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Repost: The torture-terror doctrine.

datePosted on 11:07, December 10th, 2014 by Pablo

Release of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA “enhanced interrogation” program has once again brought to the fore arguments about the ethics and efficiency of torture when used as part of interrogations. The ethical question reduces to a lesser evil versus greater good argument: as a lesser but necessary evil torture is used to prevent a greater evil in defense of the public good. Hence, torturing someone who knows where a bomb with a fifteen minute timer is planted in a shopping mall is both necessary and good because it will save countless lives.  Torture of someone who is believed to have rigged a car bomb outside a Kabul hotel is seen as unfortunate but just if lives are saved.  The issue is one of tactical urgency, and the value is in the tactical intelligence obtained under duress: the location of the bomb.

However, even if torture might work in some instances in extracting real-time tactical intelligence that saves lives, it is of little use in obtaining strategic intelligence on longer-term of broader based events.  Given the cellular nature of irregular warfare operations, torturing someone to get information, for example, about Osama bin-Laden’s whereabouts is simply time and resource wasting. Instead, what is required is a long-term piece by piece build up of plausible scenarios based on the corroborated evidence provided by multiple sources. Torture simply cannot provide that. And as it turned out, it was old fashioned human intelligence “gumshoe” work that revealed bin-Laden’s hideout.

As for efficiency, the record on torture as an interrogation tool is poor. Hardened zealots would rather than die than betray their comrades. Innocents and weak-willed individuals will say anything to get the punishment to stop, which means wasting time and resources (and risking exposure) tracking down spurious leads.

So why did the US resort to torture after 9/l11? I have written a fair bit about this in the past but have a hunch that its use was much more about punishment than it was about obtaining information.

I have not written much about the subject here on KP. The one essay that addressed it centrally can be found here.  However, in 2005 I published an essay that explored the symmetry between torture and terror in post 9/11 US security doctrine as part of my late “Word from Afar” series in an on-line media outlet .  Although if written today I would make some modifications to the argument and the conclusions, the thrust would remain pretty much the same. Hence I have re-published it below:

“The Symmetry between Torture and Terror.”

(First published April 21, 2005 in Scoop.co.nz)

Revelations about torture of political prisoners held in US prisons in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Iraq and the lower fifty have sparked debate about what is permissible in grey area, irregular conflicts such as the fight against Islamicist terrorism. Brutalisation of terrorist suspects and sympathisers is allowed by a raft of post 9-11 legislation that also authorises their indefinite detention without charge and the practice of “extraordinary rendition” (whereby those suspected of involvement in terrorist activities are refouled to the country of charge or origin, to be detained, interrogated and juridically administered under local conditions).

President Bush explicitly stated in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks that the US would stop at nothing to locate, bring to justice or eliminate those who organized, sponsored, supported or in any way collaborated in the planning of those events, as well as previous assaults on US interests around the globe. He was roundly applauded at the time by the shell-shocked US public, and it was in that environment that the legal framework for handling terrorist suspects, along with the Patriot Act and Department of Homeland Security, were born.

Subsequent divisions over the use of torture in US detention centres have surfaced along the intersection of practical versus ethical considerations. Torture is considered to be a forced necessity imposed by the ungentlemanly nature of the opponent, or is seen as a moral indictment of the US approach to the “war on terror” that descends into the barbarism that it purports to fight. The subtext of the ethical debate swings both ways. Zealotry and unilateralism in the Bush administration are seen as evidence of both moral elevation or moral decay. Faith in the moral virtue of the current US leadership prevailed among its voting public in the November 2004 national elections (by 52 to 47 percent), something not that dissimilar from the vote totals received by Richard Nixon at the time of his re-election in 1972. Then and now it is comforting for the voting majority to know that the United States Government is legally justified in authorising acts that violate international conventions on the rules of engagement. For Nixon, legal justification of the secret extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia was grounded on such a means-ends rationale, and so it is with today’s US approach to the war against Islamicist irregulars and jihadis.

Politicians, jurists and pundits are left with the unhappy task of morally justifying inhumane acts committed against suspected enemies or ideological criminals. Myriad others have reason to wax indignant about the perversity of such arguments. Yet, beyond the pressing ethical dilemmas posed by the use of torture against suspects, there are very organic reasons for doing so. These reduce to a question of symmetry in war and the reciprocal utility of torture as a weapon.

Military planners prefer their wars to be symmetrical. Symmetrical wars are those in which opponents are arrayed along a roughly comparable range of force, with similar weapons and tactics. Although contested, the political objectives of symmetrical wars, as well as the strategic rationales used in their pursuit, are grounded in shared understandings of the limited utlity of war. Generally comparable military capabilities and comon expectations of combat and post-conflict behaviour define the physical boundaries of the armed engagement. That leads to the adoption of norms governing the behavior of belligerents, resulting in, among other things, the Hague Convention on Laws of Warfare and the Geneva Convention regarding treatment of prisoners of war. It is adherence to a general set of conventions regarding the conduct of combat operations within bounded levels of force that determines the difference between so-called “conventional” and “unconventional” or “regular” and “irregular” conflicts.

The use of force is conditioned in conventional or regular wars by its relative symmetry, which serves to reduce chaos (and the reach of combat) by providing rules of the game that serve as the ethical and legal foundation for the formulation of military policy and application of armed force in pursuit of political objectives. Incremental qualitative gains and relative quantitative advantages in weapons and troops constitute the physical parameters of war. Within those lines elements of comparative resource base, collective will and technological innovation determine military victory. Adherence to ethical guidelines for wartime conduct is expected of all belligerents.

Asymmetrical wars are those in which the military capabilities of opponents, defined as weapons systems, logistical infrastructure, troop numbers and other indexes of armed might, vary markedly. One side dwarfs the other, militarily speaking. Of itself, that is not what makes such wars unconventional. What does is the combination of ideology, interest and tactics used. If the ideological motivation of opponents is diametrically opposed (say, a choice between submission to secular infidels or defeat by medieval heathens), where the weaker actor is fighting for its national, cultural, religious or ethnic survival whiles the stronger actor is not, then the strategic rationales used by military adversaries will differ considerably. This brings in issues of pure and situational ethics, and the tactics used in pursuit of them.

