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While we were locked down…

datePosted on 12:25, May 29th, 2020 by Pablo

…a lot of things unrelated to the pandemic were happening. Relatively little attention was given to some major events on the global stage, so I thought I would do a quick recap of some of the high (or low) -lights, starting with something familiar. The common theme throughout is human error and misadventure.

Last Friday Simon Bridges and Paula Bennet were ousted as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Opposition in NZ. They were replaced by Todd Muller and Nikki Kaye in what was supposed to be a replace-and-refresh exercise. Instead, the National Party coup has the makings of a debacle, with neither Muller or Kaye appearing to have a policy program in place or a fair idea of the optics as well as substance of their cabinet choices. It increasingly looks like they were ill-prepared to assume the Leadership before the coup and now are saddled with a restive caucus confronting the possibility of a dismal election outcome in a few months. In fact, there is a hint that they may have been set up to fail by more adroit political operators within the party looking to a post-election future marshalled along populist rather than liberal lines.

I say party “coup” rather than leadership “spill” or “roll” because the forced ouster of a political incumbent does not always have to be at gunpoint. It can even be constitutional, in the form of impeachment under false pretences. All that is required is a change of the guard under duress, and that is what happened here.

What is noteworthy is that, in its lack of planning and lack of success in getting much support or traction, the National Party coup shares features with a more conventional type of coup attempt in Venezuela. In the latter case, US ex-military veterans joined with Venezuelan ex-military figures in an effort in early May to oust the Bolivarian regime led by Nicolas Maduro. They were bankrolled by Venezuelan exiles in South Florida, where the US mercenaries had ties to a private security firm that has done work for the Trump administration. They were encouraged by Venezuelan opposition forces led by US-backed Juan Guaido, who signed a contract, later reneged on, with the US private security company, which then hired the mercenaries for a total of USD$350 million to conduct the operation (neither that money, or a down payment of a couple of million dollars, was ever paid). The total number of insurgents supposedly numbered around 300, and they trained and staged in Colombia. The total number of insurgents who launched the assault, including two Americans, totalled about 30.

It is not known if US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams of Iran-Contra fame, was involved but his track record suggests the possibility. The US State department denies any knowledge or complicity in the plot. What is known is that Venezuelan and Cuban intelligence had infiltrated the operation very early on its planning (mid 2019), and when the two Americans and a couple dozen Venezuelans attempted to launch a landing from two open air wooden fishing vessels on a beach east of Caracas in what was supposed to be part of a two-pronged assault that included an attack on the port city of Maracaibo (the main oil export port), they were intercepted, fired upon and killed or captured. The Americans survived. They are veterans of the US Army’s 10th special forces group, whose theater of operations is Central Europe. Unlike the USASF 7th Group, which is responsible for Latin America, the US mercenaries spoke no Spanish and had no prior first-hand contacts in the region.

The lack of training and equipment displayed by the invaders was apparent, as one of the boats lost power as it attempted to flee Venezuelan gunships and the arsenal they brought to the fight included nothing heavier than light machine guns and some old RPGs (and at least one air soft gun!). The compendium of errors involved in the plot will stand as a monument to human ineptitude and folly.

The failure of the attack, labeled as “Bay of Pigs 2.0” by pundits, was a propaganda coup for the Maduro regime and an embarrassment for the US, which still has not investigated the Venezuelan exile’s role or the US security firm’s involvement in the operation, both of which are in violation of federal law. The larger point is that like the National Party coup, it was ill-conceived, hastily planned and poorly supported, with consequences that will likely be the reverse of what was hoped for.

In another part of the world, again in early May, an Iranian frigate, the Jamaran, accidentally struck the support ship Konarak with a Noor anti-ship cruise missile during an exercise in the Gulf of Oman. The blast killed 19 sailors and injured 15 others, obliterating the superstructure of the ship. The Noor is an Iranian version of the Chinese C-802 radar-guided anti-ship missile, flying at subsonic speeds at wave height up to a range fo 74 miles with a 363 point (165 kilos ) warhead. The Iranian Navy reported that the Konarak, which had towed a target barge into place but had not gained sufficient distance from it when the missile was fired, was hit accidentally when the Noor nose cone radar locked onto it rather than the target.

This follows the accidental shoot-down of a Ukrainian commercial airliner departing Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport in January. Mistaking it for an incoming US cruise missile in the wake of the drone strike on Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) Commander Quasem Soleimani in Baghdad and a retaliatory Iranian attack on a joint Iraq/US bases in Iraq shortly thereafter, the Ukrainian plane was downed by an SA-15 or Tor-M1 surface to air missile from a battery manned by a Revolutionary Guard crew who thought that it was an incoming US cruise missile.

These human error-caused accidents follow a long string of incidents involving US and Iranian forces since Donald Trump assumed the US presidency and withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement signed with UN permanent security council members and Germany (the P5+1 agreement). These include several ship attacks and seizures by the IRGC, the downing of a US surveillance drone over Iranian airspace, as well as missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities launched from Yemen and/or Iraq but which are widely believed to be the work of the Iranians.

The concern is that, having made some very public mistakes that cost lives, the IRGC will seek to recover its reputation with more military successes, especially because the entire regime is under pressure due to its poor handling of the CV-19 crisis. This type of brinkmanship sets the stage for the sort of miscalculation and errors that can lead to war.

Now the Iranians are sending five tanker ships full of fuel to Venezuela. The first of the ships has entered Venezuelan territorial waters escorted by Venezuelan naval ships while being watched by US warships and Coast Guard. The irony of a country with the worlds largest oil reserves having to receive shipments of refined crude due to the collapse of its indigenous refining facilities appears to be lost on the Boliviarians, who have characterised the shipments as an example fo anti-imperialist solidarity. They and Iran have warned that any attempt to stop the convoy in order to enforce US sanctions against both countries would be seen as an act of war.

Not that such a warning will necessarily bother the Trump administration, which has an itchy trigger figure when it comes to this particular anti-imperialist couple. That is particularly so because in late March a Venezuelan littoral patrol boat, the ANBV Naiguata (CG-23) , sunk after it rammed a ice-strengthened expedition vessel, the Portuguese-flagged RCGS Resolute. The captain of the Naiguata, purportedly a reservist whose day the job was as a tug skipper, accused the Resolute of encroaching in Venezuelan territorial waters with bad intent and ordered it to the nearest Venezuelan port. When the Resolute, which was on its way to Curacao and was reportedly idling in international waters while conducting engine repairs, failed to obey his commands, the Naiguata fired warning shots then rammed the Resolute from an angle that suggested the Venezuelan ship was trying to alter the Resolute’s direction towards the Venezuelan port. For its troubles the Naiguata began to take on water and had to be abandoned to the sea a few hours later, while the Resolute suffered minor damages.

