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The Daesh Matryoshka doll.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere in the Kremlin Vladimir Putin is smiling.

Confronting executive branch excess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some questions about the Stephenson case.

datePosted on 13:53, October 3rd, 2015 by Pablo

Although it has been shamefully underreported by major media outlets in NZ, war correspondent Jon Stephenson has won his defamation case against the NZDF by forcing a settlement that involves significant compensation and an admission by the military that its defamatory statements about Mr. Stephenson were indeed untrue. It remains to be seen if the Prime Minister will do the same, since he opined at the time the controversy erupted over Mr. Stephenson’s internationally recognised article “Eyes Wide Shut” in Metro Magazine (May 2011) that Mr. Stephenson was, to paraphrase closely, “unstable” as well as “unreliable.” That has been proven to be false and Mr. Key knew at the time he uttered his comments that they were untrue. Let us be clear: Mr. Stephenson may be driven, but unlike his main accusers when it comes to reporting on the NZDF he is by no means unreliable or a liar.

I wrote the following as a comment over at The Standard but feel that it is worth sharing here:

“I suspect that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the unethical behaviour of the NZDF and political leadership in this affair. Remember that there is a MoD involved and the respective ministers then and now (Coleman and Brownlee). There are more officers involved than retired generals Rhys Jones and Mateparae, some who currently hold senior positions within the NZDF. There is the behaviour of Crown Law to consider. There is the slander on Jon’s character uttered by the PM.

I can only hope that the terms of the settlement do not prevent Jon from publishing more details of his case, including the way in which the legal process unfolded, the obstacles to discovery encountered, and the extra-curriculars surrounding them.

Whatever happens, for once in a long time one of the genuine good guys won. Were it that other members of the press corps (Nicky Hager excepted) had the integrity and courage exhibited by Jon both in the field as well as on the home front.

Kia kaha Jon!”

Beyond what I have written above, there are some other questions that arise from this saga.

For example, in 2013 Nicky Hager revealed that the NZDF electronically spied on Mr. Stephenson in 2012 using NSA, GCSB and SIS assets while he was in Afghanistan. At the same time an internal Defense manual was leaked to the media that identified “certain investigative journalists” as hostile subversion threats requiring counteraction because they might obtain politically sensitive information (one does not have to have much imagination in order to figure out who they are referring to). In parallel, reports emerged that NZDF officials were sharing their views of Mr. Stephenson with Afghan counterparts, referring to him in the same derogatory terms and implying that his work was traitorous or treasonous.

Taken together, both the spying on Mr. Stephenson and the characterisation of him passed on to NZDF Afghan allies can be seen as a means of counteracting his reporting. But if so, what national security threat did he really pose? Is politically sensitive information necessarily a threat to national security or is merely a threat to the political actors being reported on? Is intimidation part of what the NZDF considers to be proper counteraction when it comes to journalists plying their trade in a war zone? And since any counteraction or counter-intelligence operations had to be cleared and authorised by the NZDF and political leadership, were both of the types used against Mr. Stephenson authorised by then NZDF Chief Lieutenant General Richard Rhys Jones and/or Mr. Key? They deny doing so but if that is true, who did and how was it passed down the chain of command to the field commanders in Afghanistan (because, at a minimum, the order to “counter” Mr. Stephenson could be construed as illegal and therefore challengeable–but it never was).

Leaving aside the legitimate role of independent journalism in a democracy in holding policy makers–including military leaders–to account, what does it say about the NZDF that it sees such work as subversive? More alarmingly, if the reports are true, what exactly did the NZDF leadership hope to accomplish by telling Afghans, while Mr. Stephenson was in Afghanistan, that he was a threat to them?

Then there is the issue of the lie. General Rhys Jones claimed that, contrary to what was written in his story, Mr. Stephenson never visited the base in which the Crisis Response Unit (to which NZ SAS were attached) was located and did not talk to its commander. That was a direct challenge to Mr. Stephenson’s journalistic integrity. Mr. Stephenson sued for defamation and during the first trial (which bizarrely ended in a hung jury) the NZDF and Rhys Jones himself admitted that Mr. Stephenson’s version was true.

So why didn’t the trial stop right there? The moment the truth of Mr. Stephenson’s story was admitted by Rhys Jones, it was supposed to be game, set and match to the journalist. But instead the Crown spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars continuing to litigate in that trial and then the follow-up court process that was ended by the recently announced settlement. Why so?

The answer to the last questions seems to be that, like in the Zaoui and Urewera 18 case, the Crown prefers to bleed its adversaries emotionally and financially even when it knows that it can not win. This death by a thousand cuts approach, courtesy of the taxpayers largesse, is as unethical as it is cynical and undermines the belief that justice in New Zealand is blind and universal.

There are many other questions that need to be answered about the treatment of Mr. Stephenson. Is it true that media outlets were pressured to not accept his work on penalty of getting the cold shoulder from the government? Did NZDF officials physically threaten Mr. Stephenson in New Zealand? Did the intelligence services spy on Mr. Stephenson above and beyond what was reported by Mr. Hager, both at home and abroad, and are they doing so now, and on what grounds if so? Did NZDF and/or MoD and/or PMDC and/or Crown Law officials conspire, either solely or together,  to cover up, obstruct, alter, destroy or otherwise impede the release of evidence to Mr. Stephenson’s lawyers at any point in the legal proceedings?

My sincere hope is that the settlement agreed to by Mr. Stephenson and NZDF does not preclude the former from writing about his experiences with the NZDF, both in Afghanistan and during the trials. Hopefully he will be able to answer some of the questions I have posed above. I say this because something stinks about the way this affair has been handled at the highest levels of government, which is not only a stain on the individuals involved but a direct affront to basic tenets of liberal democracy.

Trading with the Mullahs

datePosted on 18:45, September 17th, 2015 by Pablo

I was a replacement panelist invited by the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs to join a discussion in Wellington on the Iranian nuclear agreement. It was a a pleasant event that addressed the pros and cons of the deal. I was impressed with some of the speakers, particularly Dr. Parsi from Lund University (speaking via Skype). I was less impressed with the Israeli discussant and the statements (not question) by an official from the Iranian embassy who was in the audience.  All in all, it was an engaging affair and I encourage the Institute to continue with such public outreach efforts.

I spoke a bit about how the deal can be viewed on two analytic levels: as a First Image (interstate) issue and as a Second Image (domestic sources of foreign policy) matter. I mentioned that a way to conceptualise the agreement is as part of a “nested game” (to use a game theoretic term): the deal is part of a series of interlocked interactions (or “games’) that can be seen much as those iconic Russian dolls are (one inside the other) or as building blocks towards a larger whole. I noted that the core of the agreement was to exchange trade for recognition and security–in other words, Iran gets more trade and recognition of its legitimate interests and stature as a regional power by putting the brakes on its nuclear weapons development program with an eye to cancelling the weapons program altogether should the agreement prove beneficial for all sides. They main lever is another trade-off: dropping of international sanctions against Iran in exchange for a rigorous international (IAEA-managed) inspections regime.

