They are the subject of the INF Treaty between the US and Russia, but dozens of countries now deploy them with conventional warheads.

SLBM: Sea launched ballistic missile. These are boosters launched from surface or sub-surface maritime platforms. They can be ICBM or IRBM in nature and be propelled by solid or liquid fuels (note that liquid fuels are more unstable than solid fuels and hence riskier to deploy). Many SLMBs are conventionally armed but the ones under closest scrutiny are nuclear tipped. SLBMS may be used in “depressed trajectory” targeting where warhead throw-weight (see below) is traded off for the increased speed of a lower altitude path, thereby reducing the time between launch and impact. A scenario for such is a submarine penetrating close to hostile territory (say, a Russian submarine moving undetected close to the US East Coast) in order to reduce the warning time between the firing of an SLBM and the impact on designated strike targets.

TRIAD: The three legs of a nuclear force, comprised of air, sea and land-based launchers. The concept underpinning the triad is akin to putting eggs into different baskets, in this case in order to promote force dispersion, redundancy and second strike capabilities (see below). ICBMs (land) and SLBMs (sea) have longer reach; air-launched platforms have more flexibility in delivery and targeting options but are more vulnerable (this may change once space-based weapons systems are fully operationalised). The core idea is that a triad makes it difficult for an opponent to “kill” all of a nation’s nuclear forces, especially submarine-based boosters and those located in missile silos buried in thick concrete underground silos or deployed in other “hardened” facilities in remote locations. This allows a State to weather an attack, survive, and respond in devastating kind. That logic is at the core of MAD, but in the contemporary era there is a twist to it.

Throw-weight: The amount (weight) of fissile material a given warhead, also measured in kilotons or megatons of equivalent high explosive. The “Fat Man” plutonium (P-239) bomb that destroyed Nagasaki had a fissile core of 6 kilograms enriched P-239 and a throw weight equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT. The “Little Boy” enriched uranium bomb that destroyed Hiroshima contained 64 kilos of U-235 with a throw weight of 15 kilotons equivalent TNT. “Fat Man” was ten times more efficient that “Little Boy” in its weight to yield ratio, so became the core of the US nuclear arsenal for a decade after WW2.

MIRV: Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles. These are the warheads placed in the nose cone of an ICBM or SLBM. They can vary from 3-15 depending on the range of the booster and the throw-weights of the warheads. When the nose cone separates from the final stage of the booster, each warhead tracks to a different pre-programmed target or, if redundancy is deemed necessary (say, against a “hardened” command and control facility), tracks to a target “cluster” that can be hit more than once.

MARV: Manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles. Same principle as with MIRVs, but the warheads are guided in real time by human operators and can switch targets while in flight.

Circular Error Probable (CEP): The circular radius around a target in which a warhead is likely to hit. In the Nagasaki bombing the “Fat Man” bomb exploded at 508 meters above a tennis court located 3 kilometres away from its designated target (an airfield). It killed 140,000 people instantly. In the 1970s a Russian ICBM with a payload throw weight of 18-25 megatons (MT) was believed to have a CEP of +/-1 mile after a flight of 10-15,000 kilometres. Today, with various precision-guidance systems, the CEP for a US ICBM carrying <1 MT over 12000 kilometres is less than ten meters (most US nuclear weapons are less than 1 megaton in explosive strength). For cruise missiles and MARVs, CEPs are close to zero. In practice this means that throw weights can be reduced as accuracy increases. Along with advances in computer modelling, that is the main reason why the sort of large megatonnage weapons and huge thermonuclear explosions that characterised nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1950s-1980s are no longer seen today.

Counter-value strike: These involve nuclear strikes against population-heavy targets like cities and large urban centres. They use mid to low altitude air bursts in order to maximize blast damage on soft (non-hardened) objects and structures and help radioactive dispersal via air currents, thereby increasing human lethality. Their military value may be negligible but the physical and psychological impact of high value strikes is devastating to the targeted community whether they survive or not. The desired effect is to either annihilate an enemy society or reduce it to a hyper-vulnerable defenseless mass that can be subjugated. Although justified as military targets, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the victims of counter-value strikes.

Counter-force strike: These involve nuclear strikes against military targets, to include opposing nuclear and conventional armed forces and command, control, communications, computing and intelligence (C4I) centres. Ground-level and penetrative (bunker busting) strikes using shaped warheads focus the kinetic effect of nuclear blasts in order to overcome hardened defenses and structures and, as a secondary effect, reduce civilian collateral damage (because hardened many military-security sites are located away from population centres ). As with counter-value strikes, the characteristics of the target determine the throw weights deployed against them. The desired effect is to terminally degrade a States’s military capability and hold populations hostage to subsequent strikes pursuant to negotiating advantageous surrender terms.