Closer to home, the PRC has engaged in a series of provocations and show of force displays in the South China Sea, including seizing Indonesian fishing boats and intimidating Vietnamese survey vessels in Vietnamese waters. In a month it is scheduled to deploy its two aircraft carriers together for the first time, passing the Pratas Islands and Taiwan and their way to exercises in the Philippine Sea. Although the deployment is more symbolic than substrative given that the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has limited experience with blue water carrier operations and will take long time before it can sustain combat operational tempos that could challenge the US, it does serve as a reminder of what is to come in a maritime region that is increasingly contested space between the PRC, its southern neighbours bordering on the South China Sea, the US and US allies such as the UK and Australia.

This has not gone unnoticed. After its forced port stay in Guam due to the CV-19 spread within it (eventually more than a 1000 sailors contracted the disease), the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN- 71) aircraft carrier has returned to sea in support of 5th and 7th Fleet operations that include two other carriers and their respective battle groups. At last report it was headed for the Philippines Sea. But the US Navy has its own problems, including the Fat Leonard corruption scandal that engulfed 30 flag ranked officers and two at-sea collisions in 2017 between guided missile destroyers (the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald) with merchant ships that cost US service personnel lives and which were found to be the fault of the US commanders of the ships in question. Added to the debacle surrounding the Roosevelt’s port call in Guam, it is clear that the US Navy has issues that transcend the ability of opponents to challenge it in disputed territories.

What these military moments reminds us is that the possibility of miscalculation and human error leading to lethal conflict is very real.

Then there is political misadventure, of a grander type than the National Party’s circular firing squad. Authoritarian minded leaders around the world have attempted to use the CV-19 pandemic as an excuse to consolidate their powers and extend their rule. Some have done so after initially denying that the pandemic was real, unusual or grave. Others simply sized the opportunity provided to them by the need to enact emergency measures to combat the spread of the disease, particularly those that restrict freedoms of assembly and movement (where they existed). This was a topic of discussion amongst right-wingers in NZ, but in other parts the world the authoritarian temptation, as it is called in the dedicated literature, was real rather than imagined.

But the move to consolidate political power runs the risk of overreach, not just with regard to a pandemic that respects no borders, partisan lines or demographic divisions, but with regard to what is achievable over the long term. Consider the recent draft changes to the Chinese constitution that effectively end the “one state, two systems” approach to Hong Kong by placing the former colony under direct Chinese control when it comes to security powers–which are very broadly defined. If the changes are passed into law in September, it ends Hong Kong’s autonomy 27 years before the expiration of the devolution agreement signed between the PRC and UK in 1997 and pushes the confrontation between pro-democracy supporters and the CCP leadership to a head, marginalising the Hong Kong government in the process.

The trouble is that it is unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will fade away quietly or disappear under duress. Moreover, if the US withdraws Hong Kong’s special trade status and other nations downscale their ties to the special administrative territory, its value as a cash cow for the Chinese economy will be undermined. To be sure, Hong Kong is not as important economically to the PRC as it was at the moment of devolution, but if it loses its status and position as a major financial and trade hub its ill have serious negative ripple effects across the mainland.

The same is possible with Chinese threats against Taiwan. The PRC is still able to continue Taiwanese marginalisation in international fora, including in the World Health Organisation even though Taiwan’s approach to CV-19 is widely considered to be a success whereas the PRC’s approach is increasingly being questioned in terms of its transparency, efficiency and accuracy of reporting. That, along with the move to militarily intimidate Taiwan, has provoked a backlash from the US and other large powers as well as the strengthening of Hong-Kong-Taiwan solidarity ties. In effect, a hard move against either country could prove far more costly than the PRC can currently afford, whether or not it provokes an armed conflict.

The move to assert PRC control over the two states is due more to President Xi’s desire to firm up his control of the CPP than it is to geopolitical necessity. Xi has already orchestrated a constitutional re-engineering that ensures his permanence in power until death, but he clearly has been unnerved by the virus and the CCPs inability to respond quickly and decisively to it. Surrounded by underlings and sycophants, he appears to be resorting to the tried and true authoritarian tactic of staging a foreign diversion in order to whip up nationalist sentiment, something that he can use to portray himself as a national saviour while smoking out any rumblings of discontent within the broader ranks of the CCP.

A twist to the foreign adventurism scenario is Vladimir Putin’s approach to Syria and Libya. Perhaps content with the military successes achieved in Syria and/or unwilling to spend billions of rubles re-building Assad’s failed state, he has now re-positioned disguised Russian fighter aircraft in Libya (at al-Jufra air base south of Sirte) in support of the renegade warlord Kalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) forces are challenging the UN-backed government (Government of National Accord or GNA) located in Tripoli. Speculation has it that Russia wants to gain a strategic foothold in the Southern Mediterranean that has the potential for both North and South power projection, as well as providing a counter to strong Turkish military support for the GNA. Haftar is a staunch anti-Islamicist whereas the GNA is backed by the Saudis, UAE and other Sunni potentates, so there is some support for the move amongst neighbouring countries and those further afield (such as Iran).

The problem for Putin is that CV-19 is raging in his country and the economic downturn since it began to spread has made the fossils fuel exports upon which Russia’s economy depends dry up to the point of standstill. That makes support for Russian military operations in the Middle East unsustainable under current and near-term conditions. That could pose risks to Putin himself if Russia finds itself bogged down and suffering losses in two separate Arab conflicts (and it should be noted that Russian mercenaries under the banner of the Wagner Group, who have already suffered embarrassing defeats in Syria, have now been forced to retreat from Western Libya after suffering defeats at the hands of the GNA military). That would be a serious blow to Putin’s credibility, which has already suffered because of his lackadaisical response to the pandemic. That in turn could encourage challenges to his authority, to include within a military that may see itself to be over-extended and underfunded in times like these.

The list of opportunistic power grabs and other excesses under the cover of the pandemic is long. President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, in power since 1994, denies that CV-19 is a problem, refused until very recently to enact any prophylactic measures and has scheduled another rigged election for August even as the death toll mounts. Similarly, president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil is trying to push through policies while public attention is diverted towards the growing public health crisis (25,000+ deaths and counting) caused by CV-19 and his denial that it is anything other than a common flu. This was made abundantly clear when a leaked video tape of a Brazilian cabinet meeting in April shows Bolsonaro railing about how he will thwart federal prosecutors investigating his family finances and his Minister of Environment suggesting that the time was ripe to open up the Amazon to mass scale logging and mining while attention was focused on the pandemic.

The issue here is not their pandemic denialism but their opportunistic use of the moment to pursue self-serving objectives while public attention is diverted elsewhere. the trouble for both Lukashenko and Bolsonaro is that their actions have precipitated unprecedented backlashes from a wide spectrum of their respective societies, transcending partisan divides and class loyalties.

There are plenty of other instances of errors of judgement and miscalculation to enumerate, but this will have to suffice for now. The thrust of this ramble is to note a few items that were largely overlooked in NZ media while the pandemic absorbed its attention; and to again point out how human error, miscalculation, misadventure and folly undertaken under the cloak of the pandemic can not only lead to unhappy results, but can produce results that are the opposite of or contrary to the intentions of the principals involved.

