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Media Link: Nuclear strategy, then and now.

datePosted on 15:46, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo

Although I had the fortune of being a graduate student of some of the foremost US nuclear strategists of the day (1970s) and later rubbed shoulders with Air Force and Naval officers who were entrusted with parts of the US nuclear arsenal, I seldom get to write or speak about the subject nowadays. However, in this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning, we discuss the evolution of nuclear strategy and the impact of technology on logics of deterrence. It is all-too-brief but I think we got to the gist of the matter.

You can find the podcast here.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” podcast, episode 7.

datePosted on 13:19, September 6th, 2020 by Pablo

In the most recent broadcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about the turn (back) towards hard power competition in international affairs. You can find it here.

I have been fortunate enough to receive regular reports from the 42 Group, a defence and security-focused collection of youngish people whose purpose is to provide independent strategic analysis to policy makers and the NZ public. Their work is very good.

I asked the person who sends me their reports if it was Ok to republish the latest report here. He agreed, so here it is.

An indictment by another name.

datePosted on 16:11, August 5th, 2020 by Pablo

After I noticed that my name had been taken yet again in vain by my friendly antagonist Tom Hunter over at No Minister, I went over to see what the fuss was about. Nothing much, but then I discovered a post about the Operation Burnham Inquiry by Psycho Milt. I made a comment (now several comments) in response, then decided to edit the original comment, add a few things and make it a short post here that outlines what to me is the bottom line of that report. Here it is:

As the old saying goes, “the original sin was bad, but the cover up was worse.” Had the NZDF simply come out after the 2010 engagement and said that there were civilian casualties resultant from the “fog of war” in a nighttime SAS operation designed to kill or capture people responsible for attacks on NZDF patrols in Bamiyan that resulted in several NZDF deaths, I bet that the majority of the NZ public would have accepted that war sucks and bad things inadvertently happen. Then, when Jon Stephenson’s first story on Operation Burnham came out it would not have caused such a stir because there would not have been a glaring gap between his account and that of the NZDF (Nicky Hagar got involved later and took primary credit for the book “Hit and Run” although most of it was researched and written by Stephenson–-Hagar never set foot in Afghanistan).

Although the Royal Commission (RC) sugar-coated it, the report is absolutely damning of the SAS and Army leaders of the time (and not the troops on the ground that night, although issues regarding the TAC (Tactical Air Controller) and SAS mission commander’s understanding of the Rules of Engagement (ROE) were not addressed in the public version of the report). The testimony of several officers taken under oath was labeled as not credible by the Commissioners. The RC Report states that no institutional cover-up was at play, but that is laughable in light of what it says about the testimony of most of the senior officials involved. In other words, this was an institutional cover-up by another name, and the name given to the process instead of coverup or whitewash was shoddy records-keeping and miscommunication on top of bad memories. This pushes the onus of responsibility onto individuals rather than the military as an institution. And for those individuals, I guess “incompetent” is a better mark on one’s service record than “liar.”

How those records were lost or mislaid, and whether those bad memories were a product of in-group cohesion or contempt for the process is a matter of conjecture. What is not is that civilians were killed and at least one suspect handed over to Afghan forces to be tortured, both breaches that under international law must be investigated. What is now known is that the possibility of casualties and the transfer of a Taliban suspect to ADF units known for torture was known immediately by the NZDF chain of command and NZ intelligence services attached to them, yet until late in the Inquiry, the NZDF admitted to neither. There is much more by way of deceitful and devious NZDF behaviour, but let’s just come out and say that uniformed officers lied to their civilian superiors for years after the operation and then some lied under oath at the Inquiry. The National government at the time Operation Burnham took place and in the years immediately afterwards may not have wanted to hear the truth in any event and so accepted what they were (not) told by the NZDF brass at face value, but the RC was keen to hear the unvarnished details.

It took them several years and $NZ 7 million of taxpayer money to find out. It remains to be seen what the Labour government will do with the RC Report’s findings and recommendations, but one thing is certain: it going to wait until well after the election to do anything. And there is one other irony in all of this. At the same time that the NZDF was engaged in its campaign of obfuscation and deflection regarding the events of 2010, Transparency International gave it very hight marks for command integrity, transparency and accountability. These marks were the average of scores provided by a select group of specifically chosen “experts” on defense and security. I know because I was one of them and I pointedly gave low marks when it came to exactly these three criteria, so can only assume that my scores were discounted when calculating the overall average. But who gave them such high across-the-board scores if it mine were not included, and what were they thinking?

In any event I urge readers to read Chapters 2 and 12 of the Report, which address issues of civilian control of the military and ministerial accountability to Parliament in a Westminster-style democracy. The RC found that the actions of the NZDF leadership (specifically, misleading, stonewalling, whitewashing and misrepresenting what happened to the civilian political leadership and ministers of the day) wilfully undermined both fundamental democratic principles.

Everything else is gloss.

I do not expect that much will change given the delicacy of the report’s language and the fact that all of those responsible for the worst offences are retired (one only resigned three months ago when the draft report came out and his statements were found to be particularly unbelievable to the point of possible perjury). But it is now on official record that the NZDF has a culture of playing loose with the truth and disrespect for the constitutional principles underpinning its role in society. If implemented, perhaps the recommendation to create an independent Inspector General of Defense may help refocus NZDF attention on those principles. We shall see.

No matter what one may think of Hagar and Stephenson, in the end, minor errors and some hyperbole aside, they were vindicated. That is evident in the Report, which states that the book “Hit and Run” performed a valuable public service by exposing some ugly truths about how the NZDF operates, not so much in the field (although there were some issues identified there as well), but in its interaction with the political class and the larger society which it ostensibly serves.

That is the bottom line.

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.

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