For those who are not familiar with the agreement, it is not a bilateral US-Iran affair although they are the major players in it. Instead, the treaty was negotiated by the P5+ 1 parties and Iran, the P5+1 being the permanent UN Security Council members (the US, UK, France, China and Russia) plus Germany. For those interested in the details of the deal, the official US government position is outlined here (which includes the text of the full Agreement itself). A US translation of the Iranian interpretation can be found here. The fact that the P5 agreed to the deal is remarkable given their history of disagreement and subterfuge on matters of international security.

There was an interesting sidebar about “breakout time” introduced by the Israeli, who waxed hysterical about the apocalyptic implications of the deal. Dr Parsi noted that “breakout” refers to the time needed to enrich uranium to weapons grade, in response to the Israeli claim that the deal gave the Iranians a breakout potential of one year. Prior to the deal, that enrichment breakout threshold was two weeks. The point is that “breakout” time refers to the time needed to begin enriching uranium to weapons grade rather than the time needed to build a bomb.

Dr. Parsi noted that “breaking out” on enrichment is not the same as putting nukes on missiles. I said nothing at the time but here I actually know a bit without being a nuclear scientist ( I studied nuclear strategy under one of the original strategists behind the nuclear bombing of Japan and so-called MAD theory. He grappled with the moral dilemmas involved in front of me and my student cohort at the University of Chicago (home of the Manhattan Project) and later changed his mind with regard to MAD). The notion that Iran can start enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium to weapons grade in a short period of time and then quickly build a missile launched nuclear warhead is simply mistaken.

From a technical viewpoint beyond the specifics of Iran’s enrichment and reprocessing programs, the problem of weaponising nuclear material is simple. Unlike the multi-ton “dumb” bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki using concentrated high explosives as triggers focused on the nuclear material, the bulk of testing then and now consists of reducing the nuclear payload to a size that can be carried in the nose cone of an (increasingly small and light) intermediate range or intercontinental missile (IRBM or ICBM). The smaller the size of the delivery vehicle, the better its chances of avoiding surface to air or air to air interception. Given that requirement and the need for accuracy, nuclear payloads share very tight space with guidance systems. All of which is to say that given the weight constraints on a high velocity long range projectile, the “bomb” has to be miniaturised for maximum bang for the buck. Doing so requires downsizing the trigger mechanism from focused high explosives to something else. Laser triggers are one option. There are others.  All of them are off limits to the Iranians irrespective of the deal. So not only is the fear of “breakthrough” unfounded and exaggerated for political purposes, but the real concern regarding mounting nukes on missiles is subject to  both contractual and non-contractual enforcement.

My general view is that the agreement is worth doing. Other speakers and I commented on the downside, which mostly involves the reaction of Israel and the Sunni Arab oligarchies as well as domestic opponents in Iran and the US. I noted that there are disloyal hardliners in both the US and Iran that have potential veto power over the deal in the future should governments change, and that it was imperative for the soft liners or pragmatists to accrue tangible benefits from the deal in order to resist the sabotage efforts of hardliners who have vested interests in keeping tensions alive between the two countries. I made the point that Iran is more akin to Cuba than North Korea, and can be brought into the community of nations so long as it was recognised as a regional power with legitimate interests.

Speaker’s times were very limited (7 minutes each), so I was unable to fully address what I had intended to say. So let me do so here.

The lifting of sanctions on Iran as part of the quid pro quo at the heart of the deal opens a window of trade opportunity for New Zealand exporters and importers (more so the former than the latter). Coincidentally,  Foreign Minster Murray McCully has announced that in a few weeks he will be leading a trade mission over to Iran to discuss those opportunities. This is in advance of the implementation of the accord (which goes into effect at the start of next year) and is, as far as I can tell, the first official Western government led trade mission to Iran in the wake of the signing of the agreement.

But let us be clear on what that mission needs to entail. Although Iran’s human rights record needs to be mentioned, however pro forma by McCully, to his Iranian counterparts, the point that must be emphasised is that New Zealand’s opening of trade relations with Iran is absolutely, explicitly contingent upon Iran adhering to its part of the bargain. Should Iran in any way shape or form renege on the letter or the spirit of the agreement and the inspections regime that it authorises, then McCully needs to make clear that New Zealand will terminate or at least suspend until Iran complies all imports and exports to the Persian giant.

I say this because under McCully and Tim Groser MFAT has turned into the Ministry for Trade with Anyone for Trade’s sake. Human rights and non-proliferation are not part of the Groser/McCully negotiating agenda. But in this instance both need to be and the latter has to be. The profit margins of New Zealand exporters and importers and the tax revenues derived thereof must not and cannot supersede New Zealand’s commitment to upholding the terms of this non-proliferation agreement in the event of violations. Those involve re-imposing sanctions, and the bottom line of private interests must not come before the commitment to non-proliferation, especially given New Zealand’s long held diplomatic stance on the matter.

McCully also needs to explain to New Zealand importers and exporters that any contracts they let in Iran are contingent and externally enforceable. That is, they are contingent on Iranian compliance with the inspections regime and the overall thrust of the Agreement (which is to reduce the prospect of weaponising its nuclear program); and they are subject to outright cancellation or suspension by the New Zealand government under penalty of law in the event Iran reneges or violates its side of the bargain. There are opportunity costs and risks involved, and these need to be outlined to interested parties in advance of the mission.

From announcements so far, it does not appear that the National government is interested in making such demands of the Iranians or its market partners. Instead, it appears that it is opportunistically jumping to the head of the cue of potential trade partners and will let the private sector lead the charge into trading with Iran. That is curious because McCully speaks of “not getting offside” with the P5+1, but the very fact that he mentions the possibility of “getting offside” indicates that he and his MFAT minions are considering the costs and benefits of doing so.

The Iran deal hinges on two things: verification and enforcement. There are instruments in place to verify that Iran is upholding its part of the deal. The sanctions will begin to be lifted on January 1, 2016. But it is enforcement of the terms that is the most uncertain aspect of the Agreement. If New Zealand does not explicitly tie its renewed trade with Iran to the latter’s compliance with the terms and be prepared to halt trade with Iran in the event that it does not comply, then it will begin the slippery slope of undermining the deal. For a Security Council member that depends more on reputation than power for its influence, and which has a past record of leadership on non-proliferation, that is a hypocritical and ultimately vulnerable position to be in.