Note:

I penned a series of tweets on the consultancy page offering my thoughts on the Soleimani assassination. I have decided to gather them together, add some more material, and edit them into a blogpost. Here it is.

The US drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iranian Quds force commander Gen Qassim Soleimeni, a leader of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shiia militia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and others is an ominous portent of things to come. This is a major US escalation born of miscalculation because if nothing else, Iran must respond in kind. “In kind” does not mean some form of direct military response. What it means is that the response will be costly for the US and very likely lethal for some of its citizens (not all in uniform).

Iran has to do so or look weak both domestically and in front of regional adversaries. It has direct and indirect means of retaliation against US interests world wide, and it has US allies as potential targets as well. The issue for Tehran is whether it wants to respond in kind or lose face. It cannot afford to lose face.

This is how wars start. By error. Given that miscalculation is at the heart of what is known as the “security dilemma” and a major cause of war, why would the US engage in such brinkmanship? Was it presidential hubris? Could it be a distraction from impeachment? Have all contingencies been gamed by the Pentagon and the costs accepted? What is the end game envisioned by the US? Because global costs in this case are certain, whereas the outcome is not.

Before continuing, let’s first dispense with the arguments about whether Soleimani’s killing was legal or justified. For all the talk about norms, rules and mores in international relations, states ultimately do what they perceive it is in their interests to do and their ability to do so is determined by their relative capabilities vis a vis other states. That includes targeted extra-judicial killings across international borders. But being able to do something, even if the doing is legal, does not mean that it is necessarily appropriate or beneficial. Soleimani may or may not have been a legitimate military target (as the US argues), but his death is a very serious provocation at a minimum and at worst a precipitant to war. It includes Iraq as well as Iran in the equation, and given the posturing by Israel and Saudi Arabia (two of the few states that welcomed the killing), it could involve them down the road as well.

Whatever the case, let’s also rebut the demonization of the Quds force commander and place his history in proper perspective.

Qasem Soleimani was the equivalent of a special forces general in Western military organizations. He commanded the Quds Force, the clandestine, unconventional warfare arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). He was not the only IRGC general but he was primus inter pares amongst them and a revered figure in Iran. Think George Patton, Douglas McArthur and Dwight Eisenhower rolled into one. Having risen through the ranks on the basis of intelligence and bravery in battle, his mission was to fight, via covert, irregular and indirect means, all enemies of the Islamic Republic. To that end he was a loyal servant of his faith and his country, just as many honoured Western military figures have been in their homelands.

Soleimani was tasked with fighting Iran’s enemies and defending its geopolitical interests. Iran’s enemies include the US, Israel and the Sunni Arab oligarchies that are the West’s “friends” in the Middle East. Iran’s interests include consolidating its sphere of influence in places where Shiite populations are significant, to include the Levant (Lebanon and Syria), Afghanistan, Iraq and Gulf states. It has an interest in undermining Israel and the Sunni Arab oligarchies. It has an interest in confronting the US military presence in the Persian Gulf and rest of the Middle East. It aspires to reclaim its place as a major regional power in the face of these adversaries.

To that end Soleimani cultivated proxies across the world, including Hezbollah, Hamas, a number of Shiite militias in Iraq and Yemen, and off-shoots in such distant places as Venezuela and Paraguay. These proxies were tasked with a number of unconventional missions, including support for the Assad regime in Syria, attacks on Sunnis and occupying forces in post-invasion Iraq, and attacks on Israeli interests world-wide. He and his proxies were and are devoted adversaries of Sunni Wahhabist/Salafist al-Qaeda and ISIS, to the point that the US provided air cover for the Iran-backed Shiia militias in Iraq during the war against their common foe. Read that again: at one time the US cooperated in combat with Soleimani’s allies in Iraq in the fight against ISIS.

It is true that the Quds Force trains, equips, supplies, technically and tactically aids and funds irregular warfare actors that use terrorism as a tactic. It is true that Iran-backed Shiia Iraqi militias killed occupying US troops via ambushes and IED attacks in order to hasten their departure from that country. It is true that these militias have committed atrocities against civilians, including market bombings in Sunni dominant areas of Iraq and Syria. But it should be remembered that the Sunni Arab world is not above such things, and the US has a sorry history of aiding, equipping and funding rightwing death squads throughout Latin America and elsewhere (anyone remember the “Contras?” They were, after all, an irregular militia attacking the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua). It is also true that the US killed thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan in its self-proclaimed “war on terror” (sic).

It is therefore a bit precious of the Trump administration to talk of Soleimani as if he was Hitler’s twin. He was ruthless, to be sure. But in that regard he was no different than most any other professional special operator, especially when the proxies that he helped organize and equip had and have considerable degrees of operational autonomy in the areas in which they are located (because tactical flexibility is a key to guerrilla warfare success). 

Mention here of the sins of others is not about “whataboutism.” It is about the reality of Soleimani’s profession. So let us return to the circumstances and consequences of his death.

The Pentagon statement that Soleimani was killed “at the president’s direction” implies a desire to distance the military from the decision to strike. Also, Trump falsely claimed that Soleimani was responsible for terrorist attacks “from London to New Delhi.” That is a distortion of the truth.

The vast majority of Islam-inspired attacks over the last three decades were committed by Sunni extremists, not Shiites. Although Iran was behind the bombing of the Israeli Embassy and Jewish Community Centre in Buenos Aires in the 1990s, attempted a revenge attack in San Diego on the captain of the US destroyer that downed an Iranian airliner that same decade and targeted Israelis in places like Thailand in the years that followed, it has been very careful in its operational focus, concentrating primarily on the region in which it is located. In contrast, terrorist attacks in Bali, Spain, London, France, Russia, India, Pakistan and the Philippines, to say nothing of the US, have all been the work of Sunni extremists supported by governments that are ostensibly friends and allies of the West. Given the silence that is directed towards these governments by the likes of the US, the claims that Soleimani and Iran are the greatest sponsors of terrorism in the world is a classic case of selection bias (at best) or rank hypocrisy (at worst). 

In any event, there was something odd about how the US revealed how Soleimani was killed. The Pentagon normally does not refer to POTUS when describing extrajudicial assassinations, even though the president must authorize all strikes against high value targets (an Obama-era order that remains in place). It also does not go into long elaborations justifying why the targeted person was killed. Taken together, this suggests that the move was made out of impulse, not reason. In fact, it seems that the president acted against command advice and that the US military followed orders in spite of reservations, and now the spin is on justifying the strike.