First Strike/Pre-emptive strike: Launching a nuclear attack on an opponent without having been attacked first. This may be caused by imminent defeat in a conventional conflict or in an effort to prevent a nuclear strike, but in any case the concept is married to the notion of a

Second Strike/Retaliatory strike: A nuclear response to a nuclear attack. The premise is that the a State, via its deployment of a hardened and stealthy Triad, will be able to survive a first or pre-emptive strike and retaliate against a first strike opponent. Since the first strike opponent will have used most of not all of its nuclear arsenal in order to prevail without retaliation, failure to do so opens it (and the society that it represents) up to a devastating, even existentially threatening response.

Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD): The logic of deterrence underpinning the first 35 years of nuclear strategy and the so-called “balance of terror.” The logic is based on the first strike, second strike sequence outlined above and on the use of counter-value targeting matrixes.

Flexible Response: Premised on counter-force targeting, this is the strategic logic of nuclear deterrence for the large nuclear powers since the late 1970s/early 1980s. It is based on the belief that a full range of nuclear forces, from artillery fired battlefield nukes to strategic weapons, enhances the de-escalatory logic of deterrence through the full spectrum of force because the escalatory potential of first use in battlefield contexts can be limited to the tactical level and therefore avoid unchecked strategic confrontations. Even so, making it easier to introduce nuclear weapons into battlefields or low intensity conflicts can potentially escalate into strategic exchanges, depending on the command and control structures involved, so it places a premium on command and control self-discipline even in the face of conventional defeat or certain death.

Miniaturisation: The reduction in size of objects, in this case of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. “Nano” military technologies and platforms are already on battlefields, in the skies and out in space. Warheads are getting smaller, delivery systems more stealthy and less detectable, and C4I systems more sophisticated yet simpler to use. This all augers poorly for strategic arms control efforts.

Recent satellite imagery confirms that the PRC is building ICBM missile silo farms in Inner Mongolia and Gansu Province, adding to existing farms in Xinjiang and Qinghai Provinces. This will help strengthen the land based component of its triad because the silo farms’ remote locations are at the limits of US land-based ICBM ranges, will force the US to divert its current ICBMs from other targeting priorities, and are undoubtably hardened. If the silos in each farm are connected by underground transport as well as C4I systems, then the PRC can even play a shell game whereby it moves missiles between silos without having to fill all of them (that assumes that US and other Western sensor systems, be they infrared/thermal or radiation detecting, as well as less sophisticated intelligence gathering methods, are incapable of differentiating between “live” and “cold” silos). The Chinese Navy deploys SLBM carrying submarines and has a host of IRBMs as well, so the combination produced by doubling its land-based ICBMs is yet another measure of its move into Great Power status.

Contrary to much has been written, this may not necessarily be a bad thing if the PRC uses its strengthened land-based missiles as bargaining chips in renewed strategic arms limitation negotiations with the US, Russia and possibly other nuclear powers. Unlike the US, the PRC has a “no first strike” policy regarding its nuclear weapons. Whether one takes them at their word, the Chinese appear to have embraced the deterrent character of nuclear weapons, and given their recent upgrades, may feel more inclined to talk about arms control from a position of strength. In other words, they now have leverage, if not the inclination to use it.

Smaller nuclear states have slightly different logics. France and the UK are heavily reliant on their submarine forces for strategic nuclear deterrence because their land masses are too small for deploying a robust and redundant ICBM fleet. They also tie themselves to the US nuclear umbrella, something that seems increasingly questionable now that Donald Trump has exposed deep flaws in the US political system that undermine its position as a reliable ally. The latter is also true for non-nuclear states like South Korea and Taiwan that have US security and mutual defense guarantees.

Then there are the newer nuclear states. India and Pakistan (which does not have ICBMs at this point) are basically fixated on each other when it comes to nuclear targeting. India’s border conflicts with the PRC and Pakistan’s ties to China complicate the picture in the event of war between the two South Asian neighbours, but for the moment the second-strike, counter-value logic of nuclear deterrence appears to apply to them.

