Archive for ‘War’ Category

Thoughts about Key’s Afghan PR Exercise.

datePosted on 01:38, May 6th, 2010 by Pablo

I have seen and read the reports of John Key’s much anticipated “secret” trip to Afghanistan.  I must say that it is one of the more amateurish, cringe worthy attempts at symbolic politics I have seen in a long time–not quite as bad as George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” carrier charade, but of the same ilk. Let me explain why.

First, the good part. I think it was entirely sensible for the National spin-meisters and military brass to tie the Afghan detour to the Gallipoli celebration trip. The unfortunate RNZAF chopper accident on ANZAC day forced a change of plans so that the PM could attend  the funerals of the ill-fated crew, but that only added to his  message of military support and remembrance. As for the greedy economic opportunists who have criticised him for abandoning the arse kissing trade mission to the Arab Gulf Coast, they need to realise that given the circumstances in which the tragedy occurred, Mr. Key had no political option but to return for the funerals. How would it have looked if he choose to continue to brown nose the Arabs while some of the nation’s service people were laid to rest?  The likes of one Mr. Langely may put personal self-interest before recognition of service, but most Kiwis understand that not only was it politically necessary for Mr. Key to return, it was the right thing to do.

But that is about as good as it gets. Contrary to the fawning editorial opinion of the NZ Herald, Key’s tiki tour of Afghanistan showed how out of his league he is on international security affairs.

He started out by mentioning that he was flown by helicopter from his arrival point (presumably Bagram Air Force Base, the site of a notorious US “black” detention centre) to the SAS location. In doing so he managed to convey the message that the most heavily defended areas of Kabul are still too dangerous for Western VIPs to drive through, and that the SAS is not located in Kabul as he claims but is actually based elsewhere. He then pointed out that he used heavily armed motorcades to travel in Bayiman and elsewhere because he and his entourage were “juicy fish” for insurgent targeters.

Well, not quite. In a country that is awash in visits by heavy-hitters from a number of countries, Mr. Key is more like  an anchovy.  Moreover, heavily weighted  Western motorcades involving a half dozen armoured SUVs and armed escort vehicles are not immune to roadside bombs (and I bet he traveled in the third or fourth vehicle). In fact, given that they have to travel on main arteries and disrupt local traffic and pedestrian flows as they do so, convoys such as Mr. Key’s actually make for better targets for opportunistic guerrillas deeply embedded in a resentful local population (especially where well-prepared guerillas can deploy efffective IEDs on five minutes notice). If leaving a light footprint is what hearts and minds are partially about, then his mode of land transport was a tactical failure.

Mr. Key prattled on about how he wanted to experience the conditions in which the NZDF operate in that theater. But he choose to spend his evenings at the British embassy. That is a double insult: first to the UN and ISAF patrons of the NZDF mission, which have their own housing compounds or use heavily guarded hotels for visiting VIPs; and secondly to the NZDF itself. Mr. Key could have stayed in officer quarters in any number of bases including at the PRT in Bayiman or the SAS operations centre (which is likely to be on the Afghan military base where its anti-terrorism Crisis Response Unit is headquartered). But instead he choose to take the poncy route and accept accommodation from the colonial master. How quaint of him, and how much it tells us about his sincerity in wanting to understand the conditions that NZ troops face.

Mr. Key managed to offend the Bayiman locals by trying to shake hands with a girl, a cultural taboo in that region. So much for MFAT and NZDF giving him a head’s up about local customs, to say nothing of his lack on intuition about the context in which he was operating. For him, ignorance on that occasion turned out not to be bliss. For the NZDF PRT team, this could have been ther moment where 6+ years of good civil-military relations became unstuck. The question begs: would Helen Clark have been so, uh, uninformed? >>Note to Red Alert and The Standard–while I appreciate your views you must not use this post to score political points because to my mind you are little better when it comes to partisan  issues such as this>>

In defending their role, Mr. Key  said that the SAS had not fired their weapons. This is laughable to the point of tears. The very nature of their “training” mission, as well as the fact that they have participated in at least two well publicised firefights (even if we accept the argument that they did so in “support” roles, which is ludicrous), requires that the SAS  employ their weapons, even if merely as covering or suppressing fire for their Afghan comrades.

And yet, the supplicant NZ press uncritically lapped up his patent lie while he hid under the doctrine of  plausible deniability (that is, because Mr. Key may have believed the lie to be true because his advisers or the NZDF command told him to take their word at face value and he had no reason to doubt them because he simply does not know better). Here, Mr. Key’s ignorance truly is a measure of political insulation, if not bliss.