The real test comes when the Iranians respond, which will likely be unconventional, irregular, asymmetrical and prolonged. This is not going be a quick conventional war, as the Iranians understand that the way to defeat the US is to not go toe-to-toe in a conventional force-on-force confrontation. Instead, the best strategy is to employ a “death by a thousand cuts” global low intensity blood-letting campaign that saps not only the resources of the US military but also the will of the US people to support yet another seemingly endless war without victory.

Perhaps Trump’s advisors thought that a decapitation strike on Soleimani would paralyze the Quds Force and IRGC and intimidate Iran into submission. But a public signature strike rather than a covert operation removes plausible deniability and forces Iranian retaliation if it is not intimidated. Iran does not appear to be intimidated.

It is said that resort to war demonstrates the failure of diplomacy. The US “termination” of Gen. Soleimani may be a case of leadership incompetence leading to miscalculation and then war. There were options other than targeted killing by drone strike. There are overt and more subtle kinetic options if really necessary (the imminent threat argument trotted out by the White House and Pentagon is already crumbling under scrutiny). There are indirect means of demonstrating to the Iranians the folly of pursuing any particular course of action. But instead, a blunt instrument was used.

It is now clear that the US was tracking Soleimani for a while and was well aware of his movements and routine, to include trips to Syria and elsewhere. His planes were monitored. His convoys were tracked. His temporary quarters while traveling where known. His communications appear to have been monitored. There has been plenty of occasion to kill him and plenty of other places and means in which to do so without having to resort to a public display of force in the middle of Baghdad. He could have even received blunt warning–say by thermal gun sight imagery of his vehicle or abode–that he was in cross hairs. If it came to that, any attack on him that was not immediately attributable to the US would provide plausible deniability and tactical cover even if Iranians knew who did it, therefore making it harder for them to retaliate even if the message–whatever it is supposed to be–was received. Now, regardless of message, the Iranians know precisely who to blame.

Whatever the more nuanced options, Trump needed a showcase for his hubris, so a drone strike it was. In fact, this appears to be yet another act of bully-boy intimidation rather than a measured response grounded in a larger strategy. Even if the US had warned Iran about not having its proxies storm US diplomatic installations, specifically referencing the US embassy seizure in Tehran in 1979 and the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya before the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad last week, there were other ways of getting the message across without running the risk of escalation into war.

There is irony to the immediate sequels of the attack on the Quds Force commander. Follow-up US airstrikes on PMF militias may be designed to degrade their capabilities but are too little and late. The PMF is well-established and in fact is a para-military arm of the Iraqi government. Yes, you read that right. The PMF, which is mostly Shiia in composition but which includes some Sunni elements, acts as an armed agent of the Iraqi state. It is comparable to the colectivos in Venezuela and Turbas Divinas in Nicaragua– armed mobs that are used for domestic repression as much as for sectarian or anti-foreign violence. The signature drone strike was therefore an attack on an Iraqi government ally on Iraqi soil without its consent (or even forewarning, for obvious reasons). All of which is to say: If the Iraqi government now orders US out of Iraq in the wake of Soleimani’s murder because it violated the Status of Forces (SOF) agreement between the two countries, then the drone strike backfired.

That is because Iran then has an open field in which to exercise its influence in Iraq without a US counter-presence. Or, the US will be forced into another armed quagmire in a country where it is hated by Sunni and Shiia alike. It is therefore time for someone in Washington to get real about the consequences beyond Iranian retaliation.

As for Iranian retaliation, Trump threatens to have 52 pre-selected targets in Iran, including “cultural sites,” ready to be struck if Tehran does anything that results in US deaths (striking at cultural sites with no military significance is a violation of the laws of war and a possible war crime). But what if Iran strikes at allies? What if Russia sends troops to safeguard some of those target sites (Russia is a military ally of Iran and Russian troops fight alongside IRGC troops in Syria)? What if China (a supplier of weapons to Iran that has a base and warships in the region) also sides with Iran in the events things escalate? What happens if non-attributed but seemingly related attacks happen in the US but cannot be directly linked to Iran? The range of possible sequels makes all bluster about follow up strikes on Iran both reckless and hollow. Unless, of course, Trump has finally lost all sense of reason and no one in his entourage or the US security community has the courage to stop continuing his madness.

That brings up the calculus, such as it is, behind Trump’s order to kill. Perhaps he thinks that this will stave off the impeachment hearings while Congress argues about whether he should invoke the Wars Powers Act (WPA). He does not have to immediately request a WPA resolution but already Democrats have obliged him by arguing about not being consulted before the strike and about how he needs to justify it in order to get congressional approval. There is bound to be some dickering over the legal status of the drone strike but ultimately what is done is done and no post-facto amount of arguing will change the facts on the ground. Be that as it may, the impeachment process might be delayed but will proceed.

Trump undoubtably feels that this action will make him look decisive, bold and tough and that it will will shore up his MAGA base while attracting patriotic citizens to his war-mongering cause in an election year. The trouble is that the elections are 10 months away and the US military is exhausted from two decades of endless wars. Sending more ground troops to the Middle East only depletes them further. The US public is also disenchanted with wars with no resolution, much less victory, in places that are far away and which are not seen as the threat Washington makes them out to be.

If the US could orchestrate an air-sea battle with Iran that settled their differences, that would be another story. But that is not going to happen and is why the US is already sending land forces into theatre. This will be a multi-tiered low intensity conflict without defined borders or rules of engagement.

Iran knows all of this and will play an indirect long game. It will look to fight a war of attrition in which the will of the US public will be targeted more so than the capability of its military. It will endeavour to exact a death by a thousand cuts on the American psyche and its desire for war.

That makes Trumps bully boy assassination strike a triple miscalculation: a) it will not necessarily save him from the impeachment process and further adverse legal proceedings; b) it will not guarantee his re-election; and c) it will escalate the confrontation with Iran in unforeseen directions, with unexpected but surely negative consequences for US interests in general and for himself personally. The law of unintended consequences will prevail.

Perhaps there is a silver lining after all.

The cost of a range clearance.

datePosted on 08:09, November 20th, 2019 by Pablo

It has been revealed that firing ranges used by the NZDF while deployed to the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamyan Province, Afghanistan, contained unexploded ordnance that caused numerous deaths and injuries after the NZDF withdrew the PRT in April 2013. In 2014 seven children were killed when an unidentified high explosive device detonated after they brought it back to their village. In the five years following the NZDF withdrawal seventeen people were killed and several dozen injured by unexploded munitions they encountered in and around the five firing ranges used by the PRT during its 12 year mission in Bamyan. While all of the ranges were used for small arms training, two, the Beersheba and Dragon ranges, also were used for training with high explosive rounds, including grenades, shoulder fired mortar shells/rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and armour piercing heavy caliber bullets. It was near the Beersheba range where the children found the munition that killed them.

The NZDF claims that it had cleared over ten tons of unexploded ordinance from the Bamyan ranges before it left the province. This was done early in the PRT tour because the ranges had been used by Russian, US and Afghan forces in the years before the NZDF arrived, and the concern was the safety of NZDF troops when using those ranges. After the NZDF left, it contracted with the Afghan Directorate for Mine Action Coordination (DMAC) to have contractors clear the ranges. In October 2013 this was supposedly done, to what the NZDF calls an Afghan government approved standard.