Israel and the DPRK are a different kettle of fish. It is an open secret that Israel has nuclear tipped ICBMs/IRBMs and the will to pre-emptively use them on Iran should Iran drive closer to a nuclear weapons capability of its own. In fact, it has a strong incentive to undertake a counter-force strike against Iranian nuclear and other military facilities before the latter acquires its own nuclear weapons. After all, who will retaliate in kind against Israel given the US security guarantee extended to it? The question is whether, should it launch a first strike on Iran arguing that the Iranians were about to attack them (and Israel has a history of pre-emptive strikes against adversaries), that will open the escalatory Pandora’s box. The answer is probably not, although a counter-value first strike on, say Tehran, might open the door to large-scale counter-value attacks on Israeli soft targets. And if nuclear retaliation on behalf of the Iranians is not an option, who might come to Iran’s aid and by what means? Would China and Russia risk nuclear escalation by retaliating with conventional force against Israel, thereby bringing the US into the fray? What if Iran responds unexpectedly but not entirely surprisingly by attacking the Saudis, Emiratis or Jordanians (or US regional installations) rather than try to get back at Israel itself? Where will that end?

Iran has indicated that it considers acquisition of nuclear weapons to be a move towards deterrence via a second strike option. But with hardliners calling for Israel’s extermination and the Revolutionary Guard controlling its nuclear program, there may be those in its command and control structure who think that, given the considerable difference in size of their respective land masses, that a counter-value first strike that cripples Israel is feasible, especially if the US proves to be a fickle nuclear ally (or just a paper tiger). Given its constant skirting of prohibitions governing production of weapons grade fissile material and active IRBM and ICBM development programs, trust in Iran to “do the right thing” should it acquire an operational weapons capability is minimal at best and in the case of Israel, non-existent.

As for the DPRK, it is very difficult to ascertain what their strategic logic is because regime preservation and saving face (as opposed to societal survival) appear to be compelling factors in their calculus. It is unclear if Kim Jung-un and his military commanders accept the “no first strike” premise or if they have the ability to shift from a MAD to a flexible response posture given their strategic disadvantage vis a vis the US. Moreover, they have the PRC on their side, so may believe that they have a degree of impunity should they launch a pre-emptive nuclear first strike on the US, South Korea or a regional target. What is clear is that a DPRK nuclear attacks will likely be counter-value in nature. The question is against who and what consequences would they bring? Would a strike on Seoul necessarily bring US nuclear retaliation in the face of PRC warnings against it and threats of escalation? Would saving face or the need for a diversion in the face of an uncontrolled pandemic coupled with famine make the Kim dynasty feel compelled to go out in a blaze of (self-perceived) glory? Here the strategic logic of deterrence employed by the Great Powers may not necessarily apply.

Therein lies the rub. The second-strike, counter-value premises of original nuclear deterrence strategies may no longer apply in every instance. First strike considerations, which have always been (the unspoken) part of the strategic logics employed by the Great Powers, may increasingly seem plausible, especially if weapons are miniaturised and attribution of attacks can be plausibly denied and disguised (e.g. via the use of non-state irregular proxies or surrogates). Moreover, autonomous non-state actors with access to (black market) nuclear materials and delivery technologies (even if of the “dirty bomb” type) and without territories to defend have no reason to fear the “return to sender” problem posed by a non-crippling first strike against a nuclear armed opponent. In light of this, the moment has arrived where consideration must be made to not only “broadening the tent” covering those included in strategic and other arms talks, but broadening the scope of the (event if dual use) technologies employed by them.

Turning back to the NPT. It entered into force in another era when less sophisticated weapons technologies were in play and where miniatuarisation was a concept only known to hairdressers (look it up). It has been violated repeatedly, continues to be so and a new nuclear status quo has developed as a result. As the first non-nuclear state New Zealand was a champion of the NPT until the trade obsession the late 1990s and 2000s displaced non-proliferation as a foreign policy priority. Now, with its non-proliferation experts purged and retired from the diplomatic ranks, NZ has only its historical reputation to stand on when addressing the new dangers of a world without effective strategic arms control.

But that could be a starting point for the reform, renewal and revitalisation of the NPT as a multilateral approach to controlling the inexorable technological advances of strategic weapons systems (and perhaps more). Because of its pandemic response and its reaction to the terrorist attacks of 2019, NZ may have a window of opportunity in which to parlay its enhanced international stature into a megaphone for multilateralist bridge-building and peace-making. Given Covid’s global dislocating effects and the failures of international governance systems and practices, to say nothing of the decline of democracy world-wide, perhaps a NZ-inspired move to promote multilateral consensus on curbing some of the less savoury aspects of human endeavour might just be the tonic needed to make the world a safer place.