Mr. Key told this same press that he was “considering” extending the deployments of the Bayiman PRT and SAS past their respective termination dates in September 2010 and March 2011 respectively. This was a forgone conclusion given that the NZDF wanted to do so and given the government’s obsession with tying a bilateral US-NZ free trade agreement to its military commitment in Afghanistan as well as the recent military-to-military reapprochment between the two countries. Heck, the foreign press was told before the trip that the extension had already been authorised but Mr. Key played cagey with the NZ press. Could that be because he wants to appear to be considerate of opposition voices in parliament when in fact he is not?

Mr. Key did his usual name-dropping act. He met with Karzai and General McCrystal. He met with local leaders. Although he waxed lyrical about what they had to say, he made no mention of what he had to say to them. Did he tell Karzai that his corruption and the drug-running antics of his cronies would not be tolerated? Did he press Karzai on not back-sliding on human rights, especially for wimin and ethnic minorities? Did he query McCrystal on continued civilian casualties at the hands of ISAF forces, and did he make clear to the General what the NZDF understanding of the rules of engagement are?  Nothing of the sort has been mentioned, so for all the NZ public knows he could have been exchanging cricket scores and family photographs with the Big Boys.

And then there was the piece d’resistance: John Key fitted out in a journalist flak jacket and helmet, his blood type outlined like a bulls-eye on his chest, grinning like a kid in a GI Joe costume. Then there were the photos of him acting friendly with the pilots on the RNZAF C-130 and acting pensive on the US Blackhawk ‘copter that did the bulk of his tour transfers. Dang. I have no doubt that he needed the body armour when he was not sipping tea with the Poms, but did his minders really think that a photo op in that outfit would come across as warrior-like and decisive? If so, they are clueless because he just looked goofy, somewhat akin to the infamous photo of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank turret wearing a helmet in the 1988 US presidential campaign. In both cases the image spells out L-O-O-O-O-O-S-E-R.  As for the aircraft photos: staged and contrived from the get-go. He looked like he was on one of those Air NZ tourist charters to the Antartic summer solstice. Another photo op FAIL.

Mind you, the NZDF brass as well as the troops on the ground would have appreciated the gesture, albeit for different reasons. So there was symbolic worth in the venture. It was in its execution where the enterprise failed.

Because they are clueless National PR flacks will congratulate themselves on a job well done in getting their message about the PM out to the masses, and the supplicant invited press will play the role of willful lapdogs by writing positive stories based on National PR releases (in part, because they share the government’s contempt for the intelligence of the general population, and in part because they would like to be invited along on other future junkets of this sort). But the cruel truth is that the exercise showed yet again how far out his depth the PM is when confronting the intricacies of even the most rudimentary aspects of foreign affairs. For those with a better sense of judgement, the exercise was embarrassing, not encouraging. Or as Pauly Fuemana would have said, “how bizzare.”

Political Idealism trumps the Law.

datePosted on 20:52, March 17th, 2010 by Pablo

The “Waihopai 3” have been acquitted. Their act of civil disobedience, which resulted in damage to one of the domes covering eavesdropping equipment at the Echelon Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering station near Blenheim, was deemed by a jury of their peers to be justified because of their sincerely held beliefs that the listening post contributed to human suffering on a world scale.

This is a remarkable verdict. The Plowshares group clearly trespassed and clearly did damage to the dome (they cut through both a perimeter fence and then the dome in order to access its interior). But their motives clearly outweighed, at least in the minds of the jury, the criminality of their actions (the charge of burglary against them was a grave mistake on the part of the Crown). The defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges of trespass, burglary and criminal damage and left the court as free men and as an inspiration to other direct action activists discontented with the status quo. One wonders if this  decision will establish not only a legal precedent but also encourage others to follow suit in pursuit of anti-status quo objectives.

I must confess to being at a loss for an explanation. As I wrote in “A Brief Comment on Spy Bases and Civil Disobedience” over at Scoop, (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0805/S00039.htm), active acts of civil disobedience involving direct action (as opposed to the passive act school of civil disobedience exemplified by Ghandi and followed by his adherents after he was murdered) are most often premised on the perpetrators willingly understanding that their actions are in violation of conventional law, and that their actions will be punished accordingly. More often than not they plead guilty in order to make their political case at sentencing, something that spares the taxpayer the court costs of defending the charges while at the same time providing a courtroom soapbox for dissemination of their claims. Seriously committed activists often/sometimes (depending who is talking) never reach trial because they die trying. None of that occurred in this case.

I am sympathetic to the Plowshares cause although I seriously disagree with their view of the Echelon network. I applaud their willingness to stand up for their beliefs, and their use of unconventional, yet basically peaceful means to make their case. But for the life of me I cannot understand why they were acquitted, and I fear that the verdict has opened a Pandoras Box of unintended and perhaps dangerous consequences. But then again, we are talking about activities that occurred in New Zealand, although to be honest, if this action merited acquittal, what does that say about the case against the Urewera 18, who did not trespass, damage or burglarise anything?