After the children’s deaths the standard was lifted to a UN approved level. From then on negotiations were enjoined to determine who should do subsequent clearing of the ranges, what the costs would be and when they should begin. In 2018 the NZDF agreed to pay US$10 million into a fund operated by the UN for employing explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) contractors to engage in follow up clearance of the ranges. The delay in agreeing to the payment was differences between the NZDF/MoD and the US Department of Defence (DoD) over the cost of the job. If I understand correctly what the NZDF has said on the matter, the US wanted NZ to pay US$48 million for clearing all of the Bamyan ranges, whereas NZ wanted to pay much less and only help clear the Beersheba and Dragon ranges. The US$ 10 million dollar sum appears to be the cost of the latter. The key thing to remember here is that while people were being killed and injured by ordinance on those ranges, the US and NZ were arguing about the cost of clearing them.

The NZDF claims that the contractors who did the October 2013 clearance were approved by the Aghan government. The raises questions about the tender and contract-letting process. Who were these contractors? Did the NZDF have any say in their approval? How was the handover between PRT EOD personnel and the contractors handled (since the NZDF EOD operators would have had maps of the ranges that indicated where they had cleared unexploded ordinance fired by NZDF troops as well as any incidental unexploded ordinance (UXO) found on them)?

The October 2013 range clearance done by the contractors was of a type known as a “surface clearance.” As the name implies, this means visually inspecting the range for any unexploded ordinance lying on the above-ground surface. This might include inspections under loose rocks and on slips or crevasses in the mountainous terrain of the area.

The NZDF has made the accurate point that given the amount of ordinance fired on the ranges over the years by multiple armed services from several countries, it is near impossible to determine if the munitions that are killing and injuring people came from the NZDF or another military. That would require shell fragments, explosive residue or other evidence of source, none of which is available. The NZDF notes that in terrain like that of Bamyan, with weather like that of Bamyan, unexploded rounds can last and lie undetected for years and be carried out of the ranges by landslides, snowmelt, floods and other natural events as well as people. The latter point is not as silly as it might seem: in countries such as Afghanistan scrap metal scavenging is an important source of income for impoverished communities, and firing ranges are a treasure trove of scrap metal in the form of bullet casings and other metallic debris of war. For children, some of this debris is an irresistible toy. For all who tread there by choice or innocence, venturing onto an inactive firing range is an invitation to disaster.

What the UN standard of range clearance demands, and what the US and NZ were negotiating about, is what is known as a “subsurface clearance.” This requires the use of metal detectors and other means of locating live explosive objects underground, usually up to depths of two meters given the munitions (such as those of the NZDF) used on the ranges. This raises several questions.

Knowing that it had fired three types of high explosives on the Beersheba and Dragon ranges (some of which were duds) and knowing that some of them were capable of penetrating into the ground rather than just ricochet off of the surface, why did the NZDF agree to a surface clearance even if it conformed to an Afghan government standard? Was it told that the initial clearance would be subsurface in nature only to have that changed to a surface clearance after it left, or did it assume that a subsurface clearance would be the case? One would think that as part of the handover and contracting process with regard to the post-PRT range clearances the NZDF would have informed DMAC about the presence of unexploded high explosives on those ranges and in return be provided with explicit knowledge of what type of clearance would be conducted in October 2013. If it agreed to a surface clearance knowing that it had potentially unexploded ground-penetrating high explosives on the ranges, then that would be a dereliction of its duty of care to the civilian population of the area.

One also has to ask about the role of the Afghans. After the NZDF withdrew from Bamyan, who gained control over the ranges? The Afghan National Police (ANP), the Afghan National Army (ANA), the DMAC or some other government entity? Were the ranges sign-posted and/or fenced off? Or were the ranges left open? Whatever the answer, there appears to have been some serious dereliction of duty on the part of those who inherited control of the ranges after the NZDF left.

Under Protocol Five of the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), countries are responsible for disposing of the Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) after they leave the area in which they operated. The responsibility is not legally binding and often ignored, but is the likely reason why the US and NZ negotiated the second round of range clearances with the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS). That is important because in effect, the responsibility to “clean up” does not end when an armed organisation leaves an area–the issue is not about present control but of past usage.

To be clear: NZ has no enforceable legal liability for leaving subsurface UXOs uncleared after it abandoned the Bamyan PRT, even though the NZDF was aware of the possibility of their existence. Those UXOs were likely not fired from NZDF weapons but given the history of the ranges, the NZDF was quite likely aware of their presence simply because US forces had used the ranges and very likely mapped them out for their own protection, then handed them over to the PRT as an allied ISAF force.

The NZDF did have a moral-ethical responsibility to consider the non-combat consequences of leaving the ranges cleared to a surface standard given what had been fired in them. Since the stated purpose of the PRT was about nation-building, hearts and minds and the rest of that mission palaver, it seems that something got lost at the end.

None of that matters. According to the UNCCW protocol five on ERW, the NZDF and NZ government were obligated by international convention to assume responsibility for the initial and subsequent range clearances. That the NZDF failed to do so in the initial tender and handover to the first post-deployment EOD contractors, and that it took five years to negotiate a price for its participation in the obviously necessary follow-ups to what was clearly an inadequate job in October 2013, tells us something about the value placed by the NZDF on the lives of Afghanis, including their children.

Prime Minister Ardern said that she was first informed of the issue in 2018 and now, after the matter became public, has told the NZDF that it has been moving too slowly and needs to speed up its involvement with the UNMAS-led subsurface clearance process. This begs the question as to why she was not informed earlier about was a thorny military-diplomatic issue, which in turn raises yet again the matter of NZDF transparency and accountability to the government of the day.

By all public accounts, the Bamyan ranges do not contain unexploded ordinance from “heavy” air assaults or artillery, including cluster bombs, white phosphorus rounds or 500 to 2000 lb. bombs. If that were the case the whole story changes dramatically in several ways, including on the subject of responsibility. Assuming that they were only used for small arms and limited high explosive weapons training, then the US$10 million price tag for NZDF participation in the UNMAS clearance efforts in two abandoned firing ranges seems high but reasonable if it involves compensation to relatives of victims, deployment of NZDF EOD specialists back to assist in the range clearing efforts and/or paying the for salaries and equipment for honest and professionally competent EOD contractors. That is is predicated on UNMAS hiring EOD contractors that are not corrupt, incompetent or cronies of local officials and instead are totally dedicated to eradicating the deadly residue of a conflict supposedly gone past.

In the end, this is another reminder of the legacies of war and the unfinished business that remains long after troops come home. Because for those living in places like Bamyan, the war does not end when the foreigners leave.