Go The Donald!

datePosted on 15:25, September 1st, 2015 by Pablo

I am lucky to be able to vote in the US as well as NZ, and very much relish the opportunity in both countries. In the US I am registered as a voter in Florida, which is a closed primary state. “Closed” primary states are those in which a voter has to declare a party preference prior to the primaries in order to vote in them. For years before and after I established a residence in Florida I listed my political affiliation as “Independent,” something that allowed me to choose a primary to vote in the “open” primary states where voting preferences did not have to be declared prior to primary season (they only have to be declared and ticked off on the day at the balloting station). In 2008 I decided to switch my declared affiliation to Democrat so that I could vote in the Florida Democratic Party primary given that not only were Obama and Hillary running for president, but there were races for the US House, Senate and local seats that needed to see Republicans defeated.

This year I am going to switch affiliation to Republican. Why? Because that way I can vote for Donald Trump in the Republican primary in the hope that he makes it to the GOP National Convention next July. It has been a very long time since either major party has had a brokered convention where several candidates are in the running for the presidential nomination, and should The Donald survive until then the craziness will be well and truly on. Since he is totally unqualified to be dog catcher much less president and unelectable in the general election, it is my sincere hope that he hangs in all the way to the convention and either becomes the GOP candidate, determines who is, or runs a third party candidacy after losing out in the convention to one of the others. The only thing better would be for Kanye to join that gaggle of fools and trolls but, alas, he is going to wait until 2020 to run.

Already The Donald has become to the GOP what Miley Cyrus is to pop muzak: a wrecking ball. The Republican National Committee must be choking on their Cohibas (illegal until the recent diplomatic reopening with Cuba) and dying a slow death every time he speaks or when they read the polls. Because let us be clear: Trump appeals to the stupidest, xenophobic, economically illiterate, racist, bigoted, misogynist, white cultural supremacist elements in US society. He follows in a long line of populist demagogues that extends back through Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan, George Wallace and Huey Long.  He may purport to speak unvarnished truth but in fact what he says is most often non-sensical rubbish that fails to address reality much less the intricacies of democratic governance with a division of powers: he is going to “do the deal” with whomever; most Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers; he will “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it” (along 1,900 miles of topographically challenging terrain that includes numerous sensitive ecological zones and wildlife corridors); he will deport “illegals ” and their “anchor babies,”  (all 14 million of them); he will simultaneously confront China, Iran and Russia; he will make the US military “great” again so that no one will “mess” with it (forgetting that the US spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined–US$610 billion or 20 percent of US federal spending and 3.7 percent of GDP–and still has people “messing” with it); he will provide better women’s health care in spite of gutting Planned Parenthood and removing health care for “alien” women because he “cherishes” women in general (ignoring the fact that two of his wives were not citizens when he married them). Everyone in politics but him are incompetent or idiots. His speeches are endless repeats of these and other inane mantras interspersed with self-congratulatory self-praise and personal insults directed at his rivals, all other politicians and anyone who disagrees with him.

The truth is that he has no plan, has no policy agenda, has no friggin’ clue what it is like to deal with the complex issues that confront the US. And that is why the rednecks and dimwits like him. He makes the hard seem easy.

What is great about this is that he is forcing the other GOP candidates to respond to him, and they have stepped up to the plate in predictable style. Among other gems, Ben Carson (the neurosurgeon) says homosexuality is a choice because men go to prison straight and come out gay; Scott Walker just suggested that building a 3,987 mile wall on the Canadian border is worth looking into; Jeb Bush wants to abolish Planned Parenthood and believes that the invasion of Iraq “turned out well;” Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio want walls and deportations even though they are children of recent immigrants who were legally documented after, not before their arrivals. They all claim that the US military and its veterans have been crippled by Obama even though it was Bush 43 who ordered them into two simultaneous wars while cutting back veterans benefits as well as the budget for post-combat trauma rehabilitation. They all claim that ISIS is an Obama invention even though it was Dubya’s purge of Saddam’s army that provided the leadership material for what became ISIS’s fighting forces. They all oppose gun control and climate change science and all support hacking, fracking, drilling and spilling regardless of environmental consequence. They all oppose abortion and gay marriage even if some of their past records indicate otherwise. The list of idiocy goes on but should not surprising given that Rick Perry, Rich Santorum, Mike Huckabee and several snivelling weasels remain in contention.

As things stand now, the GOP primary is a circus. There may not be any juggling or animal acts, but there sure are a lot of clowns, and The Donald is the ringmaster. Even if the number of viable candidates drops to 2 or 3 by the time of the GOP convention, it will be Trump who sets the Right’s narrative for the general election. Yippee!

It looks like the US media has decided to sit back and watch the circus unfold. Fox News tried to undermine him in the first debate that it aired, but his nasty personal attacks on the female panelist only strengthened his support among the troglodyte crowd and has forced Fox to backtrack and give him coverage as the Party favourite. All other outlets are content to watch the train wreck proceed while offering the mediocre tedium that passes for informed analysis by the usual spectrum of pundits. As a result, the GOP favourite, Jeb Bush (or “Mr. Low Energy,” as The Donald calls him) has seen his coverage slip to the sidelines along with the other yokels. Likewise, for all of the Fox News chest beating, Hillary Clinton is getting a general pass by the press because her sins are run of the mill when it comes to DC politics and her campaign is about practicable policy, not theatrics.

The key to the outcome will be seen in January when the first GOP primaries are held. If The Donald does well in them he will be hard to stop. So the RNC has to find a way to do him in either before then or to go all out nuclear on him should he prevail in Iowa or New Hampshire. That is when the questions about his draft dodging, drug use, association with organised crime, commercial racism, trust fund baby status, adultery, academic record embellishment and a host of other peccadilloes and not-so-small sins will find their way into the mainstream media. But even then he may be too big a juggernaut to derail in time for the GOP to coalesce around another candidate who may stand a chance in the general election.

I cannot begin to express how delighted I am to watch this unfold. The Donald may well force the GOP to split into two, with the Tea Baggers on one side and the corporate sponsors on the other.

Either way, he is single-handedly killing the US Right as a unified political force.

For that I have one thing to say: Go The Donald!

Suggestions for the Intelligence Review Committee.

datePosted on 14:40, August 27th, 2015 by Pablo

Readers will know that I expressed my unhappiness with the composition of the Intelligence Review committee and my belief that, save some cosmetic changes, a whitewash of the NZ intelligence community (NZIC) could be in the offing. Although I spoke with several people who were making public submissions to the committee (the deadline for which has passed), I decided not to waste my time given the press of other business and likely futility of doing so.

To my surprise, a month or so ago I was invited to speak privately with the committee, which for those who do not know consists of Sir Michael Cullen and Dame Patsy Reddy. The terms of reference for the committee are quite narrow on the face of it but I took the view that they can be interpreted more broadly in the context of the Review. The two major terms of reference focus on whether the legislative frameworks governing the New Zealand Intelligence Committee (NZIC, and GCSB and NZSIS in particular) “are well placed to protect New Zealand’s current future national security, while protecting individual rights; (and)..whether the current oversight arrangements provide sufficient safeguards at an operational, judicial and political level to ensure that the GCSB and NZSIS act lawfully and maintain public confidence.”