Imagine what the outcome would have been had the Plowshares engaged their direct action in the US, UK or Australia. I reckon the verdict would have been different, and the sentences severe.

Let it burn

datePosted on 09:59, March 5th, 2010 by Lew

At the head of a large army [Po-ts’ai] was besieging Ch’ang-she, which was held by Huang-fu Sung. The garrison was very small, and a general feeling of nervousness pervaded the ranks; so Huang-fu Sung called his officers together and said: “In war, there are various indirect methods of attack, and numbers do not count for everything. Now the rebels have pitched their camp in the midst of thick grass which will easily burn when the wind blows. If we set fire to it at night, they will be thrown into panic, and we can make a sortie and attack them on all sides at once, thus emulating the achievement of T’ien Tan.” That same evening, a strong breeze sprang up; so Huang-fu Sung instructed his soldiers to bind reeds together into torches and mount guard on the city walls, after which he sent out a band of daring men, who stealthily made their way through the lines and started the fire with loud shouts and yells. Simultaneously, a glare of light shot up from the city walls, and Huang-fu Sung, sounding his drums, led a rapid charge, which threw the rebels into confusion and put them to headlong flight.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War, XII.9(4)

I can’t agree less with Grant Robertson’s, response to David Garrett’s latest bit of madness. He says he “doesn’t want to give further oxygen” to Garrett’s “extreme and appalling” views, but that’s exactly what they need: oxygen. At present both Rodney Hide and John Key probably want to forget the fact that Garrett is the ACT party’s Law and Order spokesperson, and that consequently there are no such things as his “personal views” on these topics which are separable from those of the party — he is the ACT party’s mouthpiece on such matters, and the government’s ally. We, the people who elected him and permitted Hide to assign him that role, are entitled to take these views seriously, examine them in the context of other things he has said and done, and the opposition’s job is to prevent anyone from forgetting what this man stands for, and how far his definition of “reasonable” is from that of the wider public. From now until he’s ejected from parliament, Garrett should not be able to show his face to the public without a graphic reminder of the fact that he think homosexuality is morally equivalent to paedophilia; that he favours policy (now implemented) which means more prisoners will suffer rape as a consequence of their punishment; and that he thinks poor brown parents should be sterilised. He must be required to either defend his views robustly, or forced to issue yet another humiliating public apology; and both ACT and the government must be required to defend their association with him, or forced to dissociate, demote or publicly censure him.

The instinct for the opposition to deny a topic like this the spotlight only makes political sense when the opposition is vulnerable on the issue; when they fear it could result in a populist backlash against them. Even then, the principles at stake mean a very strong backlash would be required to justify restraint on simple pragmatic grounds. There is no prospect of such a backlash in this case: as Grant says, the statement is “extreme and appalling”. Does Grant think his own sense of what is extreme and appalling differs so much from that of the electorate that they will not agree with him? The worst possible course of action for ACT and the government is to allow this topic to remain at the top of the political agenda for as long as possible. Failing to even try to keep it there shows a lack of political nerve on the part of the opposition; a continuation of the failed strategy employed prior to the election, which Key won in no small part because the very people who should be fighting against him bolstered his public image as a mild, simple, non-threatening chap. Genuine threats must be neither mocked or minimised; the “extreme and appalling” should not be laughed off or left unchallenged. This is the sort of weak-kneed liberal wimpishness and lack of rectitude which leads many voters to mistrust parties on the left, and cleave to parties and leaders whose convictions are firm and forthrightly held. The good and the just does not speak for itself, much as we might wish it would. It requires champions to stand for it, and evil truimphs when those champions fail to stand and fight.

To do so is not the “dirty” personalisation of politics: the character and views of a man who sits on the Law and Order select committee, and in the future could conceivably hold a warrant for Justice, Corrections or Police are perfectly legitimate matters for political debate, which speak both to his ability to represent the interests of New Zealanders and to the quality of the processes and people which allowed him to attain such a position.

The Garrett Solution, as I’ve argued elsewhere, contradicts almost everything the small-government right claims to stand for. After a decade of howling about “Nanny State in the bedroom” and “social engineering” we now see that their erstwhile objections to both these things were not principled, as they claimed, but were in fact just objections on the merits. Social engineering is wrong, they say, unless it’s at the genetic level. It’s also not new: this sort of thing was enthusiastically embraced during the last government by the more unhinged members of the extreme right, and now it has gone mainstream.

The topic of eugenics is the strongest symbolic matter introduced to the political sphere by any participant this term; it is a topic on which the right can only lose, and introduced by someone who is already vulnerable. The grass is high around the government’s camp, the fire is set by one of their own: now, if they are to gain an advantage, the opposition must fan the flames and beat the drums.