Guerrilla wars are the highest expression of asymmetric wars. They are fought unconventionally by highly motivated volunteer irregular troops against conventional militaries (often those of nation-states or foreign occupiers, and in many cases paid professionals). In these types of war the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, symbolic versus military targets, and offensive versus defensive operations is deliberately blurred and often reversed by the weaker party (of which there is often more than one, which requires tactical, if not strategic coordination between them–an obvious Achilles Heel). For the weaker party contestation of territory is of secondary importance. What matters is cultivation of popular support and weakening of the opponent’s determination to continue to fight in pursuit of its political interests in a given geographic area. The Iraq conflict is a microcosmic distillation of that fact.

Conventional military planners prefer that force asymmetries be in their favour, understood as superior military technology, training, organization and tactics brought to bear within a given continuum of force on an enemy that agrees to play by the “rules.” For the irregular warrior, the object of the exercise is to use time, tenacity and psychological impact as instruments to wear down the will of the militarily superior opponent. Symbolic acts figure very highly in the guerrilla strategist’s tactical priorities, and terrorism against so-called “soft” civilian targets is central among them because it is designed to produce paralysing fear and a desire to acquiesce among the enemy’s support base. This extends the conflict outside the purely military realm into the area of social cohesion.

The firebombing of Dresden and atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed to do more than kill the thousands that they did. The bombings were designed to demoralise the German and Japanese human reserve and erode civilian support for continuing the war. So it is with suicide bombers in vehicles or on foot, even if they operate in wars that are undeclared. The difference is that in one instance a warring nation-state utilises terror by extending the non-military reach of conflict via conventional military means, whereas in the other case a non-state actor uses non-conventional methods to do the same thing.

Against an agile and elusive opponent who refuses to fight in conventional symmetry, a militarily superior actor is muscle-bound. Naval fleets, strategic airpower, armoured divisions and thousands of troops are of little use against terrorists operating in dispersed, decentralized fashion in and among civilian populations. If used, they are overkill when confronted by the networked cells that are the organizational latticework of transantionalised terrorism. Sometimes overwhelming force is simply too much force given the character of the opponent and the contextual circumstance in which she is engaged. Should the irregular, unconventional actor refuse to be drawn out into conventional symmetry, the only option for a stronger conventional actor is to engage on her terms. This is the realm of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), which in US practice has evolved new features in the form of CIA para-military squads and contract interrogators not beholden to the rules of engagement governing military intelligence and police.

This is what lies behind the US resort to torture. Along with the deployment of special forces teams and CIA squads in areas in which Islamicists congregate, the US is attempting to get down to the level of its Islamicist opponents in order to bring symmetry to the conflict. The operative belief is that if Islamicists want to play “dirty” by terrorising civilians world-wide, then the US government will demonstrate that it can bring to bear all of its power and resources on those terms. It does so by using the legal, military, administrative and political assets of a superpower to expand the range of allowable state and para-state violence while justifying and institutionalising extra-judicial treatment of terrorist suspects. Legal vetting of the wording of a variety of coercive interrogation techniques that require cabinet-level authorisation is emblematic of the US approach in that regard.

That the US releases many suspected terrorists without charge is beside the point. The objective is symbolic and systematic, or phrased differently, to terrorise in return. Those subjected to the new standard of detention and interrogations who gain release will inform others. They will detail the cruelty as well as the seemingly endless bureaucratic procedures required to seek redress, and they will expound upon their fear. What will be impressive about their stories is the banality of the reciprocal evil practiced in pursuit of “freedom,” and the sense of hopelessness and despair they felt while in its embrace. That condition of atomised infantilisation, whereby the subject is physically isolated, punished and scared while being powerless and utterly dependent on the whim of the captor, is a state of terror.

Torture of Muslims in US detention centres may inflame passions amongst Islamicist hard -liners (defined as those who will commit bodies to the conflict given sufficient provocation). Their mobilisation is justified as an acceptable variant on the honey trap theme, whereby an attractant (or provocation) prompts passive al-Qaeda cells to attempt further terrorist attacks. At that point they can be identified and hunted down, although some will wreak damage before doing so. In the scheme of things, that is held to be an acceptable cost of victory.

More importantly, public dissemination of the torture-terror doctrine will serve to dampen the passion of other would-be jihadis, and deter many who thought to join the Islamicist cause. The point is to demonstrate to the unconventional enemy and its supporters that the superpower, as well as other states, can well fight irregularly and systematically as well, if not better. After all, the most common–and effective–type of terrorism in history is state terror, not that practiced by today’s Islamicists.

This explains the why of using torture-terror as a combat weapon against terrorism. What it does not address is the issue of objective. If the objective of using torture on terrorist suspects is to extract valuable strategic and tactical intelligence from otherwise uncooperative subjects, the results have been poor. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff amid the hundreds of desperate stories told under duress by US detainees has been a difficult process, with relatively little valuable intelligence garnered from it. Thus, as a information gathering technique torture has not been a panacea for the US intelligence community, and given media exposure has become a public relations liability for the US–at least in the West. However, an alternative objective might better explain the rationale as well as the pragmatic criteria upon which to choose it.

If the objective is to wear down the will of jihadis to persist in their global armed challenge while at the same time removing their recruitment base, the systematic use of legally-sanctioned torture-terror by the US may bear fruit. In the measure that it achieves symmetry, it raises the costs of the engagement to the jihadists. In the measure that it turns the tables and weakens the will of the Islamicist irregulars to continue to fight, it will prevail over the long term. In the measure that it prevails it re-establishes the relationship between the West and “the Rest,” especially the Muslim world. In doing so it reconfigures the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and elsewhere by extending the cultural boundaries of Western influence to the necessity of recognizing the need for symmetry in war. That, it seems, is the political syllogism underpinning the torture-terror doctrine.