More specific matters subject to the Review include whether the 2014 Foreign Fighters Act should be extended or modified before its March 31 2017 expiry date; and whether the definition of ‘private communication’ in the GCSB legislation is satisfactory.

I decided that I would accept the opportunity to speak with Sir Michael and Dame Patsy in spite of my reservations about the Review process. Without going into the details of the meeting, here is some of what I outlined to them.

I started off by noting that much of the commentary about the NZIC was mistaken in its classification of the GCSB as the “foreign” spy agency and the NZSIS as the “domestic” spy agency. I pointed out that the proper classification was that the GCSB is the signals and technical intelligence agency (SIGINT and TECHINT in the parlance) and that the NZIS is the human intelligence agency (HUMINT). Both have domestic as well as foreign espionage roles, although these needed to be explicitly detailed in law and circumscribed as much as possible when it came to the domestic side of the fence.

I continued by stating that the Countering Foreign Terrorist Fighters Act needs to be abolished. People who commit violent crimes abroad, particularly war crimes and crimes against humanity, can be detained and/or charged under criminal law and extradited to face justice in the jurisdictions in which the crimes were committed. If that is not possible they can be tried by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This is true whether they are identified as individuals or as members of a group that commits atrocities. So long as there is evidence of involvement in criminal acts, there currently are means of ensuring they face justice without politicising the cause.

I said no to the idea of revoking their passports to prevent their return and noted that the presumption of innocence should apply to returning fighters who are not implicated in atrocities even if they were involved in foreign conflicts. I also noted that according to Western intelligence estimates, less than 50 percent of those who travel to fight with ISIS return alive, and of those the vast majority are too traumatised to consider committing acts of violence on home soil.

We had a lengthy discussion on what constitutes a “private communication.” The 2014 GCSB Act states that it  anything a person could reasonably expect to be public in nature, say a Twitter or Facebook posting or even email on providers such as Google or Yahoo that data mine their clients information for advertising purposes (all of which is voluntarily agreed to by clients under the terms of service, which is what they are required to tick off on before setting up an account). I feel that definition is too vague, broad and permissive when it comes to GCSB powers of electronic surveillance. My bottom line is that a private electronic communication is akin to a dinner table conversation: that which a person has a reasonable expectation will not be repeated or listened to by people outside of the immediate context in which it was made.  I noted that personal data mining for advertising purposes was a bit different than the State doing so for security purposes–especially when it does so without consent (since I doubt many people ticked a box allowing the GCSB or other intelligence agencies to monitor their private communications).

If the authorities cannot read our snail mail letters without a warrant or consent, I do not believe that they can read our electronic mail without such either. That still leaves the issue of meta-data and bulk collection, but as I have written before, I do not believe that the latter is equivalent to mass surveillance for technical as well as legal reasons.

With regard to legislation, I suggested that the Search and Surveillance Act needs to be narrowed because it has been expanded too much as a result of post 9/11 hysteria. I also suggested that the GCSB Act be reviewed and narrowed with regards to its powers of domestic espionage. Although I have no real problem with its “Assistance” role when it comes to aiding the NZSIS or Police on home soil, and fully understand that the Act needed to be upgraded to cope with cyber espionage, crime and warfare, I believe that its powers of warrantless surveillance on NZ soil are too broad and intrusive. Narrowing the GCSB Act would still allow the GCSB to engage in defensive measures and counter-espionage with or without the help of its sister agencies, but it would prevent it from conducting offensive operations against NZ domestic targets without a warrant.

Most of what I had to say about legislation consisted of a proposal that the NZSIS Act be amended so that it is stripped of its domestic espionage and security vetting functions. Those should be moved to the NZ Police (who need to be resourced accordingly), since the Police already do much domestic spying and background checks. Perhaps even an FBI or MI5-type civilian domestic espionage agency could be created that answers directly to Crown Law if not the Attorney General (fully understanding the political nature of the latter). The reason for this proposal is that as things stand the NZSIS does foreign human intelligence gathering, domestic human intelligence gathering, counter-espionage and security vetting. An agency of 300 people (counting clerical staff) might be able to do one, perhaps two of these tasks adequately, but it simply cannot do all four anywhere close to efficiently or effectively. Since the type of signal and technical intelligence collected by the GCSB and its foreign partners can only paint part of any given intelligence picture, it behooves the NZSIS to complement that with an autonomous human intelligence capability that focuses on areas of foreign policy priority or concern. It is important to know about the context–as in culture, mores, norms, personalities, interests and attendant modes of behaviour–in which signals and technical intelligence is obtained, and that should be done independently by NZ in areas of priority interest (say, the South Pacific).

In terms of oversight I noted the gross inadequacy of the current “arrangements.” I suggested that there  needs to be better parliamentary and judicial oversight of the NZIC, and that this has to be proactive as well as retroactive in nature. If I was running the show I would leave the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IG) as the in-house executive branch oversight mechanism, perhaps by re-locating the IG office to Crown Law jurisdiction and out of the immediate control (via resourcing) of the NZIC and Prime Minister’s office (DPMC). I also have little issue with the current state of the Commissioner of Warrants and Minister of Intelligence and Security signing off on warrants.

Yet I spent considerable time explaining how important a division of powers is when it comes to intelligence oversight in order to avoid bureaucratic “capture” by the NZIC. I proposed that a dedicated parliamentary committee on Intelligence and Security be created, as an agency of parliament with its own permanent staff, that would have proactive and retroactive powers of compulsion under oath. This agency would serve as the non-partisan, apolitical support base for the Select Committee on Intelligence and Security comprised of politicians, and that the Select Committee include members from all parties that receive over 5 percent in the previous election distributed proportionally, with the PM serving as the tie-breaking vote.

Both the Select Committee and permanent staff would have the ability to investigate operational matters and scrutinise classified material rather than rely on unclassified summaries provided by the Directors of the GCSB, NZSIS and other intelligence shops like the NAB. This would require them to sign secrecy oaths but so be it–if they want to sit at the table that is the price the politicians will have to pay (the permanent staff of the committee will of course have been security vetted in order to receive clearance to handle classified material). I fully realise that all of this will cost money and encounter bureaucratic and political resistance, but I think it is very important to undertake these reforms in order to prevent the type of NZIC excesses that have brought us to the current moment.

In order to resolve disagreements  and arbitrate disputes between the NZIC, the IG and parliamentary committee on matters of lawful and unlawful NZIC activities, I suggested that an intelligence tribunal or juridical review panel be formed using High Court justices, QCs or other distinguished jurists. This would serve as the court of last recourse and final appeal on all matters pertaining to the legality of NZIC operations.