L

Blog Link: Why the NZDF is in Afghanistan

datePosted on 13:10, January 26th, 2010 by Pablo

Controversy about the publication of SAS soldiers in action in Kabul last week, and the identification of one of them, has morphed into debate about the reasons why the NZDF is in Afghanistan. I have already outlined my views on the matter in previous posts here at KP, but the furore forced me to reflect again on the issue. That reflection was precipitated by the fact that criticism of the mission comes from both the political Left and the political Right. Some on the Left think that the venture is a US-led occupation driven by neo-imperialist  ambition and corporate greed that violates the Afghans right to self-determination, and that the NZ involvement is a form of sucking up to the US in pursuit of a free trade agreement. Some on the Right believe that NZ has no strategic stake in the conflict and should leave the (enter derogatory term here) alone to sort out their own fate while NZ concentrates on issues closer to home. I believe that both sides have misread the situation. 

To that end I have offered my summary views on the matter as this month’s Word from Afar column over at Scoop.

My first “real” job involved creating a Latin American Studies program for US military and civilian intelligence officers at a military post-graduate institution. One of the factors that contributed to my being hired was that I had familiarity with how Latin American guerrilla organizations fight. When asked at the job interview about how to “counter” them, I noted that the very term “counter-insurgency’ was self-defeating on two levels, one semantic and one practical. That impressed and surprised my  interlocutors, who then allowed me to teach my interpretation of counter-insurgency (COIN) theory to my Latin-America bound students. In return, I got to learn and participate in their business. But that was two decades ago. Since the doctrine of counter-insurgency has resurfaced and been applied in recent years to Afghanistan and Iraq, and is seemingly back in vogue and unchallenged in those settings, I thought I would reprise my argument against its use.

“Insurgency” refers to counter-hegemonic or anti-status quo groups that use armed struggle as the means to the end of political victory. It is not a form of warfare per se, but instead a term used to describe the nature of a particular guerrilla (or irregular or unconventional) group using irregular warfare as the means to their end. Thus one does not “counter” insurgency by fighting, but by ideological means. Hence “counter-insurgency” properly applies to non-coercive measures employed by political status quo regimes to thwart the ideological appeal of (most often nationalist) guerrillas. The term is therefore misused when applied to the kinetic part of asymmetric warfare, which more properly can be termed “counter-guerrilla” or irregular warfare operations.

But even then the practical problem remains: by defining kinetic operations as “counter-guerrilla” or (mistakenly) “counter-insurgency,”  the conventional fighter begins on the back foot. Anyone familiar with guerrilla warfare knows that you do not “counter” it, or merely respond to guerrilla operations. That is because such an approach gives the guerrilla forces the initiative as to how and when to stage their operations. Such a “countering” strategy inevitably allows guerrillas to remain on the offensive and dictate the timing, nature and tempo of armed confrontations. It is, therefore , often a self-defeating strategy doomed from the onset.

In order to be successful, counter-guerrilla operations need to be offensive, irregular and consequently symmetrical to those of the guerrillas themselves. The idea is to fight guerrillas on their own terms but with all of the capabilities afforded to conventional militaries (e.g. air cover, precision-munitions, satellite guidance, signals and technical intelligence). That involves small group operations–such as what the NZSAS is trained to do–acting with excellent and precise tactical intelligence to strike preemptively at guerrilla targets, focusing on leadership and command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) structures. Rather than large group operations that rely on massed force and kinetic friction, the irregular approach emphasizes fluidity and maneuver. In other words, it operates the way guerrillas do.

Therein lies the problem with Western counter-insurgency strategy. It confuses the nature of a guerrilla grievance with a type of irregular warfare, and in doing so legitimizes the grievance in contexts in which the status quo regime is unpopular. In such contexts “insurgents” are awarded popular appeal as symbols of resistance to the unpopular regime and foreign oppressors, thereby undercutting any “hearts and minds” efforts undertaken by the latter. This in turn undermines efforts to obtain precise, reliable and timely intelligence on guerrilla targets, which is a function of the rapport between the civilian population and various armed actors. Instead, the intelligence flow preferably goes to the guerrillas, and what passes for intelligence to the conventional actor is often disinformation.

To that can be added the mindset created by the “countering” posture of irregular operations. Such a strategic posture condemns the countering party to react to the actions of the guerrillas, which although leading to tactical success on occasion, denies the countering side the possibility of strategic victory. So long as guerrillas can avoid confrontations with massed force, they survive to fight another day, another week, and years thereafter. “Countering” strategies also have the drawback of not being fine-tuned to the cultural norms and fighting styles of irregular opponents. Although much has been written about the different approaches to conventional warfare adopted by different nations (such as American, Arab, British, Chinese, Israeli and Russian fighting styles), much less attention has been paid to different unconventional or irregular fighting styles. Not all guerrillas copy the Guevara, Guillen, Marighella or Mao  playbook when undertaking their campaigns, and many hybrid versions of guerrilla warfare exist that are rooted as much in local armed  custom as they are historical examples. A “countering” strategy is less capable of embracing that fact.