Getting real about the NZDF mission in Iraq.

datePosted on 14:25, November 13th, 2014 by Pablo

When John Key insists that any New Zealand military contribution to the anti-Islamic State coalition will be “behind the wire” in non-combat training roles, he is following a script written by the senior partners in that coalition–the US, UK, Australia, Canada and Germany. The governments of all of these liberal democracies have sworn off ground combat troops while simultaneously sending air power and significant numbers of ground-based military “advisors” to attack the Islamic State forces directly from the air and help train the Iraqi Army to fight rather than run from the Islamicists on the ground. The US already has a brigade’s (3000 troops) worth of advisors in Iraq and has asked Australia to up its contribution from the 200 Special Forces already deployed there.  The UK, Canada, Germany, France and other European states are contributing special operators as well, but always in a ”training” rather than combat role.

There are reasons to believe that the definition of the mission as “non-combat” is specious at best and a deliberate misrepresentation at worst. Here is why.

Consider this: The Prime Minister has said that he might send the SAS to help guard the bases in which conventional NZDF advisors will help train the Iraqi Army. That is akin to using a Lamborghini  to haul rubbish to the local tip.

SAS personnel are highly skilled, extremely well trained and acutely specialised in operating in hostile theatres and behind enemy lines. They are a precious military resource that takes a long time to develop into hardened professional soldiers. It costs much more to produce an SAS trooper than it does the average infantry soldier, airman or naval rating. Standing them on guard duty squanders their talents, especially when conventional NZDF personnel are quite capable of standing sentry duty while deployed (as they did in Afghanistan during the decade-long deployment to the Provincial Reconstruction Team located in Bamiyan Province).

The last time the SAS was in a publicly acknowledge training role they were serving as mentors to the Afghan Crisis Response Unit, the elite counter-terrorism squad in that country. In their capacity as “mentors” the SAS wound up leading the CRU into several battles and lost two troopers as a result. Even in the face of those deaths the National government insisted that the SAS was not engaged in combat, so perhaps it has a different understanding of kinetic environments than do most people–most importantly those who have felt the impact of hot lead during “non combat” operations.

Military deployments of any sort require time and preparation, a process that takes months. Even rapid response units like the SAS need time to get ready to deploy, and to do so they need to pre-position assets on the way and in the theater to which they are going. Yet given the circumstances, the fight against the Islamic State is an immediate concern, one that the US and other coalition partners say needs a response in a few weeks, not months.

It is not credible to assert that sending a few military planners over to Iraq twelve days ago will allow them to assess within a few weeks what the NZDF contribution should be—unless that has already been decided and it is the logistics of the deployment that are being worked out. Yet the Prime Minister says that he will wait until their return to decide what the NZDF role will be. That seems to be stretching the truth.

Beyond the possibility that Mr. Key is unaware of the role of different military units and the preparations required to deploy them abroad, the fiction of a non-combat ground role for all coalition partners is made evident by where they are going. Two thirds of Iraq and all of Syria are active conflict zones. This includes most of the North and Western provinces of Iraq well as the outskirts of Baghdad. The Islamic State continues to mount offensive operations throughout the North and West of Iraq, and controls Mosul, Kirkuk (including its oil fields) and Ramadi (the capital of Anbar Province).  Islamic State forces are laying siege to Fallujah, the scene of the most intense battle between US forces and Sunni militias during the Iraq occupation.  Although they have been slowed by coalition air strikes and suffered a few tactical defeats, the larger picture is that at present the Islamic State has momentum and is nowhere close to retreat in the areas that it controls.

That means that any coalition ground forces sent to train the Iraqi military will be based in active conflict zones and become primary targets wherever they are located. Knowing this, coalition military commanders operate with the expectation of being attacked. Coalition personnel are and will be armed at all times and confined to base or will have their freedom of movement greatly restricted while in theatre. They will travel in armed convoys or by air when moving between locations. Leave will be minimal.

These are the operational rules governing troop deployments in active war zones.

The only way to ease the combat conditions in which New Zealand troops will operate is to prepare and launch counter-offensives against the Islamic State that forces it to retreat from territory it now occupies or has infiltrated. That is a big task and not a short-term affair. Since the Iraqi Army has shown appalling lack of discipline and courage in the face of the Islamic State offensive, it is wishful to think that sending in a few thousand advisors and giving it a few weeks training is going to turn the tide. Instead, the up skilling of the Iraqi Army will be a protracted effort and will require coalition military leadership under fire. Even that does not guarantee that Iraqi troops will be willing to fight.

The reason that the Western liberal democracies are holding to the fiction of non-combat roles is that their respective electorates are weary of war and generally opposed to more of it. This is, after all, a fight amongst Sunni Arabs first and foremost, and then Sunni versus Shiia in the second instance. Although the weakness of Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria gave them their strategic opportunity, the Islamic State’s primary targets are the pro-Western Sunni Arab oligarchies. Its second target is Persian Iran and its Shiia co-religionists and proxies in the Arab world (including the Assad regime). The West (and Israel) are convenient foils for its ambitions, as the Western media plays up the atrocities perpetrated against Europeans and North Americans and the involvement of Western extremists in committing them. This allows the Islamic State to draw the West into the fight, thereby making the conflict more inter-religious and civilisational than it really is.

Although primordial in nature and capable of spawning small cell and lone-wolf attacks in the West, the Islamic State is a regional rather than global threat. It cannot project sustained force and control territory outside of Sunni-inhabited terrain in Syria and Iraq, and will have trouble defeating established professional militaries such as those of Egypt, Jordan or Turkey should it try to push further afield. It has not been able to make significant advances in Shiia and Kurdish-controlled territory. Yet media coverage and the rush of Western governments to emphasize the threat of Islamic State-inspired home grown jihadis and returning foreign fighters have exaggerated its impact.

