Posts Tagged ‘Foreign policy/affairs’

El Chavismo sin Chavez.

datePosted on 12:23, March 6th, 2013 by Pablo

I am sure that there will be plenty of eulogies, some fawning and some harsh, for Hugo Chavez. Since I spent a good part of my academic career writing about Latin American politics, to include the nature of national populists such as Chavez and a bit about his regime itself, I am well aware of his shortcomings and strengths. It is in the nature of national populism to be redistributive, mass mobilizational and increasingly authoritarian. As a left-wing variant, the Chavez regime was all of those things, and the fact that the US supported the 2002 coup against him only cemented the increasingly authoritarian direction of the regime. But his authoritarianism was mass rather than elite-based, and it was this mass support that carried him through three terms and four elections. He was no tin pot despot. His rule was a bit more complicated than that of, say, Robert Mugabe, who took a popular national independence movement and turned it into an armed clan-based kleptocracy.

The Achilles heel of national populism is the personalist nature of executive rule. Peron, Vargas, Cardenas and Chavez–all increasingly concentrated power in their own hands, thereby removing institutional checks and balances as well as clear lines of authority and succession. That could be the undoing of the Boliviarian experiment.

After the 2002 coup Chavez purged the military and civilian state bureaucracy of professionals and populated the upper ranks with acolytes. This decreased the efficiency and capabilities of state agencies, both armed and unarmed. He increasingly relied on Cubans for behind the scenes leadership of his internal security services, including his personal bodyguards. He played divide and conquer with his parliamentary counterparts at the same time that he re-jigged the constitution to increase the length of his presidential terms as well as the electoral prospects of his political party. He populated the judiciary with supporters and increasingly restricted freedoms of public expression and the press. He trained and armed supporter militias organized along the lines of the Cuban Auto-Defense Committees. Some of these have been accused of intimidating and assaulting members of the political opposition.

He used inclusionary state corporatist mechanisms of interest group administration that bestowed favor and patronage on supportive groups and excluded or punished non-supportive groups (which thereby polarized civil society organizations). This allowed for top-down direction of the thrust of state policy and funding directed at civil society, but it also gradually surpressed independent and autonomous expressions of grassroots interest.

All of this was justified on the grounds that he faced a disloyal opposition aided and abetted by hostile foreign powers, the US in particular. Although there is an element of paranoia in those claims, there is also a large grain of truth to them. The hard fact is that just the appearance of socialist inclinations on Chavez’s part sent the US into knee-jerk opposition, something that was particularly acute under the Bush 43 administration and was not undone once Obama was elected.

Chavez did much good for Venezuela, particularly in the fields of health, education, welfare and community organization. During his time in power infant mortality rates dropped and literacy rates increased dramatically. The percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty dropped from 50 percent to below 30 percent in ten years. Rural hospitals and schools were built where there previously were none. His regime kept the price of domestic petrol cheap (as it could as a major oil-producing and refining nation), which allowed the poorest segments of the population to weather rises in the price of imported commodities.

In spite of the claims of his detractors, he won four elections handily and relatively cleanly in the eyes of most international election observers. His tenure marks a major historical moment in Venezuelan life, and his legacy will be indelible on it. Whatever his authoritarian tendencies, he was no Pinochet or Somoza. Although his regime selectively repressed the opposition, it did not systematically torture or kill. Nor did it expropriate all private wealth, although it did seek to raises upper-income taxes, nationalize some strategic assets and prevent capital flight via financial controls. Needless to say, this earned him the emnity of Venezuelan elites and their foreign supporters.

He was a close ally of the Cuban regime, but given the common hostility of the US, that was born as much out of necessity than it was out of ideological affinity (truth be told, Raul Castro always thought of Chavez as a buffoon but Fidel was flattered by his attention and both were grateful for his cheap oil supplies. The Cubans worried that he would provoke a confrontation with the US that would suck them in and destabilize them).

He expanded Venezuela’s diplomatic, economic and military relations (towards China, Russia and Iran in particular, but also with other Latin American states) so as to counter-balance the traditional US-focused obsequiousness of his predecessors. He was the motor force behind the solidarity market Latin American trade bloc known as the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which among other things rejected IMF and World Bank financial prescriptions. He had  significant Latin American popular and governmental support, which was mirrored in international media coverage.