I have refrained here from taking a position on the worthiness of the cause (pro or anti-guerrilla) in a given case. Readers can choose sides in any conflict as they deem fit. What I am doing here is briefly explaining why Western counter-insurgency strategy has elementary problems that seriously impede the possibility of success in any context in which its adversaries are well organised and highly motivated, particularly if the latter adopt a guerrilla strategy of fighting prolonged wars of attrition on their home soil against foreign forces that are not as committed to the long-term struggle (or who do not have the support of their home populations to do so).

As the old saying goes, in asymmetric wars, strategic stalemates are victories for the militarily “weaker” side. However, if the militarily “superior” side bases its campaign on erroneous assumptions and faulty strategic logics, then more than a stalemate is within the grasp of the ostensibly “weaker” side. After all, asymmetry in warfare works both ways.

 

PS: I have updated the post. For those interested, here is a link to US counter-insurgency doctrine. The Spec Ops community understands the problem, but as a minority component of a large conventional military, they ultimately are not determinants of the solutions offered.

On the Strategic Utility of Terrorism.

datePosted on 20:59, November 13th, 2009 by Pablo

In a previous life I worked in and with the US security apparatus on matter of Latin American regional policy, to include subjects ranging from civil-military relations to counter-insurgency. In the latter capacity I spend a fair bit of time interacting with the Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC) community who are  primarily responsible for US anti-terrorism operations, and who include elements from intelligence agencies and domestic security agencies as well as the military. Politically controlled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) via the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and headquartered at the Special Operations Command at McDill Air Force base outside of Tampa, the SOLIC community has analytic and operational wings that are regional, issue and event specific. At a tactical level (i.e. in the field) the community deploys assets as part of Joint Task Forces (JTFs), of which there are a number currently working abroad (the precise number is classified but there is more than one in Afghanistan alone).

One of the best pearls of wisdom imparted to me by an old SOLIC hand is that “terrorism is the last desperate gasp of a dying man. The cause is lost, its ideological appeal is on the wane, and thus the zealots respond by desperate acts of wanton mayhem in a last ditch effort to rattle the nerves of the subject and erode his will to continue to push his agenda to completion.” I believe this to be true, and that it applies to Islamic extremists confronted with the inexorable progress of Western (and Eastern) secularism riding the wave of globalisation of production, consumption and exchange. But there is more to the issue than that.

Terrorism is an irregular (or unconventional) warfare tactic. It is not a strategy in and of itself, but is a means employed to a strategic end. As such, terrorism has a subject, an object and a target, and they are not the same. Although it appears to be an offensive strategy and has been used offensively at a tactical level, it is by and large a defensive strategy. The object(ive) is to get the subject to desist in what it is doing that is inimical to the terrorist interest. The subject is dual in nature: the adversary and its popular support base, on the one hand (e.g. the US government and citizenry), and the terrorist support base, on the other (e.g. Islamicists and the larger Muslim community). The target is, of course, the hapless victims of an act of politically motivated violence whose purpose is more symbolic than military. Terrorism is used against highly symbolic targets in order to erode the will of the adversary to pursue a given course of action while steeling the conviction of the terrorist support base. Terrorism can also be used as part of a moderate-militant strategy in order to create space and provide leverage for negotiated compromises. This was seen with the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland and may in fact turn out to be the strategy employed by non-jihadist Taliban in Afghanistan today. In practice, though, the outcome is often the reverse of what is intended; Israel is a case in point, although it must also be noted that it was the PLO military campaign (in which terrorism was an integral component) that eventually brought Israel to recognise it as a legitimate political actor (Israel, for its part, owes its existence to the terror campaign of some of its founding fathers organised in groups such as the Irgun).

Terrorism can occur in two circumstances and comes in three different guises. The circumstances are terrorism during war and terrorism in peacetime. The guises are state terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism (where terrorists act as proxies for militarily inferior states), and non-state terrorism (such as today’s jihadis). If acts of terror are not committed for political purposes, they are not genuine terrorism but criminality taken to extremes (say, Mafia firebombing or assassination campaigns). This may seem like a semantic distinction but it is important because terrorism is effective only in pursuit of an ideological project, in pursuit of an alternative conception of the “proper” social order, as opposed to the more immediate and material objectives of criminals or psychopaths.