The coming resource war.

datePosted on 16:11, September 10th, 2019 by Pablo

During my time in the Pentagon I had the privilege of sitting down with military leaders and defence and security officials from a variety of Latin American nations. Sometimes I was present as a subordinate assistant to a senior US defence department official, sometimes as part of a delegation that included people from the State Department and other agencies, and sometimes I was on my own or part of a small team exploring avenues of dialogue or negotiating details of bilateral and multilateral agreements.

One of the more interesting meetings I had was with small group of senior Brazilian military officers led by the then number two officer in the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces (which answers to the Brazilian Ministry of Defence, in an arrangement similar to that between the US Department of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff but with a more vertical hierarchy within it based on officer seniority between service branches). In that meeting I asked the Brazilians what they considered to be the greatest threat to their national security. The answer was astounding: “The pattern of consumption in the North,” said the senior Brazilian officer. Sensing my surprise, he went on to explain that emphasis on economic growth in Northern capitalist societies was causing the rapid depletion of their natural resources along with a host of other environmental problems. He even brought up, at a time when the subject was embryonic, the issue of “global warming,” noting that Brazil was starting to see the subtle impact of climatic shifts in its maritime and terrestrial environments.

I should briefly note, as an aside, that one of the interesting aspects of the Brazilian high command is that many senior officers do advanced post-graduate degrees in France, and tend to focus on public policy and politics. This is a bit different that many countries that send their officers to US or UK War Colleges for professional development and prefer not to have them study politics rather than things like public administration. Like the US, Brazilian officers hold lower-level degrees in “harder” subjects relevant to their military disciplines, but then go on to study at places like the Paris Institute of Political Studies (commonly known as “Sciences Po”). There they receive a distinctly non-US type of political science training, to include the philosophies of people like Althusser, Poulantzas, Foucault, Derrida, Levi, Glucksman, Proust, Aron and others not usually associated with the military enterprise and certainly not part of the standard post-graduate curriculum of US (or NZ) military officers.

With this in mind it should not be surprising that the Brazilians had a slightly different take on what constitutes threats to their national security. But then the general went on. He advanced the notion that eventually Brazil would find itself at war with Northern powers over control of the Amazon. He pointed out that once unchecked economic growth led to the degradation of Northern environments and depletion of natural resources above the equator, the great Northern powers would turn on the Amazon (and elsewhere, like Sub-Saharan Africa) in an attempt to continue their pattern of resource exploitation.

At that point the US admiral sitting next to me turned and said “dang, boy, I have not heard that one before.”

The Brazilian general was not assuaged or convinced by my protestations that the US would never go to war with Brazil over its natural resources. He was not mollified by my attempts to explain that the US would more likely partner with Brazil to preserve its sovereign assets. He told me that although he had no doubt that I was a sincere young fellow and had the ear of the administration that I served, nothing I said would be binding once the next administration arrived and even then, should the US try to negotiate a partnership agreement/treaty with Brazil on control of the Amazon, Brazil would reject it on grounds of foreign interference in its sovereign affairs.

That was in 1994. But the Brazilian view continues to this day.

I write this to provide context to the current discussion of wildfires in Amazonia and the differences between Northern powers and Brazil (or more precisely, the administration of Jair Bolsonaro) when it comes to how to handle the situation now and into the future. Bolsonaro, who calls himself the “Trump of Brazil” and who campaigned as “candidate machete” in rural parts of the country, is a climate change denying homophobe with vulgarian tendencies and unsavoury links to both criminal gangs and extreme right-wing groups, including those operated by paramilitary organisations and and ex-military officers (Bolsonaro is a former Army officer and son of an Amazonian miner). During the campaign and once in office he promised to roll back environmental regulations and those that protected endangered indigenous communities in the Amazon basin, who were already under siege from logging and farming encroachment in their traditional homelands. His promise to bulldoze the Amazon in order to promote economic growth on the way to great power status resonated with nationalists as well as foreign and domestic agricultural and logging conglomerates, who poured both open and dark money into his campaign.

Once Bolsonaro assumed office the practices of clear-cutting and slash-and-burning accelerated dramatically, something that when combined with prolonged drought in Brazil’s north and west contributed to the wildfires that as of yet remain unchecked in many places. Bolsonaro has accused environmentalists of deliberately setting fires to advance their agendas, has rejected some types of international fire-fighting aid (such as from the EU) and has launched into a war of words with the likes of French Prime Minister Macron (including rude comments about the Macron’s wife) in defence of what Bolsonaro claims are assaults on Brazilian sovereignty by foreign powers wishing to gain control over its natural resources.

This is where things get dangerous. The Brazilian military has as one of its national security pillars defence of its natural resources against foreign efforts to seize them in the face of increased environmental destruction. The Bolsonaro government supports clearing large parts of the countryside in the quest for more arable land for commercial purposes and is determined to resist foreign entreaties to reign back the deforestation policy in the interest of global climate sustainability. The scene is then set for armed confrontations between the Brazilian military and any actors (foreign or domestic) that may seek to use direct action to protect the rainforest and pantanal (the southwestern wetlands that extend to the Paraguayan and Bolivian borders). The threats are unlikely to come from state actors over the short-term and certainly not from Brazil’s neighbours, but over the medium to long term the possibility that resource wars might erupt over Brazil’s intransigence cannot be discounted.

In fact, Brazil ultranationalists are already spreading rumours that the unexplored hinterlands are being “infiltrated” by foreign forces, and the Brazilian Army has suspended participation of several Northern militaries in jungle warfare exercises over concerns that it is gives forward intelligence about terrain and Brazilian war-fighting capabilities (the Brazilian Army operates a world-renown jungle warfare school–CIGS– in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state. The battalion prayer includes the following phrase: “If we perish defending the Brazilian Amazon, O God, allow us to do so with dignity and deserving of victory. Selva!” (“Jungle!” in Portuguese).

What is worse, significant elements in the Brazilian defence establishment categorically deny that the Amazon is at ecological risk or that it serves as the much vaunted “lungs of the earth.” The vehemence and xenophobic tone of their views is well captured here.

The fact that the Amazonian region is huge and relatively lawless contributes to the Brazilian military’s concern with exercising control over it. Without significant foreign enemies, the Brazilian Navy has placed great emphasis on its riverine capability, while the Army uses the presence of drug, people and weapons smugglers as a justification for conducting counter-insurgency and low-intensity warfare exercises in the far reaches of the basin, especially the border regions adjacent to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, French Guyana and Guyana. Such an extended land border (which also includes Paraguay and Uruguay) makes Brazilian geopolitical strategists acutely focused on staving off intrusions of any nature, so it is not surprising that Brazil has closed its border with Venezuela in order to staunch refugee flows fleeing the Bolivarian kleptocracy that passes for a government in Caracas (it has also closed its borders to Venezuelans trying to enter Brazil from other neighbouring countries).