Even so, New Zealand has principled and pragmatic reasons to get involved in the anti-Islamic State fight. The anti-Islamic State coalition includes all of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern trade partners as well as its closest security and diplomatic allies. The responsibility to protect vulnerable populations such as the Iraqi Hazaris is a matter of international principle. New Zealand will soon sit on the UN Security Council. In light of these realities it can do nothing other than join the conflict even if it is not directly threatened by the Islamic State.

Now that New Zealand has committed to participate in the military coalition against the Islamic State, it is best for the government to be forthright about the true nature of the mission and the real threats involved. Anything less is an insult to both the intelligence of the pubic as well as the valor of those in uniform who are about to join the fight on its behalf.

Temporary, discriminatory and an admission of failure

datePosted on 12:16, October 30th, 2014 by Pablo

The PM says that the legislation his government proposes to pass under urgency allowing for the confiscation of passports of NZ citizens in order to combat the threat of returning foreign fighters will be “tightly focused” on those traveling to the Middle East in order to join jihadist groups. That phrase “tightly focused” is code for “Muslim Internationalists” as opposed to, say, Christian or non-religious fighters joining in foreign conflicts in the Middle East or elsewhere.  So if Kiwis of Croatian descent were to return to their homeland to fight Serbs they would be free to do so and then return without risk of having their passports confiscated. The same goes for Christian Nigerians who wish to return home to fight Boko Haram as members of community self-defence organisations.  And of course Jewish Kiwis already do so by traveling to join the Israeli Defense Forces.

To say the least, this law is by its nature discriminatory and temporary unless the government proposes to make it illegal for anyone to go and fight for any cause anywhere. And that clearly is not what it has in mind.

More tellingly, passing such “tightly focused” legislation under urgency is an admission of failure.

On the one hand, it tacitly is telling us that criminal law, including all of the anti-terrorist legislation passed in the last ten years, is inadequate to deal with this particular type of suspected criminal enterprise (or better said, intended criminal enterprise). On the other hand it implicitly recognises that the combined resources of the GCSB, SIS, Immigration, Customs, NZDF, Police and other security agencies, as well as those of NZ’s main security partners, are unable to monitor the activities of the dozen or so Kiwis who may have jihadist pretensions, this despite the fact that New Zealand is an isolated and relatively small archipelago with no land borders and limited access or egress by air or sea, with a very small Muslim community from which potential jihadists are drawn.

Reading between the lines of the PM’s statement, it seems that the extension of antiterrorism laws, powers of search, surveillance, seizure and domestic intelligence collection over the last decade, much less the existence of a vast array of criminal law statutes as currently exit on the books, have had no impact on the ability of the NZ security community to detect, deter and/or monitor a small group of  young men interested in fighting abroad. Hence the need for more “tightly focused” laws that if nothing else violate the presumption of innocence and freedom of movement that presumably are basic rights in liberal democracies.

That makes me wonder two things: what good do the expanded security powers awarded the state during the last decade serve if they cannot fulfil the basic functions of detection, deterrence and monitoring? And what does that say about the competence of the agencies whose powers have been expanded given New Zealand’s geopolitical location?

The answers are simple: none and a lot.

Beware the sucker ploy.

datePosted on 09:04, October 24th, 2014 by Pablo

A few years back I wrote about the strategic utility of terrorism. One thing I did not mention in that post was the use of a tried and true guerrilla tactic as part of the terrorist arsenal: the sucker ploy.

In guerrilla warfare the sucker ploy is a tactic whereby the weaker irregular forces stage an incident in order to provoke an over-reaction from their stronger adversaries. Examples include killing a local official so as to have the security forces engage in mass repression of the people in the locality in which he worked. Another is firing at enemy aircraft or armour from inside villages in order to have them retaliate indiscriminately against the entire village. The objective is to alienate and erode support for the enemy by the victims.

For the last five years or so, the international jihadist movement spearheaded by al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State have evolved their tactics to suit the strategic environment they are confronted with. No longer able to carry out large scale attacks such as 9/11 or the Bali, London and Madrid bombings, would-be jihadists have been encouraged to engage in self-radicalised “lone wolf” or small-cell attacks within their respective countries using their familiarity with the local terrain and knowledge of local customs and symbology. These are low level, highly independent and autonomous operations, as was seen in the Boston Marathon bombings last year.

Attacks of this nature are tactically opportune but strategically insignificant. They do not present an existential challenge to any established state. By themselves they are tragic but politically inconsequential.

The motives and desired impact of the perpetrators may differ from those of the Islamicist leadership. Perpetrators may wish to strike a blow and sow localised fear while achieving martyrdom. The Islamicist leadership desires a strategic victory. The only way that it can do so is to use these types of attacks as a sucker ploy.

If governments respond to lone wolf and small cell low level terrorism with blanket increases in mass surveillance, national threat levels, expansion of security and anti-terrorism laws and restrictions on freedoms of association, movement and speech by groups associated with the perpetrators by virtue of religion, ethnicity or the like, then the strategic objectives of the Islamicist leadership are being served. That is because such measures target innocents, not only on an indiscriminate mass scale but often because of who they are rather than anything they have done. That further alienates and marginalises previously passive but increasingly disaffected sectors of society, thereby delegitimising governmental authority while breeding new recruits to the cause.

The temptation for democratic governments responding to such attacks to engage in large scale security tightening is overwhelming, which is of course what the Islamicists are banking on. The public needs reassurance, security agencies see opportunity and conservative politicians want their pound of flesh. Few opposition politicians want to appear soft on the threat of terrorism,  much less by opposing moves to “tighten” security in the wake of lethal attacks in the West motivated by Islam. But that urge, even if given carte blanche by the media-fed hysteria of the moment, needs to be tempered with a broader perspective and deeper analysis of what is at play.