Terrorism in warfare is designed to erode the morale of the enemy. It can be used against military targets to erode the morale of the fighting element and to show the steadfastness, resolve and determination of the perpetrator (such as the Kamikaze attacks, or suicide bombings against military targets in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan). Terrorism can also be used in wartime against civilian populations to erode the will of the support base of a given regime. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden are classic instances in this regard (as were the V2 bombings of London), in which the psychological impact on the subject far outweighed the military-strategic importance of the targets. That brings up an important point in this age of the so-called “war on terrorism:” generally speaking, the state has been the primary terrorist organisation throughout history. In fact, most instances of state terrorism are directed at their own people, in what is known as “enforcement terrorism” whereby the state imposes its ideological project by force on an unwilling citizenry. The reason why state terrorism is so prevalent in history is that it works. Its purpose is to infantilise and atomise the body politic so people feel powerless and unable to control their own destinies (think of a child’s nightmare). Under such conditions the main recourse for the subject population is a retreat into the private sphere, the disruption of horizontal solidarity and resistance networks, and generalised acquiescence to the cruel powers that be. Under such conditions dictatorial regimes can implement their ideological projects free from the interference of civil society: Chile under Pinochet is a case in point, as are the USSR under Stalin or Cambodia under Pol Pot (the examples are many and not limited to either side of the ideological divide).

State-sponsored terrorism is most often directed at the enemy support base. The Lockerbie aircraft bombing is a case in point, as is Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas  attacks on civilian targets in places as disparate as Lebanon, Israel and Argentina (Iran denies any connection to the military campaigns of Hamas and Hezbollah, and specifically refutes the claim that it was involved in anti-jewish bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. The Argentine government believes otherwise). Reported Pakistan support for Kashmiri separatists and Lashkar- e-Taiba (LET) is another example of state-sponsorship of terrorist organisations. Here the objective is to place enough distance between the sponsor and the perpetrator so as to allow for “plausible deniability” that forces the targeted adversary to either escalate out of proportion to the event or acquiesce (if not respond in kind).

Non-state terrorism has two forms: 1) in its insurrectionary form it is used to advance a group’s political project within a country as part of a counter-hegemonic project (for example, the use of selective terrorism by revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow status quo regimes). Because the group wants to cultivate popular support for its ideological project, the use of terrorism in such instances tends to be more selective and focused on military targets or symbols (and members) of the regime elite. 2) the transnational grievance form is used to thwart homogenising international projects and processes that are deemed inimical to existing social mores and constructions (which can include unwanted immigration from ethnic “others” as well as political or corporate interventions) . Whether secular or ethno-religious, such terrorist groups can be self-identified as anti-imperialist or more localised in scope. The al-Qaeda project is an example of the former, whereas the janjaweed anti-African campaign in Darfur is couched in localised terms (although there is an underlying resource motive clearly at play).

The chances of success of the non-state, transnational grievance form rest not on much on their own capacity to wreak symbolic political violence in pursuit of their objectives but on the nature of the regimes that are the subjects of their activities. Strong authoritarian and democratic regimes, defined as those with majority support and the political will and military-intelligence capability to defeat irregular warfare groups that practice terrorism, will always prevail in such contests. The combination of mass support, military capability and willpower is the decisive part of the asymmetric equation. Russia is a good example of a strong authoritarian regime confronting terrorists; China is(or will be)  another. Strong democracies have similar strengths. Israel again is emblematic, but the UK response to the IRA irregular warfare campaign is also illustrative. In fact, all of Europe and Turkey have the requisite combination of will, capability and support to defeat jihadism in all of its forms (fears about the Islamicisation of Europe notwithstanding).

Conversely, weak authoritarian and democratic regimes are highly susceptible to politically-motivated terrorism, be it state-sponsored or non-state in nature. Weakness is here defined as a lack of majority support and/or leadership will to defeat the terrorist project, whether or not there is a military-intelligence capacity to do so. Under such circumstances even allied assistance may be insufficient to defeat a well-organised terrorist campaign. The will to do so has to come from within, and it must be come from the majority. That is what makes Egypt, Iran, Algeria, a number of Sub-Saharan African states, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia itself more vulnerable to terrorism. The question is not so much one of counter-terrorism capabilities as it is of support and will.

That is the crux of the matter when it comes to judging the strategic utility of terrorism in the contemporary context. Weak regimes like Afghanistan and Pakistan are examples of highly vulnerable subjects of terrorism. To a lesser but still significant degree, weak democracies such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are also vulnerable to destabilisation by a well-organised terrorist campaign. Conversely, virtually all of the East Asian regimes, authoritarian or democratic, have the necessary ingredients to defeat non-state terrorists, be they sponsored or self-organised. They same can be said for the Antipodes, even if Australia and New Zealand differ significantly in their approaches to the current counter-terrorist campaigns. Latin America has also managed to combine the requisites for a successful counter-terrorism strategy (especially if the threat is Islamicist, which is culturally alien to the region), although there remain in the region a small number of indigenous irregular groups that continue to practice isolated acts of terrorism in spite of their lack of popular appeal. Thus, in terms of probabilities of success, terrorists today are confronted with a strategic landscape that, outside of Central Asia and the Middle East, appears to doom them to defeat. That might explain the move to highly decentralised and often individual attacks (such as that at Fort Hood), the increasingly “indiscriminate” nature of attacks in places like Iraq and Pakistan (in which potentially sympathetic elements of the local population are targeted), as well as the increasing success in uncovering plots before they are executed (which is a function of good intelligence in a supportive community).