Finally, I reiterated my belief that Edward Snowden provided NZ with the opportunity to re-negotiate some of the terms of agreement with its 5 Eyes partners. These will not disrupt the core of the agreement, much less result in NZ’s exit from 5 Eyes. But it could allow NZ to withdraw from conducting front-line offensive intelligence operations against states that have great leverage on it, be it in trade or other areas vital to NZ’s well-being. Thus, for example, NZ could ask to not take the lead in spying on the Chinese in the South Pacific simply because if that were to be made public the Chinese would have to respond even if just to save face (and I believe that the need to respond involves a heck of a lot more than matters of national pride or “honour”). The PRC cannot retaliate to any punishing extent against the other 5 Eye partners given the strategic leverage these have relative to it. But little ‘ole NZ is very vulnerable on that score and could be an easy whipping boy for the Chinese should they want to get the message out that impudent small nations mess with it at their peril.

This re-negotiation does not preclude from NZ doing defensive spying and counter-espionage against any state or non-state actor. But it keeps NZ out of the line of fire of aggrieved large powers should the nature and extent of 5 Eyes espionage continue to be publicly exposed thanks to the Snowden material.

The response of the committee was polite but succinct: the last suggestion was beyond their terms of reference.


The hall echoed with the sound of apathy.

datePosted on 16:50, August 7th, 2015 by Pablo

I attended the Auckland public meeting on the Intelligence Review organised by the NZ Council on Civil Liberties and a coalition of activist groups under the “Get Smart” banner. The idea was to encourage the public to join in submitting a “People’s Review” of the NZ intelligence community that would go beyond the rather narrow terms of reference of the formal Review undertaken by Michael Cullen and Patsy Reddy. The meeting was held in a inner suburb library hall at 6:30 on a Thursday night. It had the makings of a stirring call to popular participation and civic action.

Counting myself, a total of ten people showed up to listen to the speakers and debate issues relevant to the Review. The speakers spoke about the evils and sins of the CIA, GCSB and SIS at home and abroad, about the dangers of recent expansions of spy agencies powers and related legislation such as the hastily passed foreign fighters bill, and about the patently bogus questions asked on the public submission forms for the Review (such as asking if people felt that the government should protect them from terrorism). But truth be told, the empty hall echoed with the sound of apathy. Not so much from those of us who attended and spoke, but from those who did not.

In any event it was a pretty dreary and dispiriting affair. Nowhere to be seen were those who championed Kim Dotcom’s “Moment of Truth” or the voluminous clouds of conspiracy-mongering that went with it.  From what I could tell, there was no one from UNITE, MANA, Internet Party, GPJA or any other activist group other than the Communist League. The usual assortment of Left pundits and party progressives, from the bombastic to the erudite, were nowhere to be seen. It was so bad, even Penny Bright did not show up.

I was told that meetings in Christchurch and Wellington were better attended, but from the looks of the Auckland gathering the issue of how, why and when the NZ intelligence community does what it does is no longer of import to local chattering classes, much less the fair minded among them.

I sure hope that I am wrong. I suggested at the meeting that a two pronged approach to the Review needed to be undertaken. On the one hand, the broad questioning of the intelligence community outlined in the terms of the People’s Review is necessary for framing the larger counter-narrative to the official lines spun upon us about the value and benefits of NZ’s intelligence operations. On the other hand, detailed, sophisticated and technical submissions sharply focused on the terms of reference are needed to prevent Cullen and Reddy from claiming that no practicable or actionable information was obtained from the submissions. I offered some thoughts on the need for better intelligence oversight mechanisms and how they could pave the way for further reforms of the intelligence community and legal frameworks governing it.

My comments were preceded by those of a fellow who spoke of spying on Maori at TVNZ. I was followed by a fellow from the Communist League. At that point it was time to take my 18 year old cousin in law back to dinner because even his eyes were rolling in the back of his head.

If this meeting is symptomatic of the state of the NZ Left, then it is well and truly  screwed. Or perhaps it is just a Jafa thing.

Loansharking Greece and odious debt.

datePosted on 10:57, July 7th, 2015 by Pablo

I do not purport to be an economist nor would I ever want to be. Theirs is a world of implicit assumptions and pseudoscience that only a brave few have challenged from within. However, theirs is also a discipline that in theory and practice can shape the fate of millions, which is why I pay more than casual attention to them. Thus it is that I came to ponder the financial situation in Greece, a place that I lived in in 2010 at the start of its downward slope towards the current moment (my wife has researched and written on matters of Greek political economy and I have an interest in Greek civil-military relations, so our stay was mutually beneficial). Here is my non-expert view of things.

When lenders charge interest on principal loaned, they prefer to have the interest paid rather than the principal. This loan repayment rationale, which is true for states, firms and individuals, keeps the debtor beholden to the lender so long as the principal remains unpaid. Over time, the interest accrued can well exceed the amount lent, which is perfectly fine from the lenders point of view but keeps the debtor permanently saddled in a cycle of interest payment unless the debtor earns additional income (revenue) that can be directed towards paying down the principal. Short of a lottery win, a pay raise or new sources of revenue, debtors on relatively fixed incomes are locked into the cycle of debt.

Greece is in that situation. Until 2008 it was servicing the interest payments on its debt to international lenders (mostly the European Central Bank, various national banks and private investors). Then the international financial crisis of 2008-09 hit, which had nothing to do with Greece per se but which drove up interest rates. With a stagnant economy and flat tax revenues, Greece quickly found itself unable to make interest payments and, in a dramatic revelation, announced in 2010 that it had been systematically underestimating its fiscal deficit in order to maintain interest payments on its debt at a sustainable rate. At that point many private investors dumped their Greek debt holdings and the IMF assumed a significant portion of them as well as some of that accrued by European public banks.

The Greeks were subsequently offered two “bailout” loans that allowed them to continue to pay the interest on their debt, which together with the principal now amounts to nearly 250 billion Euros. With interest set at approximately 4 percent annually, the figure is set to reach the half trillion euro mark in a few years. Even if interest rates were capped at zero, it is estimated that it would take Greece 81 years to repay the amount currently owed.

There are several questions arising from the Greek debt. Why, since the interest paid is now more than the principal borrowed, does not the ECB and IMF put a cap on the debt? Why did investors continue to offer loans to Greece when it turned out that the Greeks were fiddling the books, and that neither the principal or the repayment loans ever trickled down to the general public in terms of public goods and services? Why does it expect the Greek population to pay via austerity for the risky borrowing of Greek elites and the even riskier lending of European banks?

Asking the Greek people to shoulder the burden of austerity–in a country with 30 percent general unemployment and 50 percent unemployment for those under 30, with a massive brain drain of educated professionals, porous borders and deep cuts to public sector salaries, pensions and basic services–is akin to forcing the children of crack addicts to starve and swab floors in order to pay for the rehab treatment of their parents. And the outcome is just as uncertain.