Of course security measures need to be in place in order to thwart such low-level attacks. In Ottawa they clearly were not. But this is no excuse to engage in a knee-jerk over-reaction that results in the type of divisive measures that serve the purposes of the Islamicists more than the population at large. To do so is to fall into the trap set by the Islamicst leadership when they ordered the shift in tactics towards decentralised low level operations conducted by “home-grown” jihadis.

A couple of points worth mentioning: The Canadian threat environment and exposure to Islamic terrorism is different and greater than that of New Zealand and has been for some time. IS had directly threatened Canada before the attacks because Canada has actively joined the conflict by sending ground attack aircraft and special forces troops to the fray.

The perpetrators responsible for this week’s crimes were not returning from the killing fields of Syria or Iraq. They were native born Quebecois, evidencing mental halt issues, with prior criminal records who were known to the Canadian authorities. They were recent converts to Islam, one of whom had been placed on a so-called “watch list” and had his passport revoked because of his overt Islamicist sympathies. The other, a recovering drug addict, was waiting for a passport application to be processed, was living in a half way house, and was frustrated by the delays in securing the passport.  Unable to leave Canada, both turned their murderous gaze inwards.

This should serve as a lesson on several levels. But the foremost one is simple: beware the sucker ploy.

Media Link: The revolution will not be televised.

datePosted on 15:01, October 23rd, 2014 by Pablo

I had the opportunity to do a long interview with Olivier Jutel, host of the Dunedin Radio One show “The revolution will not be televised.” It is a rare occasion when one gets to converse at length about a variety of subjects on radio or television, so this was a nice opportunity to air my views on a number of issues, to include the conflict with the Islamic state, New Zealand’s potential role in it, fear mongering as a political strategy, the impact of social media on political behaviour, etc.

The podcast can be found here.

Lying, clueless or incompetent.

datePosted on 15:45, October 15th, 2014 by Pablo

A meeting of the unformed military leaders of 22 countries involved in the anti-Islamic State coalition gathered today at Andrews Airforce Base outside of Washington DC. The participants included the 5 Eyes partners, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, seven Arab states, other NATO countries and Turkey. New Zealand was represented by the Chief of the Defense Forces Lt. General Timothy Keating.

John Key says that this is just a regular annual meeting of military heads. I think not.

First, regular annual meetings of uniformed defense leaders are highly symbolic affairs with much protocol, pomp and circumstance. When hosted by the US they are held at the Pentagon, which has a ceremonial entrance (the East steps) and E-Ring conference rooms for such events (the E Ring is the outer ring of the Pentagon where the Secretary, Joint Chiefs and military service leaders have their offices). The meetings are generally regional in nature as befits the concerns of the chiefs involved. I know this because I was involved in organising such meetings for Latin American defense chiefs in the early 1990s and know that the protocols are the same today.

Working meetings of US-allied military leaders are subject specific and sometimes inter-regional in nature. They are held on military bases with minimal ceremony. They generally address the specifics of carrying out assigned roles and missions within a policy framework established by the political leadership of the countries in question. They usually do not include Defense Ministers, presidents or prime ministers because they are about implementation not authorisation.

The meeting at  Andrews Air Force Base has four interesting features:

1) President Obama addressed the coalition military chiefs. That is highly unusual because it means he is expending political capital and his reputation on the event. He cannot walk away empty-handed because he will suffer a loss of face and credibility and home and abroad, so something substantive has to come out of the meeting;

2) That mainly involves Turkey. Turkey has not committed to the fight against IS until it has two demands met: the removal of the Assad regime by the coalition and acceptance of Turkish attacks on Kurdish (PKK) forces on the Syrian-Turkish border (in a two birds with one stone approach). The other coalition partners do not want to accept these demands, at least until IS is defeated, so the stage is set for some serious wrangling over Turkish involvement in the coalition. Without Turkey fully on-board, it is quite possible that the coalition will unravel and a reduced number of countries will have to go it alone without close regional support (which could be a disaster);

3) The presence of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE is important. The meeting may signal the first time that they agree to commit military forces and fight together in the Middle East against a common enemy. Their presence gives the coalition credibility in the Muslim world;

4) New Zealand is represented at the meeting, yet is the only country that publicly maintains that it has not yet decided to contribute  troops.

This is where the PM’s remarks are odd.

If New Zealand was still negotiating its participation it would have sent a contingent led by a senior diplomat, not a military officer. The negotiations over participation would not take place at Andrews Air Force Base or the Pentagon but at the State Department or White House.

The Islamic State is not  only about to gain control of the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobali, but have advanced on the outskirts of Baghdad. It controls Mosul, Kirkuk and Ramadi. It is a clear and present danger to the territorial integrity of Iraq. To avoid the partition of Iraq action against it must be taken immediately. Yet Prime Minister Key says that he would like to defer a decision until sometime before the APEC meetings next month. That simply is too late to wait to make a decision given the circumstances.

It turns out that Mr. Key did not know that President Obama attended and addressed the meeting. He says that General Keating will report back on what was discussed, which Mr. Key says will cover a wide range of topics. But the Pentagon has stated that the meeting is solely focused on hashing out a military strategy with which to defeat the Islamic State.

It beggars belief that Mr. Key did not know that Obama was going to be at the meeting, or that he thinks it is one of the regular shmooze fests that pass as senior leadership meetings. So one of three things is possible:

Either he knows full well what the meeting is about and is deliberately lying to the NZ public about NZ’s role in the coalition; he is clueless about the nature of the meeting but does not care; or he is simply incompetent and unsuited to be Minister of National Security.

Take your pick.

 

Military rule erodes military professionalism.

datePosted on 12:03, September 7th, 2014 by Pablo

One of the important lessons taught by the study of  military dictatorships is that when the military rules as an institution, such as in the case of the military-bureaaucratic regimes of Southern Europe, Latin America and East Asia in the 1960s through the 1980s, organisational professionalism is compromised. Having military officers sitting at desks as Ministers and department chiefs of non-military portfolios keeps them away from the training grounds and deployments in which military leadership is honed and exercised. Having soldiers patrol the streets and suppressing domestic dissent takes them away from the combat tasks that are supposedly their reason for being. Prolonged tenure in government makes both officers and enlisted personnel susceptible to the temptations of unchecked authority, from material corruption to unethical personal behaviour.