That raises the question of the US. Given the culture wars and ideological polarisation that divide the country, coupled with popular lack of interest in, or commitment to foreign wars, it is increasingly an open question as to whether the US has the popular staying power and committed political leadership to defeat its irregular adversaries at home and abroad. It is that variable that is the jihadis best hope of long-term success, but it is not only Islamicists who see opportunity in perceived US weakness. That could well be a matter of strategic concern down the road, and is what makes the US approach to counter-terrorism a matter of global import. There lies the rub, because counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is as much an issue of cultural understanding as it is of will, support and capability.

There is more to the issue but in the confines of a blog post this is enough. Former students might recognise some of the above from the “Revolutions and Insurgencies” courses taught in NZ and the US, although this is an updated brief on those long-gone but still relevant course materials.

Obama’s prize: why not refuse it?

datePosted on 14:27, October 12th, 2009 by Lew

I was as surprised as anyone else who’s been paying the smallest bit of attention to geopolitics this past year when Barack Obama was announced as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. This is one issue on which many of his supporters and critics are apparently united: what has he done to deserve it?

Obama himself professes to agree that it’s not justified:

“I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figures that have been honored by this prize,” he said. “I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations to confront the challenges of the 21st century.”

So why accept it (essentially on credit) instead of refusing it, requesting that the Nobel Committee award it to someone else, and accept a future prize at a later date when the award can be made on the basis of merit? This course of action would demonstrate that Obama is more concerned with world peace, with the (admittedly flagging) credibility of the Nobel prizes, and more importantly with action than with pretty rhetoric and his own status as a diplomatic celebrity.

Rejecting this award would have caused a stir and some embarrassment among the international diplomatic community, but it would have been an opportunity to silence critics on both Obama’s flanks, the pacifist left and the right. Certainly, some would have found ways to turn it against him (after all, the sun still rises in the East), but I believe it would have been met with near-universal acclaim. It would have been a clear message: judge me on my achievements, not on my identity.

This was a test, and to my mind Obama has failed. It’s a damned shame.

L

A Two Level Game In Afghanistan

datePosted on 19:26, July 29th, 2009 by Pablo

News of the NZSAS’s imminent departure to Afghanistan, on its fourth deployment since 2001 but first since 2005, has occasioned a fair bit of commentary in the media. A Herald poll shows public opinion evenly divided on the issue. A broad swathe of Right and Left wing isolationists and pacifists oppose the move. Many believe it is just a sop thrown to US imperialism in order to curry favour. Others think it is about gas pipelines and Halliburton profits. The rationale for sending troops to Afghanistan has become muddled by American pronouncements that NZ should do so as a type of insurance in the event it is attacked, or as a down payment on an eventual bilateral FTA. John Key has not helped matters by stating that he does not want the SAS to undertake so-called “mentoring” roles for the Afghan Army because it is too dangerous (as if what they otherwise would be doing is not), and that he would like to withdraw the NZDF Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan province because it costs too much to maintain (this in spite of its widely recognised success as a “hearts and minds” operation that is the essence of international peace-keeping and nation-building missions such as the ISAF mission in Afghanistan).  He further clouds the issue by invoking the Jakarta and Mumbai bombings as reasons for the NZSAS deployment, even if the bombings had zero connection to events on the ground in Afghanistan (although I admit the possibility that some of those involved in the bombings may have attended Taleban protected al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan or the Pakistani tribal regions in the last decade or so). In making these utterances Mr. Key displays an apparent lack of understanding of what is really at stake in this dangerous game.

I have already posted here on the subject (see the Archive, especially here and here), and in recent days have tried to explicate further in the dedicated comments threads in places like Tumeke and Kiwiblog. Yet the rationale for why I believe that sending the NZSAS to and keeping the PRT in Afghanistan is justified appears to be lost in the general discussion. So let me phrase things in a different way, for purposes of clarification: what is going on in Afghanistan is a two-level game.

One one level there is the original ISAF mission. That mission was and is to deny al-Qaeda cadres and militant Taleban safe havens inside Afghanistan so that they do not pose a threat to the local population and cannot use Afghan territory to stage cross-border assaults on Pakistan and other neighbouring Central Asian republics. The concern with the militant Taleban, as opposed to their more “moderate” counterparts (read: nationalist or tribal), is that they have greater ambitions than re-gaining political control of Afghanistan. Instead, the militant Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies seeks to establish a Caliphate throughout Central Asia and beyond. They particularly want to gain control of nuclear-armed Pakistan, but even that is just a short-to-medium term goal. They have, in other words, imperialist ambitions of their own. These ambitions are not only opposed by the US, UN, and NATO. They are opposed by China, Russia, India and all Asian states that see the ripple effect extending towards them. In fact, they are opposed by virtually all of the international community with the exception of failed states such as Somailia and the Sudan (which have now become the new locus of al-Qaeda activity).