Let’s look at it this way. Capitalism is about assuming risk for higher reward. In the financial world, the riskier the investment the higher the interest paid on it. And just like quick finance and pawn shops are located in poor rather than rich neighbourhoods, high interest bonds are issued on “risky” countries with poor credit ratings and histories of financial instability. For “courageous” investors riding the line between high interest and junk bonds, the rewards for so-called bailouts are great. But the downside of a default is that they will have to wear losses, just as many ill-advised investors have to.

Greece is one such high risk place and those who lent to it knew this from the beginning.

With that in mind is is easy to see that the behaviour of the “troika” (the European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) can be (and has been) likened to loansharking and needs to be treated as such. When people seek debt relief from loansharks, banks or credit card providers, they arrange to repay a capped sum and a payment schedule is established. The alternative is bankruptcy, which leaves the creditor with nothing. Although suboptimal from the lender’s point of view, the capped payment alternative is better than nothing.

When it comes to states, the decision to cap debt is a political decision, not a financial one. That is because the stability of states is more important than the returns on risky investment, especially when ample returns have already been received, many creditors are no longer at risk and demands for future returns put state stability at peril. In the case of Greece there is a twist, in that the referendum on whether to accept austerity was the first political iteration in a multi-step process. Now that the Greeks have refused more austerity, it is the turn of the EC to make a political decision of its own.

Let’s be clear: this is not a Greek crisis; it is a crisis of European finance capital. The demand for more Greek austerity is not about servicing the debt but about humiliation, punishment and deterrence of others who might dare to do the same.

The people who should seek answers are those who invested in the agencies that undertook the high risk lending strategies that have brought us to this moment. The people who are responsible for the crisis are not average Greeks but suits sitting in fancy offices in Athens, Brussels, Frankfurt and London. They are the ones who took the risk on Greece and they are the ones who need to be held to account.

This does not absolve Greeks from their own mistakes. Certainly the culture of entitlement and the pervasive corruption in Greek society needs to be addressed. But here again, this was well known to foreign creditors at the time they lent money to Greece, and for all the everyday petty corruption in Greece involving phantom war veterans and people faking disabilities, it is the Greek political-economic elite who elevated institutional corruption to an art form. Syriza proposes to confront them as well as the lower-level scams but in order to do so it must show that it can negotiate a debt payment agreement that puts the interests of average Greeks first.

There is a way out of the imbroglio that can leave Greece in the EU without undergoing more austerity punishment. In international law there is a concept known as “odious debt.” Odious debts are those that are incurred by governments that do not go to their stated purposes or are ill-gotten from the onset. Under international law, odious debts are the responsibility of the incurring parties and are not the responsibility of their successors. As such, they do not have to be serviced by others if the responsible parties cannot be made to pay.

One can argue that the debt incurred by pre-Syriza governments from 1999-2008 fall into the odious debt category and should be forgiven as such. If anything the political parties in government during the time the debts were incurred can be sued for repayment (these being the Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) and New Democracy (ND)). Whatever happens, it is clear that Greece has not seen the purported benefits of the loans incurred by previous governments (to include the now abandoned or derelict Olympic facilities) but it has paid more than its fair share of interest on them. By any reasonable measure the remaining debt is now odious.

In the end this is a cautionary tale with minor and major sub-plots. The minor plot is about sustainable debt and the limits of debt relief. The major plot is about the perils of political union. The EU needs to understand that how it addresses the minor plot will determine the conclusion of the major one.

Bonus read: Although I do not agree with some of his observations, Brian Easton has a nice short piece on the Greek situation here.


Considering the Implausible.

datePosted on 18:24, July 2nd, 2015 by Pablo

From time to time I am invited to give public presentations on subjects within my areas of interest. Depending on the topic I sometimes offer ideas for the audience to consider. At a think tank gathering last year I offered the suggestion that parliament should consider the proposition that New Zealand be the first country to publicly and formally renounce the use of lethal drones at home and abroad. I pointed out that although security conservatives and military commanders would oppose the move because it limited NZDF (and perhaps in the future NZ Police) tactical options, it was worth debating on moral and legal as well as practical grounds given New Zealand’s unique political culture and international standing. Since 90 percent of what military drones do is non-lethal and the NZDF does not have a lethal drone capability as of yet, it seems worth a try.

That proposition went nowhere. Some left leaning commentators supported the motion (most notably No Right Turn and one of the authors at The Standard). But no a single political party, to include the Greens, Mana and the Internet Party, adopted it as a policy proposition and it was never brought up in parliament.

This year I was at another event that featured academicians, students, policy practitioners, journalists and diplomats (foreign and Kiwi) discussing New Zealand’s past, present and future foreign policy. I was matched with a representative of the New Zealand intelligence community and a security academic on a panel that addressed intelligence issues, specifically, New Zealand’s intelligence role in foreign policy.

As part of the discussion I suggested that Edward Snowden had done us a favour by exposing the extent to which NZ is a fully integrated member of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network. The reason is that with the revelations that have come from the documents that he passed on to journalists, New Zealand has an opportunity to re-negotiate some of the terms of its participation in 5 Eyes. I noted that withdrawal from 5 Eyes was not an option–I said that it was like trying to leave the mafia. But the specific terms of what the GCSB does for 5 Eyes could be discussed given that New Zealand is by far the most vulnerable of the 5 Eyes partners to retaliation from the countries that it targets as part of the division of labour within Echelon. I specifically  mentioned that NZ might broach the subject of reducing its role in spying on China given how trade dependent NZ is on the Asian giant.

A couple of journalists in the room ran stories on the suggestion and the PM was asked about it at his weekly press conference. He rejected it out of hand and said that NZ would not modify its intelligence operations because of trade considerations because what it did in was in the national interest.

The Snowden documents suggest otherwise, but that argument can be left for another moment.

Let me explain why NZ has an opportunity to re-negotiate the terms of its agreement with the Anglophone powers even though it cannot withdraw from 5 Eyes entirely.

If NZ were to withdraw from 5 Eyes it would lose the substantial benefits, unique to a small country, that it accrues from being in an alliance with four bigger partners with global reach. The flow of intelligence within 5 Eyes is very much reciprocal but what NZ receives is far more than what it delivers to the network. It is tasked with using shared technological means located on or operated from NZ soil (including its diplomatic missions) to target  specific entities of common interest to the larger partners, and in exchange it receives global as well as more NZ-specific intelligence from those partners.

That is just one reason why withdrawal is unlikely. But think of the consequences if NZ unilaterally decided to opt out of Echelon. It is in possession of some of the most advanced signals interception technologies on the planet. The GCSB knows the processes, procedures, means, methods and protocols of the entire network. Fear that this knowledge and technologies (say, for example, X-Keyscore and Prism) could fall into hostile hands will inevitably prompt a negative response from NZ’s erstwhile intelligence allies, and that response will not be confined to the field of intelligence (I am aware of reports that some of the technologies and methods mentioned in the Snowden documents have been decrypted by Russian and Chinese intelligence but am not sure as to what extent this may have occurred).