The very nature of military organisation is incompatible with governance. Whether it be collegial or Prussian style or some variant thereof, the military is a pyramidal organisation in which orders are passed from top to bottom and duties are delegated without question. There is no cabinet made up of ministerial equals. Instead, there is either one Military Commander or there is a High Command or Joint Staff comprised of similarly ranked chiefs of different armed service branches, and even then there is a first amongst equals. The further down the chain of command the more immediate and tight the degree of control of superiors over subordinates.

The rationale underpinning the organisational ethos and structure is to promote discipline under fire. There is little room for compromise and stakeholder consultation such as that which is the norm for most public agencies. There is no public consultation and few feedback loops other than after action reports and what soldiers tell their superiors in a chain of command. Superimposing a military organisation on the State apparatus may impose discipline (or at least fear) on the public bureaucracy, but the price paid for that is the softening of the military organisation in question.

The situation is compounded by militaries that use foreign peacekeeping missions as a substitute for combat exercises and as a source of remittances (since UN pay tends to be much high than local military pay in most of the world). Whatever dangers exist in peacekeeping, and there are many, keeping the peace is not, nor can it ever be, a substitute for combat training.

When taken together these factors erode the professional competence of the military as an institution. In countries that have military rule and conflicts with neighbours, this is often seen as a sign of weakness by adversaries. After all, pushing pencils and having long working lunches is not quite living like in a tent eating rations in between live fire exercises. Thus, somewhat ironically, prolonged military rule invites attack by hostile states in which the military does not rule and instead focuses on its combat role.

The capture of 45 Fijian Army peacekeepers in the Golan Heights by the Al-Nusra Front is a variant on this theme. The Fijians were part of a detachment that included a similar number of Filipino soldiers. When the al-Nusra rebels surrounded and attacked their jointly held UN outpost, the Filipinos, who have years of experience fighting Abu Sayyaf  rebels in the southern Philippines,  staged an armed retreat that allowed all of them to escape capture. They laid down suppressing fire as they drove their armoured column out of the compound at speed, and prevailed in the firefight occasioned by their escape. They suffered no losses.

The Fijians, on the other hand, although being similarly armed and equipped, surrendered without a shot. They are now waiting “divine justice” at the hands of their al-Nusra captors. Neither the Fijian military nor the military government can do anything about the situation, and instead have to reply on UN negotiators for the safe return of their soldiers. Other than appeals to the captors, the only response evident in Fiji is threats to the local Muslim community made by some Fijian nationalists.

The difference between the two outcomes in the Golan Heights is attributable to relative military professionalism. The Philippines Army does not govern and fights on a regular basis with the Abu Sayyaf rebels. They are battle hardened and disciplined as a result. The Fijian Army, in contrast, has ruled Fiji since 2006. Senior military leaders from the rank of major up have held managerial positions in the civilian administration, and the military spends most of its time engaged in domestic repression rather than training for combat. As part of the sanctions levels against it, Fijian military officers were denied admittance to Western military colleges and the Fijian military does not participate in multinational exercises. In spite of a limited military exchange program with China, the Fijian military has not engaged in the types of corporate training that makes for an effective fighting force against other armed adversaries. Instead, it has sent hundreds of soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions, but this is more due to the domestic importance of remittances from Fijian soldiers to their kin (especially in the villages) rather than securing the benefits of operational experience in conflict zones.

The result is that what used to be considered one of the more professional military organisations in the South Pacific is no longer capable of defending itself when attacked by irregular forces abroad. It lacks the leadership and discipline required to engage in organised violence against such armed opponents because it has spent too much time focused on ruling rather than serving its compatriots.

All of this illustrates the point that, beyond the negative impacts of military rule on society at large, the military as an institution is adversely affected by military rule. This is why “enlightened” militaries that stage coups try to relinquish direct control of government as quickly as they can. But others, perhaps safe in the knowledge that they have no immediate adversaries and enjoying the perks of governance, tend to linger in power. In spite of their lofty nation building rhetoric, the longer they retain power the more likely that the military will begin to lose the combat leadership and soldiering skills essential for survival in battle. And should that military ever find itself in battle, it stands a poor chance of victory when confronting hardened soldiers.

That has been proven sadly true for the Fijian Army in the Golan Heights.

Collective punishment can work both ways.

datePosted on 13:26, August 10th, 2014 by Pablo

Using an “eye for a tooth” approach, the Israeli military has yet again adopted a strategy of collective punishment in its war against Hamas. The result, predictably, has been carnage and slaughter of innocents on a grand scale.

I am not going to debate who is right and who is wrong in this ongoing struggle. I have previously written about it and have found that the response is simply too emotion-driven for a rational discussion to hold. I will just say that I agree with those that say that Israel has forever lost whatever moral high ground it once had and is now no better than the enemies it fights. In fact, one can only despair for Israeli democracy as it descends into the type of reactionary intolerance that Hamas is notorious for. So I ask readers to please refrain from commentary about Israel.

Instead, here I wish to propose that collective punishment can be a two-way street, and that the global community can find ways to use it against Israel when the latter persists in disproportionately and asymmetrically meting out collective violence on the people of Gaza.

One way to respond is to collectively sanction all israelis for the actions of the political leadership and IDF. There are plenty of ways to do so: boycott Israeli goods; reduce diplomatic contacts with Israel, to include downsizing embassy and consular staffs; cancel contracts with Israeli businesses (to include rescinding investment contracts involving Israeli firms and export licenses for domestic companies trading with Israel, especially in the arms trade); refuse landing rights to Israeli flagged air carriers; deny all types of visa to Israeli nationals, to include tourist and student visas (John Minto has already suggested pulling the work-study visa scheme that allows young Israelis to do so in NZ); refuse Israeli participation in international sporting events; cancel touring Israeli art exhibitions, theatrical productions and musical events–the possibilities are many. The inevitable litigation that will ensue is an avoidable cost levied on Israelis as a result of their government’s policies regarding Gaza. As for the Israelis who carry multiple passports because of their lineage and the prohibitions against Israeli passports in Muslim states–visa checks, airline logs and residency checks can confirm who they are. It may cost to do so, but it  will cost the individuals involved much more.