The combination of a traditional continental geopolitical focus within the Brazilian security establishment, military concern that resource depletion elsewhere will lead to foreign attempts to steal or capture by stealth Amazonian resources, and the presence in presidential office of a demagogic nationalist-populist fixated on untapping those resources for Brazilian gain regardless of environmental consequence may prove explosive down the road should any international moves be made to limit Brazil’s ability to exploit what it considers to be its God-given gift of natural resource endowment.

Or, as that Brazilian general said to me 25 years ago, “the developed world has destroyed its natural resources on the way to becoming modernised industrial societies and now wants to deny Brazil the ability to do the same. We will not let that happen.”

The real roots of Iranian “brinkmanship.”

datePosted on 12:47, July 21st, 2019 by Pablo

I have been unimpressed with Western corporate media coverage of the tensions involving Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. They repeat the line that Iran is the source of current tensions, that it is a major sponsor of terrorism, that it is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and threatening its neighbours and that it is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with its attacks on shipping in the Strait. I disagree with much of this, so allow me to explain why.

A few months back the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement (the P5+1 deal involving the US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany). Leaked diplomatic cables show that it did so manly because the Obama administration had signed it, not because it was a “bad deal” (in fact, the Iranians were upholding their end of the bargain and had complied with all international monitoring conditions). After withdrawing from the deal the US imposed a new round of tougher sanctions on Iran, with most of the bite coming from secondary sanctions on non-US based firms and organisations that do business with the Persian giant.

Let us be clear on this. The US unilaterally withdrew from a viable multinational agreement mainly because of presidential hubris, then unilaterally imposed sanctions not only on Iran but others who may wish to continue to commercially engage with it. The US sanctions are not supported by, and in fact are seen as illegitimate by many countries, including China, Russia and most of the countries in the EU. Yet, because the US has great economic weight, it can use the secondary sanctions in order to force international compliance with its edict.

Until recently the sanctions were not enforced by the military of any country other than the US. But on July 4 the Royal Navy stopped and seized an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, arguing that it was transporting oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions (the sanctions only apply to aviation fuel and only cover EU members, which Iran is not). The tanker’s proximity to the colony was fortunate in that Britain has limited autonomous power projection capability in the Middle East but does have a naval garrison on the Rock. So the seizure was as much due to opportunity as it was support for principle.

Iran warned that it would retaliate to this act of “piracy” and this past week it did by seizing two tankers, one of which was UK-flagged (the other was briefly detained and released). The owners of the UK-flagged vessel have not be able to contact it since it was boarded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos.

This follows on Iran recently shooting down a US drone over the Strait and the sabotage of four vesels in a UAE port and two merchant ships in international waters that have been attributed to the IRGC. Needless to say, this appears to demonstrate that indeed, a brinkmanship game is being played. But let us disaggregate a few facts.

The UK was informed of the Iranian tanker’s movements by the US, which asked that it be seized when it made the passage from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. The May government complied even though Trump has repeatedly disparaged her and welcomed her ouster. The Iranians know that Teresa May is a lame duck and that Boris Johnson, her likely successor, simply does not have the stomach for a all-in confrontation with Iran when the Brexit mess is ongoing and the government is effectively paralysed on multiple fronts. To be clear: the UK is facing a crisis of governance and the Iranians know this. So any military counter has to come from somewhere else.

It certainly will not come from Europe, Asia or anywhere but the US. That is the rub. The Iranians know that Trump is a classic bully. All bluster and bravado but a coward at heart. When informed of the Iranian’s seizure he first uttered threats but then put distance between himself and the UK by saying that the US does not receive much oil that transits through the Strait and that other nations need to up their military patrols through it and the Persian Gulf if they want their vessels to be safe.

This signals that Trump does not believe that a US-Iran conflict would be existential or done out of necessity and that he does not see alliance commitments as universally binding. This gives him room to refuse UK requests for military assistance in getting the Iranians to resolve the stand-off on its terms. In doing so he effectively has thrown the UK under the bus as a reward for it doing the US bidding with regard to the Iranian tanker now tied up in Gibraltar. So much for that “special relationship.”

Although chickenhawk John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor, is keen to shed other people’s blood in order to force an Iranian submission, Trump, like Johnson, does not appear to be inclined to do so. Besides his neo-isolationist proclivities, Trump has undoubtably heard from US military authorities that a conflict with Iran would make Afghanistan and Iraq look like a kindergarten party. The US military is stretched as it is, the US public is sick of constant war, a long election year is just beginning and no allies other than Israel and perhaps Saudi Arabia are going to be willing to join the US in a fight of its own making.

That is an important point to note. It is clear that for Bolton and other re-cycled neoconservatives like Mike Pompeo, the march to war with Iran is about regime change, not international commerce. US foreign policy elites have never gotten over the Iranian Revolution and the US embassy seizure in 1979, and the US military has since then had a prickly relationship with Iran in its regional sphere influence. US criticism of some of Iran’s more regressive policies as a reason to push for regime change holds little weight given its support for the likes of Saudi Arabia, and regardless of the theocratic nature of the regime Iranian elections are considered by international observers to be among the cleanest in the Middle East (thereby putting the lie to claims that Iran is as authoritarian as other regional autocracies).

The US push for war with Iran is therefore not grounded in concerns about international norms and the specifics of Iranian behaviour but in getting some measure of retribution for what some US elites feel was a great loss of face forty years ago and an ongoing reminder of US powerlessness in specific instances. The trouble for the likes of Bolton and Pompeo is that most world leaders understand their real motivations and so are reluctant to join their war-mongering bandwagon.

The Iranians know this. They know that they have Russia as a military partner and China as an economic lifeline. They know that any military conflict involving them will close the Strait for more than just the duration of hostilities. They not only have one of the largest militaries in the Middle East but they also have proxies like Hezbollah and allies like Syria who will join in what will be a multi-fronted asymmetric war of attrition against the US that will not be confined to the immediate region. They key is for Iran to isolate the US and a few allies in a manoeuvre-based military conflict that avoids short mass-on-mass exchanges and which over time inflicts political and military costs that become unbearable.

Although Bolton may believe in the rhetoric of “effects-based strategy” and therefore assume that any successful kinetic engagement between the US and Iran will be limited, short and intense, the problem with such assumptions is that the adversary may not subscribe to what is taught in US command and general staff colleges. I assume that US military planners understand this.

It is therefore very likely that Iran will get to exchange the British tanker for the ship detained in Gibraltar and that it will be able to continue to make the point that it has the means to disrupt commerce in the sea lanes adjacent to it. The latter is an important tactic for Iran because the price for it ending its maritime disruption campaign is a loosening of the US sanctions regime on it. Unless oil-importing countries step up their own naval protection of ships flagged by or destined for them (which brings with it the possibility of military confrontation with Iran), then they run the risk of economic slowdowns caused by fuel shortages, to say nothing of increased insurance costs and fuel prices as the impasse continues.