From darkness, perhaps a light will come.

For a discussion of these themes, please have a listen to the latest “A View from Afar” podcast.

Values, interests and security.

datePosted on 15:19, June 27th, 2021 by Pablo

I recently attended a discussion about NZ national security that revolved around the relationship between core national values, national interests and national security. That was unusual because, while the interests-security nexus is well-established as an axiom of international relations (“nations have interests, not friends;” “States defend the national interest”), the role of values in defining national interests, and hence national security perspectives and priorities, is much less common. For foreign policy analysts values are problematic because they are subjective: one nation may value something as a priority that another nation does not. The anarchic “state of nature” that Hobbes said was the foundation of international relations is grounded in the absence of shared universal values, on the one hand, and the absence of a superordinate imposition and enforcement entity (the Leviathan) on the other. Moreover, adding values to foreign policy and national security policy-making can bring emotion to what otherwise should be an objective, dispassionate and rational process of assessment and implementation. Even basic costs/benefits analysis struggle when burdened by the weight of values, so for most foreign and security policy makers it is best to avoid adding value judgement to strategic outlooks.

It was therefore interesting to consider values, interests and security as component parts of a whole rather than as distinct albeit related issues. It was also interesting to try and address specific questions that flowed from that holistic conceptualisation, which essentially is premised on the belief that national security is in large part defined by national interests, which in turn are at least in part determined by core values.

Values<——->Interests<——->Security

So what are NZ’s core values and interests? Can they be and if so how are they incorporated into the concept of “national security?” Should values even factor into security policy?

More specifically, given the fact that NZ’s threat environment is increasingly “intermestic” or “glocal” in nature (where the line between domestic and international, local and global threats are blurred), should national security be considered in a holistic sense that covers non-traditional (aka human) security concerns (climate change, pandemics) that overlap domestic and foreign boundaries but distinguish between existential and peripheral dangers (as opposed to a stricter foreign versus domestic, physical versus non-physical threat dichotomy)? Should “threats” be classified according to their impact on core values as well as interests (since by definition threats are determined by the danger that they pose to strategic interests)? If so and again, what are NZ’s “core” values and interests? Are they distinguishable from each other? Should we separate values from interests in principle or when assessing and responding to threats (as realist international relations theory would have us do)? Or do we prioritise values when determining interests, and hence threats, in some instances but not others?

As a start, we can divide values and interests into what might be called “generic” and “specific” categories. Generic values and interests are those shared by all political communities regardless of geopolitical orientation, ideological persuasion or regime type. These are social peace and economic stability, physical security and territorial integrity. How these are achieved are defined by specific core values: ethno-religious, cultural-historical, secular humanist or born of other ideological conceptualisations of the proper order of things.

Think of the debate between “Asian” and “Western” values that animated discussions about political development at the turn of the past century and which continue to this day. The argument distills into the relative value placed on order versus voice: Asians are claimed to value social order and stability over representation and equality, which are supposedly the preferred values of the West. Needless to say this vulgarises the perspectives of both sides but the point is that values are different because they are subjective and they are subjective because they are culturally grounded.

This is the heart of the “clash of civilisations” thesis. The clash is one of competing value systems. For some countries, preservation of racial or ethnic heritage is a core value. For others it is maintenance of a particular social hierarchy involving a distinctive social division of labour rooted in an ideologically defined conceptualisation of the “proper” society, say, Christian heteronormative patriarchy. Some countries put a premium on their forms of governance or foundational myths. Some place value on individual and collective liberties while others reify social harmony and consensus. The list of specific values is long and broad, and when they come into contact and are juxtaposed, conflict is possible and then security is threatened.

But if national values are different and in conflict, does that means that core interests are at stake? Realists would say no and separate values from interests in security policy formation. Idealists will say yes and mesh values into the definition of national interests and security. Constructivists advocate for the building of supranational institutions that merge national interests (say, via rules-based trade networks) in ways conducive to value harmonization. Organizations like the WTO and WHO were founded on such assumptions but recent history has shown that they were and are wrong, perhaps because they do not account for different value structures, especially if these involve quests for power in pursuit of geopolitical strategies resultant from desires to maintain or achieve international dominance.