Were NZ to try and establish an alternative signals intelligence network with other powers, the remaining 5 Eyes countries would likely move beyond defensive measures and into the field of offensive intelligence operations against NZ. In other words, the exit costs will be too high given the uncertain benefits received in the event of withdrawal.

That being said, the GCSB is integral to 5 Eyes operations. The partners cannot afford to alienate NZ on issues that are critical to NZ but marginal or less costly to them. Although they never thought that their operations would be exposed in the measure that they have, the 5 Eyes partners are now acutely aware, thanks to Snowden, that they rise and fall together when it comes to exposing how they go about signals intelligence acquisition and who they target. They can therefore ill afford to call NZ’s bluff on a matter that is of critical importance to the latter.

I would argue that bilateral trade with China is one such matter. Even if they have a pretty good idea of what the GCSB does for Echelon, public revelation of NZ having a lead role in spying on the Chinese at home and abroad will force the PRC to retaliate in some fashion, even if just to save face as an emerging great power with super power pretensions. It must show that it should not be disrespected and meddled in by small states no matter who those states are allied with. The means by which it can reach out and touch NZ in a bad way are myriad and not confined to diplomatic or economic relations.

The only reason that it would not do so is if it has counter-intelligence access to GCSB operations and wants to keep those “backdoor” channels open in spite of the publication of specifics about NZ espionage against it.

If NZ were to say to its partners that given its vulnerability to Chinese utu the GCSB would prefer not to take a major role in spying on the PRC, it is possible that the other partners will listen and consider the request. The GCSB can still spy on South Pacific, Latin American and other nations that do not have much leverage over it, as well as the UN, various NGOs and private firms as it is doing now. But it would give a pass to spying, at least in a major way outside of NZ territory, on the Chinese.

In my view, such a position would not prevent the GCSB (and SIS) from conducting counter-intelligence operations against Chinese espionage at home and abroad. Even if they know about these defensive measures the Chinese will likely not make an issue of them given that they instigated the back and forth. Where I would draw the line is on offensive operations against Chinese targets, especially when at the behest of the larger partners.

I am not surprised that John Key has no interest in this proposition. To do so requires political courage and a commitment to putting NZ national interests first. Neither is in his repertoire. Plus, even if he were to think about the dilemma posed by NZ’s increasingly counter-poised trade and security interests, any renegotiation along the lines I have posed would be done quietly and not publicly announced, much less at a press Q&A. But I doubt the latter is the case.

In any event, this is a potential moment of opportunity to redefine the terms and conditions of NZ’s involvement in 5 Eyes, however implausible that may seem at first glance. There is a supposed review of the NZ intelligence community now underway that could serve as a sounding board for opinions on the suggestion, and I am happy to add my two cents to the discussion should that be deemed worthwhile.

A hard rain is a’gonna fall.

datePosted on 14:16, May 22nd, 2015 by Pablo

Although I am loathe to prognosticate on fluid situations and current events, I have been thinking about how the conflict in Iraq has been going. Although I do not believe that the Islamic State (IS) is anywhere close to being the global threat that it is portrayed to be in the West, I do believe that it is an existential threat to Syria, Iraq and perhaps some of their Sunni neighbours. Unlike al-Qaeda, which has limited territorial objectives, IS is political-religious movement with serious territorial ambitions that uses a mix of conventional and unconventional land warfare to achieve them. Given that difference, below is an assessment of the situation in Iraq after the fall of Ramadi into IS hands.

Iraq’s Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold, is now under IS control. Tikrit was occupied a few months ago, Falluja and Haditha fell some weeks ago and Ramadi was conquered a week ago. To the northeast, Mosul remains in IS hands, while Baiji (site of major oil processing facilities) and Samarra remain under siege. With dozens of smaller towns in Anbar and elsewhere under IS rule, to include a front extending south-southeast from Tikrit to the eastern Baghdad suburbs along the Tigris River basin, the advance on the capital appears inevitable. Or is it? In this post I attempt to outline the strategic situation that the NZDF has thrust itself into.

28D32BC000000578-3087517-image-a-9_1432030518818Map courtesy of the DailyMail Online (

First, let’s look at the positives (from the West’s perspective). There is no way that IS can physically take and occupy Baghdad. A city of nearly four million people, most of them Shiia, Baghdad is a fortress when compared to what IS has tackled so far. It has concentrated military forces, is the seat of national government and is the location of numerous foreign military and diplomatic missions. It is therefore a strategic asset that Iran, the West and Iraqi Shiites cannot afford to lose. Moreover, IS is stretched too thin on the ground in Iraq to have the numbers to engage effective urban warfare against a determined and concentrated enemy, has no air power and does not have enough Sunni support in Baghdad to make up for the lack of numbers on the ground (A digression here: IS has a Salafist ideology buttressed by Ba’athist political and military organisation. Much of its leadership is drawn from the ranks of displaced Sunni Ba’athist officials in the Saddam Hussein regime, and it enjoys considerable support in Sunni Iraq. This accounts in significant measure for its success in Anbar).

Although not located in Anbar, Mosul, Samarra and Tikrit also have Sunni majorities, so the trend has been for IS to target and conquer urban areas where its sectarian support is matched by demographic numbers. The question remains as to whether its military campaign can be equally successful in Shiia dominant areas to the east and south of Baghdad, where Iranian forces also have a presence. That appears unlikely.

On the negative side from the West’s perspective, IS appears to be engaging in a pincer movement designed to surround and isolate western and northern Baghdad from the rest of the country. If it able to control the land routes in those areas it can cut off not only supply lines between Baghdad and its allied forces in the north and west, including Camp Taji where the NZDF is supposed to be stationed (I say supposedly because I have read an unconfirmed report that the NZDF deployment are stuck in Baghdad because of the increase in IS hostilities), but it can also proceed to apply a chokehold on supplies entering Baghdad via the north and west. As part of this strategy IS will target the power grid that supplies Baghdad, the majority of which comes from its north (including the power plant at Baiji, now under siege) as well as water supplies drawn from reservoirs in the northwest and piped to Baghdad. This will not be fatal if the Baghdad government can keep its land lines of supply in the south and east open, but it certainly will hinder its ability to keep some (more than likely Sunni) neighbourhoods stocked with life essentials, which will only exacerbate their alienation from central authorities and perhaps contribute to their support for IS.

Moreover, if more difficult to achieve, IS does not need to control all of the territory to the east and south of Baghdad in order to choke it off. All it has to do is establish a thin mobile front that can gain and hold intercept points on the major highways surrounding the city (and relatively close to the city limits at that, which obviates the need to fight Shiias further afield). This includes targeting power and water supplies coming from the south and east.