Sanctions regimes already exist, but these are usually against government elites and their supporters (think of the current sanctions regime against Russian officials and elite entities and those (now lifted) enacted by Australia and New Zealand against the Baimimarama military dictatorship in Fiji). What is proposed here is different: complete sanction against all nationals of a targeted state.

This may seem unfair to the average Israeli who has nothing to do with the Netanyahu government or IDF atrocities. But that is the point: collective punishment of a majority for the actions of a minority is patently unfair. In this instance the collective punishment against Israelis may be unfair to them but is relatively benign when compared to what Israel does to Palestinian civilians in Gaza.  Forcing them to swallow a softer taste of their own medicine might give them pause to rethink their support for the “eye for a tooth” strategy.

More importantly, much like Israeli spokespeople who argue that the people of Gaza are getting what they deserve for electing Hamas into government, so too it can be argued that collectively punishing Israelis is justified in light of their election of the Netanyahu-led Likud government amid rising support for Israeli right-wing religious parties. After all, if we are to blame the electorate in one instance we might as well do it in another, although in the case of the Israelis the blame does not entail being subject to military force.

I realise that nothing will be done along the lines I propose. But I feel the need to put it out there because there seems very little else that anyone can do to make the Israelis desist from collectively punishing innocent Gazians.  In fact, the concept of non-lethal collective punishment or sanction could be used in other instances, say for example against Russians in response to their ongoing intervention in Ukraine. But that depends on some degree of international agreement on the necessity of pursing such a course of action and an equal degree of commitment to enforcing it over an agreed period of time or until certain corrective measures are undertaken by the targeted state.

That simply will not happen in the current context. Heck, if New Zealand sees venal material opportunity arising from Russian counter-sanctions against the EU and US, then it is clear that there is not enough moral and ethical consensus to effectively implement a collective sanctions regime against citizens of a targeted state.

But it might be worth a try, if even in a piecemeal fashion or as a symbolic statement of repudiation of those who believe that lethal collective punishment is a just means of conflict resolution. If nothing else, raising the possibility of non-lethal collective sanction might force citizens of states like Israel to re-think their individual stake in pursuing the collective punishment of others as a matter of state policy.

Systemic Realignment.

datePosted on 13:42, July 23rd, 2014 by Pablo

The chaotic state of contemporary international affairs demonstrates the serious limitations of constructivism and idealism as theoretical frameworks for the analysis of global macro-dynamics. The former claims that the construction of international institutions helps universalise common values and mores, thereby leading to improved interstate relations under supranational (international organisation) guidance and enforcement. The latter posits that the perfectability of humankind makes for a common search for cooperation in the conduct of foreign affairs. This leads to the pursuit of constructivism in international relations as common effort is made to overcome self-interest as the bottom line of nation-states. Both schools of thought believe that economic and non-state actors will eventually adopt similar approaches to their behaviour with foreign entities, as the universalisation of norms serves as a hedge against the uncertainties that ultimately lie at the heart of foreign relations based upon self-interested maximisation of opportunities by international actors acting rationally in environments of scarcity and limited information. This line of thought follows a rich utopian tradition that extends back to Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” through Woodrow Wilson to Alexander Wendt.

There have been undoubtable advances in international cooperation and the embrace of universal norms and supranational institutions over the last century. But recent events suggest that two “old school” theoretical approaches remain the best guides to international dynamics and the behaviour of international actors, both state and non-state in nature: realism and systems theory.

The reasons are simple. Realism is funded on the belief that absent universal norms accepted and enforced universally, self-interest is the ultimate determinant of actor’s behaviour in the international arena. This tendency is accentuated in environments of scarcity or of competition over strategic resources. Both situations–the lack of universally shared norms and competition over strategic resources–are hallmark characteristics of the present era.

International systems theory is both descriptive and prescriptive. The former describes the nature of interstate power relations at any given point in time: unipolar, bipolar, multipolar or anarchic. The analysis of said relations occurs globally, regionally and sub-regionally, as the international system is seen as being comprised of sub-systems acting at the micro (sub-regional) meso (regional) and macro (international) levels.  The latter is a product of both the first two as well as dynamics of its own.

Realism is focused on the exercise of power and its distribution in the international arena. It has intellectual origins in the thought of Metternich and Machiavelli, upgraded in modern times by Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz (who advanced a school of thought known as structural realism or neorealism that emphasised economic power as opposed to military-diplomatic power).  Today the concepts of “hard”,” “soft,” and “smart” power all follow in this tradition.

International systems theory was first advanced by Morton Kaplan, who adapted David Easton’s work on domestic political systems to the international stage. It sees systems as involving input, output and feedback loops that push the evolution of a particular system in a given direction. As with realists, the focus of international systems theory is on distributions or balances of power.

For international systems theorists the state of world affairs is never static. Instead, it is fluid and constantly in a process of change. There may be periods, often long in nature, of relative stability of a given system, but these are not permanent due to the inherent characteristics of the actors involved. For example, the Cold War was a period of what came to be known as tight bipolar stability, with alliance systems constructed around two opposing superpowers bound by the logic of nuclear deterrence. 45 years in duration, that system is considered to be relatively long-lived by systemic standards.

The post Cold War system was seen as unipolar in nature, as the US was considered to be the sole superpower after the collapse of the USSR. But in the eyes of systems theorists unipolar systems are inherently unstable, as pretenders to the throne will work incessantly, even if indirectly, to advance their positions vis a vis the so-called “hegemon.” In fact, unipolar systems are considered to be only marginally more stable than large-N multipolar systems in which power is widely distributed and strategic resources are regularly contested.