Worried about the repercussive effects that a Taleban victory in Afghanistan would have throughout Central Asia, the NATO-led, UN sanctioned ISAF mission has been successful at eliminating al-Qaeda as a military threat in the country, and is essentially now engaged in a grand scale pincer movement along with the Pakistani military that is designed to push Taleban on both sides of the common border into geographically defined kill zones from which they cannot escape. In parallel, ISAF and UN-led civilian assistance groups are attempting to engage moderate Taleban elements in order to establish a durable cease-fire that will permit the second level of the game to be played.

The second level game is oriented towards establishing a moderate Islamic regime with centralised authority over Afghanistan, one that will balance secular rights with religious freedoms and traditional privileges in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This a minimalist construction of the game; that is, it pretends to go no further than what is stated. It does not imply that the objective is to establish a secular democracy in the country. It does not pretend that centralised authority will mean central government monopoly of organised violence in the tribal hinterlands. It does not propose the blanket elimination of traditional forms of authority or social mores. Instead, it merely seeks to create the structural and political conditions for the establishment of peace, a peace that in turn will deny Islamic extremists the fertile territory for recruitment and sanctuary. It involves promoting electoral forms of political contestation, but more importantly, it pursues infrastructural development, to include educational, health and nutritional programs as well as the civil-military engineering projects required for their implementation and expansion.

To be sure, endemic corruption, the Karzai regime’s limited legitimacy outside of Kabul, the persistence of the opium trade, the ongoing presence of warlord-dominated fiefdoms, and the abject primitivism of many parts of the country make the second game seemingly impossible to achieve, and greatly complicate the achievement of the first game. Yet just because other foreign incursions have been defeated does not necessarily mean that this one is inevitably doomed to fail. For one thing, this is an international effort, not the expansionist project of a single imperial state. For another, because of its developmental and humanitarian focus, it does have a fair bit of internal support as well as that of neighbouring countries, factors that did not obtain in previous instances of occupation.

These two games are now being played out simultaneously, in overlapped fashion. The first is needed for the second to be successful (i.e., the combat work of such as the NZSAS is needed for PRTs to be successful). Yet the second is needed for the first to advance sufficiently so that an “exit strategy” is feasible. That will take a long time, at a minimum at least another five years and probably more. Any upgrade or renewal of the NZDF commitment to Afghanistan must take account of this fact.

Thus, when considering the “why” of NZ’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan, the debate should focus on the two levels of the ISAF “game,” and whether NZ has a stake in either. I have already stated that I believe that there are moral and practical reasons why NZ should, as an international citizen, contribute to the ISAF mission on both levels. Others disagree on either or both counts.  The main point, however, is that Mr. Key and his advisors in the MoD and MFAT develop a clear and comprehensible rationale for why NZ should put its soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, which in turn is as much a function of informed public interest as it is of diplomatic necessity.

Chosŏn Realism

datePosted on 12:37, May 28th, 2009 by Lew

(This and the last are posts I’ve been meaning to put up all week, having been prevented by a migraine and a deadline.)

This week seems an opportune time to link to a small but superb collection of North Korean propaganda posters reproduced (with two brief and fascinating contextual notes) from David Heather and Koen de Ceuster’s book North Korean Posters.

ess_north_korean_39
(“Let’s extensively raise goats in all families!”)

Discussion of the second test in the media has cast a great deal of heat and not very much light on the issues at stake, including one alarming statement in the NZ media by Tim Beal of Victoria University that the USA could defeat the DPRK militarily “without losing a single soldier” (audio), which runs contra to the understanding of the situation I had when I lived there. My understanding, admittedly mostly from pub discussions with officers in the South Korean and US defence establishment, was that the reason there’s a stalemate is a sort of mutually assured destruction, because while the forces in the South clearly have the strategic advantage, the DPRK has an unknown but very large number of well-protected and hidden artillery pieces and conventional rockets in the mountains just north of the border, within easy range of Seoul, and the few dozen hours it might take to destroy them all could result in catastrophic loss of life and infrastructure in that very densely-populated city.

Tough call.

L

Blog Link: Reorganizing (the) Defense

datePosted on 16:15, May 15th, 2009 by Pablo

The recent announcement that a Defense Review Board has been convened with the charge of issuing a Defense White Paper in 2010 (13 years after the last one) is the subject of this month’s “A Word from Afar” column over at Scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0905/S00152.htm . Lets just say that there are some troublesome aspects to the issue.

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