In short, it does not appear likely that the US is going to come riding to the rescue of non-US vessels anytime soon and yet will continue to demand that the world bow to its Iranian sanctions regime. Trump and his advisors may see it as a necessary hard choice for US allies but to them it is more likely to be seen as being placed in an untenable position.

Finally, it should be remembered that modern Iran has not engaged in an unprovoked attack on another country. Although it supports and uses irregular military proxies, it is nowhere close to being the sponsor of terrorism that several Sunni Arab petroleum oligarchies are. In spite of its anti-Israel rhetoric (destined for domestic political consumption), it has not fired a shot in anger towards it. Its strategic position in the Middle East is as strong now as it ever was. It has complied with the terms of the nuclear control agreement. It has good commercial relations with a wide variety of countries, including New Zealand. It therefore has no incentive to start a conflict even if it does have a strong incentive to turn the tables on the sanctions regime by demonstrating that imposing costs works in many ways and on more than just the targets of sanctions themselves.

It would be wise for Western leaders to put themselves in Iranian shoes when considering the security dilemma in the Persian Gulf, because if anything the root of the current tensions lies not in Tehran but in Washington, DC.

A fraught inquiry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Launching into trouble?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The unwanted jihadist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bully’s gambit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The generous uncle.

datePosted on 13:23, March 24th, 2018 by Pablo

The title of this post references a Korean saying that alludes to the fact that those with power or dominance can afford to give away some leverage, even face, in pursuit of mutual good. This is applicable to the current state of US-North Korean (DPRK) affairs, where as per usual president Trump has announced via Twitter that he is prepared to sit down and talk face to face with Kim Jung-un about restoring civility to their bilateral relations.

There are many who oppose the overture. Most of the criticism in the US is based on the argument that by agreeing to a sit-down without prior concessions on the part of the DPRK, the US is “legitimizing” the Kim regime and conceding negotiating space before the meeting happens. Trump and his PR flaks have responded by saying that Kim has agreed to “denuclearise” in exchange for the talks, something that has not been confirmed by anyone–particularly the North Koreans–and which flies in the face of the long-proclaimed objective of the DPRK to obtain a nuclear deterrent as an existential cornerstone of its national defense. In fact, the Kim regime has made achieving nuclear weapons status an integral part of its identity, so it would seem suicidal to renounce that in exchange for a bilateral meeting between Kim and Trump that is very likely to be long on symbolism and short on substance.

The South Koreans (ROK) have played an interesting role in this affair. It was the ROK chief of intelligence who initially announced, on the White House steps after a meeting with Trump, that the latter had agreed to direct talks with Kim Jung-un. It is very unusual for any intelligence chief to meet with a foreign head of state as a head of delegation, much less a South Korean intelligence official (where social hierarchies and official protocol are a serious matter). It is also unprecedented that he would announce a stunning diplomatic breakthrough from the steps of the White House–on his host’s porch, as it were–rather than leave that to the president of the Republic or other senior diplomatic or military officials commenting from Seoul. In fact, even his public appearance abroad was highly unusual. But it has been reported that he was serving as an emissary from Kim himself offering to talk directly with Trump, including about the DPRK nuclear program, so it is possible that the unusual nature of the meeting has to do with the unusual nature of and means by which the message was conveyed.

That does not discount the possibility that the ROK government also engineered the intelligence chief’s meeting with Trump in order to advance its own agenda with regard to US-DPRK relations (which involve three-way talks between the US, ROK and DPRK as equals), then cornered Trump with a unilateral announcement about a possible diplomatic breakthrough after that topic was discussed. Knowing that Trump’s vanity would make it hard for him to backtrack from taking credit for a major foreign policy achievement, it is quite possible that the ROK manipulated him to its advantage in order to advance the stalled dialogue with its northern compatriots (I use this term with regard to ethnic, not political ties).

Trump obliged, and then added the denuclearisation remark in the face of domestic criticism. It is possible that what the DPRK message really said about negotiating its nuclear weapons program got lost in translation, but whether or not it amounts to “denuclearisation” does not detract from the fact that it is willing to talk. Otherwise, the North Koreans have remained largely silent other than to say that the offer to talk is not the result of sanctions but instead comes from a position of confidence, and that they are liaising with Sweden (as the DPRK diplomatic interlocutor with the US) about logistics and agenda.

The key issues appear to be these: the North Koreans have always wanted direct talks with the US. The US has always denied them because it does not recognise the legitimacy of the DPRK regime. The 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War is not a peace treaty and is not synonymous with a permanent cessation of hostilities (in fact, episodic hostilities are a signature characteristic of the DPRK-ROK relationship). Thus the status of both the conflict as well as of the north’s governance has always been subject to US questioning.

In response, the DPRK has asked for two things: a formal cessation of hostilities and recognition of its status as the legitimate government north of the 38th parallel. The US refuses to do so on both counts and maintains that Koreans should be reunified under the ROK political system because the Korean War was a post-WW2  Chinese Communist-instigated attempted revolution that usurped the legitimate government based in Seoul. After years of siding with the US, it appears that the ROK political elite are starting to reconsider their position.

This is where the proverb about the generous uncle comes into play. The Kim regime may have been born in dubious circumstances, be objectively odious and weird in its exercise of power and the US may not like it, but withholding recognition of its status as the de facto regent of the territory and population included within its physical borders is absurd. Much like Israel, the DPRK is here to stay whether Arabs or South Koreans like it or not. The Kim regime has been in power for 65 years, has powerful allies such as China, and in terms of the brutality of its rule, is on a par with a number of despotic states, including past and present US allies (readers are welcome to draw other parallels with Israel but my point is simply pragmatic: disliking a country and wishing it away will not make it go away, and if it has strong allies and its prepared to defend itself, it cannot be destroyed and remade in some other image). So denying the DPRK’s existence by refusing to have diplomatic relations and demanding concessions before engaging in bilateral talks is a case of ignoring reality. And with nukes in play, it is a matter of cutting off the nose in order to spite the face.

Critics will say that any meeting “legitimizes” the Kim regime. So what? If it leads to a diminishing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, how is recognising the obvious–that the DPRK is not going away–a bad thing?  What is wrong about agreeing to replace the armistice with a permanent cessation of hostilities and peace treaty that recognises the political division of the Korean peninsula if it can lead to a reduction of bellicosity and thereby the risk of nuclear confrontation? The South Koreans appear to understand what the proverb means for them, and with the reunification of Germany in the back of their minds, they may well believe that the formalisation of peace accords can, mutatis mutandis, eventually lead to non-hostile reunification on mutually beneficial terms.

In spite of the apparent willingness to engage in bilateral head of state talks without preconditions (depending on who in the White House is tweeting/talking), recent personnel changes in the Trump administration suggest that the desire to be generous is not part of Uncle Sam’s playbook. It remains to be seen if other actors, to include New Zealand, can offer insights to decision-makers in DC as to why that old Korean proverb has increased relevance today

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