In contrast, small-N multipolar systems revolving around 3-5 states and their respective alliances or spheres of influence are considered to be the most stable types of international system, since the different poles can balance and counterbalance their relations with each other based upon mutual necessity. Balances of power are inherent in all international systems other than unipolar ones, and shifting allegiances on particular military, diplomatic and economic issues allow for equilibrium to be maintained amongst the competing powers.

Under the logic of international systems theory unipolar systems cannot hold and will eventually lead to systemic realignment that results in the emergence of a bi- or multipolar world. But the transition has a systems regulator, and its name is conflict.

International systems re-equilibrate through conflict. Here the quest for balancing becomes something akin to jostling for position in the making of a future world. Conflict runs a gamut from diplomatic tensions to war, and includes economic disputes and sanctions, unilateral and multinational foreign interventions, increased espionage between and within alliances and among individual nation states, and breakdown of international norms and consensus. The transitional period can see temporary alignments and bouts of various types of polarity, but is essentially a fluid moment that can last decades until systems equilibrium is restored. During that time different types of conflicts ebb and flow, to include major conflagrations.

Much like the invisible hand of capitalist economics, systemic realignment occurs in the aggregate rather than as the purposeful outcome of individual preferences or collective decision-making. State and non-state actors may attempt to steer the course of systems transition, but eventual stability depends on the establishment of a status quo that supersedes their particular desires.

What all of this suggests is that the current state of international affairs is one of systemic realignment. The transitional moment began with the end of the Cold War and accelerated after 9/11. The ensuing decade of armed conflicts, new and resurrected tensions in Central and SE Asia and the Middle East and rise of new power contenders such as the BRICs has produced a context of competition and conflict in which national self-interest prevails and international norms and institutions are ignored in favour of piecemeal solutions. The situation is set to last for some time, so we should be under no illusion that a new stable international system will be established soon.

Instead, a prudent course of action for a small country would be to understand that during a period of systemic realignment, strategic hedging in the form of holding all diplomatic options open, diversifying the range of economic partners and placing strict limits on the conditions in which military force is deployed is the best means of navigating the transitional moment.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be what New Zealand is doing, which begs the questions as to whether its foreign policy elite truly understand the nature of contemporary international relations and what conceptual frameworks they employ to chart a course within it.

Should NZ renounce lethal drones?

datePosted on 17:32, May 25th, 2014 by Pablo

The Diplosphere event on lethal drones held in Wellington last week was a good opportunity to hear different views on the subject. The majority consensus was that legal, moral and practical questions delegitimate their use, although one defended them and I noted, among other things, that they are just one aspect of the increased robotization of modern battlefields, are only efficient against soft targets and are seen as cost effective when compared to manned aircraft.

At the end of my remarks I proposed that we debate the idea that New Zealand unilaterally renounce the use of lethal drones in any circumstance, foreign and domestic. I noted that the NZDF and other security agencies would oppose such a move, as would our security allies. I posited that if implemented, such a stance would be akin to the non-nuclear declaration of 1985 and would reaffirm New Zealand’s independent and autonomous foreign policy.

Alternatively, New Zealand could propose to make the South Pacific a lethal drone-free zone, similar to the regional nuclear free zone declared by the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga. I noted again that countries like Australia and Chile would oppose the move (both have drone fleets and do not discount using them in anger), but that many of the Pacific Island states would likely welcome the idea.

Either declaration would in no way impact negatively on the use of non-lethal drones, whose utility is obvious. It would also leave open to interpretation whether NZ based intelligence could be used in drawing up targeting lists for foreign lethal drone strikes, a subject currently in the public eye as a result of claims that the GCSB does exactly that in places like Yemen. The PM says he is comfortable with the intelligence-sharing arrangement as well as the legitimacy of drone strikes, and added that similar intelligence was provided for ISAF drone strikes in Afghanistan (where the US and the UK deploy lethal drones on behalf of ISAF).

His confidence notwithstanding, many Kiwis are opposed to any cooperation with lethal drone programs, so the debate could be expanded to include indirect NZ involvement with them.

I think this is a debate well worth having. I realize that the security community will want to keep all options open and be very opposed to ceding any tactical advantage in future conflicts, and that extending the ban to indirect cooperation would have a negative influence on NZ’s diplomatic and military-intelligence relations with its security partners.

I am cognizant that it may be a hard thing to actually do given the balance of political power currently extant in NZ and the hurdles needed to implement it should the proposition be accepted. One of the other panelists dismissed the idea of unilateral renunciation as simply impractical and said that the proper forum in which to advance it was the UN (cue Tui ad here).

Some may say that is silly to debate something that does not exist. New Zealand does not deploy lethal drones. However, UAVs are already present in NZ skies, both in civilian and military applications. This includes geological surveys and volcanic research, on the civilian side, and battlefield (tactical) surveillance in the guise of the NZDF Kahui Hawk now deployed by the army. The military continues its research and development of UAV prototypes (early R&D worked off of Israeli models), and agencies as varied as the Police, Customs and the Navy have expressed interest in their possibilities. Since non-lethal UAV platforms can be modified into lethal platforms at relatively low cost, it seems prudent to have the debate before rather than after their entry into service.

I am aware that the revulsion voiced by many against the lethal use of unmanned aerial vehicles might as well be shared with all manned combat aircraft since the effects of their deployment ultimately are the same–they deal in death from the sky. Given that commonality, the preferential concern with one and not the other appears more emotional than rational, perhaps responding to idealized notions of chivalry in war. That is another reason why the subject should be debated at length.

Such a debate, say, in the build up to a referendum on the matter, would allow proponents and opponents to lay out their best arguments for and against, and permit the public to judge the merits of each via the ballot box. That will remove any ambiguity about how Kiwis feel about this particular mode of killing.

UPDATE: Idiot Savant at No Right Turn has kindly supported the proposition. Lets hope that others will join the campaign.

 

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