In any event, values must be considered when contemplating what is known as the “Second Image:” the domestic determinants of foreign policy (the First Image is the international system as presented to a State actor). Although obvious for understanding comparative foreign policy and strategic perspectives, the question remains whether core values define interests and therefore determine national security perspectives and requirements. A country with a history of violent secession, social division, civil war or imperial subjugation is likely to have a value structure that sees the world through a different lens than a country with homogenous demographics marked by social, economic and political consensus–if indeed the former can see the world through a unified lens. The larger question is whether the Second Image (domestic) factors influencing foreign and national security policy need to be left “at the door” when stepping through the transom into the First Image environment, or whether they can be successfully carried through the transition from the domestic into international space.

Returning to the discussion that I attended. what might be core values that influence interests and security in a small island liberal democracy like New Zealand? Democracy as a social (as opposed to strictly political) construct? Market Capitalism? Welfare statism? Free Trade? Equal rights for all? Freedom of belief and expression? Toleration of difference? Minority representation and voice? Universal suffrage? Governmental transparency and accountability? Where do Maori values, if distinct from those of Pakeha, come in, and if at least some of these are considered to be “core” values, how do they relate to interests and national security?

Given NZ’s colonial and post-colonial history, the question is not straight-forward. It is even harder to answer in larger democracies. For all its pontificating about democracy and freedom at home and abroad, the US has a historical record when it comes to interests and security that belies the often hypocritical hollowness of those words. For all the talk about égalité and fraternité, France has a less than stellar record when it comes to incorporating such values in its approach to the interest-security nexus. The UK–same. And dare we mention Australia?

Then there are the values of other democracies such as the Nordic tier. Do they incorporate values into their definitions of national interest and security? What about assorted authoritarian controlled countries, many of whom have little or no experience with democratic norms and values at the political much less social or economic levels. What might their core values be and do they factor into the construction of national interest and security?

That is why working values into the interests-security nexus is complicated and often problematic. But it is also important for understanding what goes into different foreign and security policy perspectives.

I would be interested to hear from readers on this matter. My interest is two-fold: 1) whether they can be defined and if so what are core values and interests in NZ? and, if they exist, 2) whether those values should be incorporated into conceptualisations of NZ national interests and national security perspectives?

What is certain is that the values-interests-security cloth is a complex weave.

In Samoa, a fight for democracy.

datePosted on 14:19, May 24th, 2021 by Pablo

New Zealand coverage of the attempt to overturn the results of Samoa’s national elections in April, when the opposition FAST Party won a one seat majority in parliament thanks to support from an independent MP, has largely been mindlessly anodyne. Take for example the unfortunate choice of words in the RNZ report (re-published in the NZ Herald) on the contested election: “the FAST party of Fiame Naomi Mataafa was expected to secure a majority of seats, overthrowing the long-ruling Human Rights Protection Party and making Fiame Samoa’s first female prime minister.”

There is no “overthrowing” going on in Samoa, at least not by FAST. That would be a coup, putsch or “golpe,” and that would involve a violent blocking of the constitutionally legitimate and electorally validated political succession process.

Instead, what has happened so far is a (yet unfinished)) constitutional and therefore legal rotation or succession in elected government between the defeated incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) led by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi and the victorious former opposition, a splinter break-off from the long ruling government of Mr. Malielegaoi (the irony of the party name will be ignored here). After dominating Samoan politics since 1982 and with the last 23 years in power in its present form (where it continuously placed legal obstacles to the formation of competing political parties), the HRPP and PM Malielegaoi are a lame duck caretaker administration until the new parliament is convened and the FAST government installed. After a series of legal challenges by HRPP involving a provision that 10 percent of parliament be female (which would mean adding one more appointed female seat to parliament and create a 26-26 MP deadlock that forces a new election), the Supreme Court ruled in favour of opposition that no new seat need be created and validated the results of the April 9 polls, opening the way for the sitting of a new parliament no more than 45 days after the election. That was to happen today.

Instead, the Malielegaoi government has blocked the move to sit a new parliament as per the Court’s order.

This is a troublesome move. Blocking rotation in government after a legitimate election is a very real attempt to overthrow the voter’s mandate. On Saturday Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi, the Head of State appointed by the Malielegaoi government in 2017, declared that parliament would not re-open today. He stated the reasons for his decision would be given “in due course” and left Apia for his home village several hours drive away. On Sunday the Samoan Supreme Court heard an emergency challenge to the Head of State’s proclamation and found it to be unlawful. The Samoan Attorney General, representing the caretaker administration, walked out on the proceedings. Because it was held on a Sunday, PM Malielegaoi claimed that it contravened “God’s will” and was therefore illegal (there is no constitutional provision against holding court hearings on Sundays). The Supreme Court rejected the accusations of irregularity and reiterated that the new parliament should be seated on the basis of the April 9 results. Instead, the Speaker of the House, a member of the HRPP, shuttered the doors of the Maota Fono, claiming that he follows the orders of the Head of State, not the Supreme Court. Coincidentally or not, the website for the Samoan Observer, the country’s main media outlet, has gone off-line. The stage is set for an authoritarian usurpation.