In other words, IS does not have to achieve strategic depth in order to choke the arterial routes leading into the city from the south and east. Coalition airpower may be able to stave off this eventuality for a while but without ground control that allows unimpeded re-supply, Baghdad will be operating on a scarcity regime within a few months. Resupply by air, while significant, cannot substitute for land supply, and it is worth noting that Baghdad airport as well as the infamous Abu Ghraib prison (where many Sunni militants are held) lie west of Baghdad and have recently been the subject of IS attacks. In fact, in the last year both Abu Ghraib and the prison at Taji have been the scenes of major prisoner jailbreaks orchestrated by IS, with many of the escapees now thought to have joined its ranks in an effort to increase its knowledge of the local fighting terrain.

A microcosmic version of this scenario involves the city of Taji, location of Camp Taji, the huge military base that is the destination point for the NZDF contribution to the anti-IS coalition. Straddling national highway one 20 miles northwest of Baghdad west of the Tigris river, Taji is the last significant town on the run south into Baghdad. With the old Saddam-era and later US military base capable of housing a mix of 40,000 Iraqi and foreign troops (although in reality there are far less on base), and home to a 1700 meter runway and Iraqi’s armoured corps, it is now the focal point of foreign training of Iraqi troops. As such and because of its location, it is a major target for IS, which controls the territory immediately east of the Tigris (about 11 miles away from the base). Since Taji is only 30 miles from Falluja, the presumption is that IS will mass it’s force to the east, west and north of Taji, then launch offensives designed to gain control of the town and highway. That would leave the base cut off from land routes and force it to rely on air re-supply and/or fight its way out of containment. If that happens it is doubtful that the NZDF troops will hunker down “behind the wire” and do nothing else. Whatever the scenario, isolating Camp Taji from Baghdad is a primary IS objective in the next months and will be essential to any move to surround and squeeze the capital city. The good news, from the West’s perspective, is that in order to isolate the base and sever its land link to Baghdad, IS will have to mass significant numbers of fighters, artillery and armour, something that makes it vulnerable to coalition air strikes.

The bottom line is that a successful pincer movement will slowly strangle and starve Baghdad, something that it turn will force the Iraq government to seek a political settlement on terms favourable to IS. That will entail the ejection of foreign forces and partition of Iraq. IS will claim Sunni-dominant areas and merge them with the territory it holds in Syria (IS controls roughly half of Syria’s territory) to establish its caliphate. It has no real interest in Iraqi Kurdistan because it cannot defeat the Peshmerga and other than the oil facilities on its western flank, Kurdistan has no strategic assets. Likewise, Shiia dominant areas of Iraq are too large and populated for IS to occupy, plus any incursion into Iraqi Shiia border territory with Iran will invite a military response from the latter. But where IS is in control, it has already begun to provide the basic services that the Iraq and Syrian governments no longer can, which raises the possibility that partition is already a fait acompli. As stated in The Economist:

“The danger is that the IS caliphate is becoming a permanent part of the region. The frontiers will shift in the coming months. But with the Kurds governing themselves in the north-east, and the Shias in the south, Iraqis question the government’s resolve in reversing IS’s hold on the Sunni north-west. “Partition is already a reality,” sighs a Sunni politician in exile. “It just has yet to be mapped.” (“The caliphate strikes back,” The Economist, May 23. 2015 (, May 23, 2015).

Thanks to the Iraqi Army abandoning their positions and leaving their equipment behind, IS has captured significant amounts of modern US made weaponry, including the equivalent of several armoured columns. It now has anti-aircraft munitions that eventually will score hits on coalition aircraft. Its fighters are a mix of seasoned veterans and unprofessional jihadis, but IS field commanders have been judicious in their use of each (for example, employing  inexperienced foreign jihadists in first wave assaults or in suicide bombings using construction vehicles to breach enemy lines, followed by artillery fire and hardened ground forces). What that means is that IS has the realistic ability to cut off Baghdad’s land access to its near north and west, which will force the Iraq military and coalition partners to stage a counteroffensive to reclaim those lines of supply.

IS relies on mobility, manoeuvre and the selective application of mass force to achieve it ends. The fall of Ramadi was accomplished by rapidly surrounding it from the north and east and focusing firepower on one garrison in it. IS also has relatively unencumbered supply lines coming from Syria, and many suspect that supplies also come from Saudi Arabia and Turkey (Iraq has land borders with those states as well as Iran, Jordan and Kuwait. There is a strong belief–which could well be confirmed by the document retrieval made during the US Special Forces raid on a senior IS financier’s hideout in Syria– that the Saudis in particular are doing more than just financing IS as a hedge against Iran). The best check against its advances is demographic density in Shiia dominant parts of the country and the fact that any adventurous move in the east or south will be met by serious Shiia militia and Iranian military resistance (Sadr City, a bastion of Shiia militias, lies on the northeast of Baghdad and Basra, a major oil refining centre and home of the so-called (Shiia) marsh Arabs, is the capital of the south).


Source: Institute for the Study of War, September 26, 2014.

For those who believe that coalition air power is enough to stem the tide of IS advances, let me simply point out that history has shown that air power alone cannot determine success in a territorial conflict, especially an irregular or unconventional one. Vietnam is a case in point. In the battle for Ramadi the coalition conducted 275 air strikes and still saw the city fall to IS in the space of days. Thousands of coalition air strikes have been launched against IS and while they slowed down many IS advances and were decisive in battles between Kurdish peshmurga and ISIS forces in Syria and northeastern Iraq, they have not proven so when the forces they are supporting are too few or lack the will to fight when things get ugly. Since IS prefers to move quickly between urban areas and stage assaults from within them, the fear of civilian casualties hampers the coalition’s ability strike surgically at them in urban settings. That leaves the coalition with the task of trying to target IS convoys and garrisons, something that has proven hard to do given the dispersed nature of their campaign outside of urban areas.

It would seem that the best way to counter IS advances is to pre-emptively launch counter-offensives using a mix of foreign and Iraq troops and militias. That involves accepting Iranian military participation in concert with Western forces and requires moving sooner rather than later to at least stall IS’s progress southward. But if we take standard basic training as a guideline, then the Iraqi Army forces that have begun to be trained by the coalition troops will not be ready to fight until mid July. That may be too late to stop IS before it reaches Taji and the western Baghdad suburbs. Thus the conundrum faced by the coalition is to commit group troops and accept Iranian military help now or wait and hope that IS will slow down its advance due to its own requirements, thereby allowing training provided to the Iraqi Army by foreigners like the NZDF enough time to strengthen it to the point that it can take back the fight to IS with only marginal foreign assistance.

At worst, the latter is a pipe dream. At best, it is a very big ask.

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