To be clear: political democracy is based on the principle that election losers accept adverse results in exchange for getting to compete again at pre-set intervals under fair conditions. Rotation in government is considered to be an intrinsic part of democratic governance and intrinsically good because it allows opposition parties to learn how to govern and allows former government parties to refresh and gain perspective when in opposition, all while vying for electorate support. That competitive pressure is considered to be what keeps the political process healthy if not entirely honest. 

In other words, either one accepts the principle of the honest loss or one is anti-democratic. The April elections were honest and the HRPP lost–by a very small margin, but it lost nevertheless. Hence, for the HRPP the choice today is to be democratic or dictatorial. Unhappily, what is appears to be going on in Samoa is not an attempted coup by the FAST party after its victories in the April election and in the Supreme Court. Instead, it is a variation on an (attempted) “constitutional” coup carried out by the defeated HRPP.

That brings up the issue of force and outside intervention. The Samoan Police have surrounded the parliament grounds (where FAST are staging a sit-in), but it remains unclear as to who they are are loyal to. Perhaps under the circumstances we should be thankful that Samoa does not have a military. But if the Police are loyal to the Head of State (who is a former police officer as well as an ordained minister) rather than the Samoan Constitution, then the authoritarian “auto-coup” could be successful.

There is more. Under the terms of the 1962 Friendship Treaty signed between Samoa and New Zealand, NZ is duty-bound to come to Samoa’s aid in a time of crisis. As unpalatable that may be given NZ’s history with Samoa and however unforeseen this particular crisis may be, it falls within the scope of the Treaty. But its invocation depends on an official request from Samoa so the issue is who has the legal right to issue that request should they deem it necessary to do so.

Given the circumstances, a legal request can only come from the legitimately elected government that has Samoan Supreme Court sanction. That would be a FAST-led coalition. But it runs the risk of provoking large scale unrest between political factions if the Samoan Police side with HRPP and people decide to take matters into their own hands with street violence. That then raises the question of the nature of any NZ intervention if the Friendship Treaty is invoked. Given NZ-Samoan history, a minimal amount of force should be used, with the NZDF (if need be) only used in a support role for NZ Police intervention units.

Most importantly (and pressingly), diplomacy can avoid invocation of the Treaty and thereby help avert intervention. MFAT needs to be on the case now because it is quite possible that other foreign actors with vested interests in Samoa seize the opportunity to extend their influence in it by favouring one side or another in the impasse. So diplomatic urgency is required for three compelling reasons: 1) to avoid invocation of the Friendship Treaty as a means of resolving a political dispute; 2) to preserve Samoan democracy in the face of authoritarian resistance from within; and 3) to prevent extra-regional (and non-democratic) actors to influence how the political process plays out.

The Samoan diaspora can help in this regard by signalling support for democracy. Although Samoan expats cannot vote in their home elections (thanks to Tess Newton Cain for the head’s up), it would be helpful if expats voiced support for the political system rather than a partisan preference given a contentious outcome. That could assist in easing partisan and social conflict in their homeland.

At the end of today the new FAST majority was sworn into office by the Supreme Court in the Supreme Court building rather than parliament because they were locked out of the Folo by the Clerk and Speaker of the House, both HRPP minions. The farce–some say typical of recent Samoan politics– is now about symbolism rather than the substance of political change, as if the location of the investiture ceremony and who gets to sit where when it comes to exercising governmental authority matters for the exercise of elected sovereign power. To his credit, the sitting Police Commissioner has taken an agnostic stance about the political shenanigans and seems disposed to adhere to constitutional edicts and respect for the rule of law. If that is the case, no foreign intervention is necessary and Samoan bureaucrats do not need to look to a particular building for their instructions when it comes to the continuity of State business. All that is needed now for a peaceful transition that reaffirms Samoans commitment to democracy is for foreign governments to recognize the realty of the situation. Word to the wise: It is all over but the HRPP shouting, and the sooner that they shut up or are ignored, the better for Samoa things will be.

As is often said: time to move on. The next days will tell if Samoa takes a political step forward or backwards. Best then, to illuminate and encourage the path ahead.

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