He is alleged to have cultivated relations with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

He presided over the deterioration of Venezuela’s core infrastructure, to include its oil production facilities (in which foreign investment dried up in response to his nationalization policies), as well as a dramatic rise in violent crime (Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world). He did not stop corruption but merely shifted it in favor of those who wear red berets. Venezuelan consumption of Scotch whisky, already the highest in the world when he assumed power in 1999, increased steadily from then on. He was unable to curb the Venezuelan obsession with female plastic surgery and beauty queens. So not all is well in the Boliviarian Republic. I shall leave it for others to debate the trade-offs involved and the pros and cons of his regime.

On balance, in the Latin American scheme of things Hugo Chavez was a relatively moderate caudillo (strongman) with a staunch independent and redistributive streak and majority popular support until the end.

The real problem at the moment is that his movement has no natural leader to succeed him. Moreover, he was the ideological glue of the regime: it was his vision, his praxis, the drew the course of events. With him gone the ideological basis of the regime is subject to interpretation by contending personalities and factions within the Boliviarian movement. His designated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, has no independent power base, much less broad support within the Party. He has a serious rival in Diosdado Cabello, a former Army colleague of Chavez’s who is the head of the National Assembly. Cabello has support within the military, whereas Maudro’s support comes from within the union movement and public bureaucracy. Yet neither is visibly stronger than the other, so the backroom maneuvering and in-fighting has begun in earnest (and in fact began when Chavez returned to Cuba for surgery last December).

To this can be added the opposition, which rallied around the figure of Henrique Caprilles Radonski in the October 2012 elections that saw Chavez elected for the fourth time. A presidential election is supposed to be held 30 days  after the public announcement of Chavez’s death (March 5). Riding a wave of grief, unity and solidarity, Maduro is the favorite to win that election if he is a candidate. It will be interesting to see if Maduro can maintain his grip on power before or after the elections in the absence of support for his mandate, however electorally affirmed. One thing is certain: Maduro is no Chavez, and everyone knows that.

Caprilles might not run in the immediate elections so as to delegitimize them and allow the Boliviarian in-fighting to proceed unimpeded and without a common political enemy to focus on. Whatever happens over the short-term, the bigger question is whether the Boliviarian experiment can outlive its creator. Can there be Chavismo without Chavez? Given the dynamics at play within and without the Boliviarian regime, the odds are not entirely favorable.

For the time being we will be treated to the grand spectacle of a Venezuelan state funeral, where the streets will be awash in red and the dignitaries will include a who’s who of US adversaries and critics, Hollywood leftists and very few heads of state from the developed capitalist world. As for Chavez–will his afterlife smell of sulphur or of something more pleasant?

Blog Link: A “Guarded” Democracy in Fiji.

datePosted on 11:15, January 17th, 2013 by Pablo

The rejection of the 2013 draft constitution by the Baimimarama regime in Fiji (a constitution drafted by a panel of international jurists and partially funded by New Zealand), has led to speculation as to whether the promised 2014 elections will be held. What has not been mentioned in press coverage of the constitutional crisis is an end-game that is neither dictatorial or democratic: elections leading to a “guarded” democracy. In this analysis I outline some reasons why the prospect of a guarded democracy in Fiji should be considered to be very real.

Blog Link: Issue Linkage in foreign policy.

datePosted on 07:24, December 20th, 2012 by Pablo

Media coverage of trade negotiations in the Asia-Pacific have largely overlooked the strategic perspectives underpinning different countries’ approaches to the subject. In this analytic brief I outline some of the issues involved, to include potential problems when different strategic outlooks are juxtaposed.

Australia and India are emerging great powers that are the core of the Indo-Pacific strategic architecture, yet they do not have as strong bilateral ties as history, culture, politics, common threats and interests would suggest. In this collaborative essay with an Indian journalist, we explore some of the issues involved in their incipient strategic relationship, along with the prospects for closer ties in the near future.

Bibi does show and tell.

datePosted on 10:07, September 28th, 2012 by Pablo

Benjamin Netenyahu gets up in front of the UN General Assembly with a poster board showing a caricature of a bomb (surprisingly similar to the Mohammed Turban bomb cartoon motif) that supposedly shows how close Iran is to acquiring a nuclear weapon. The bomb is bisected by horizontal lines at the “70%” and “90%” uranium enrichment marks, the latter at the neck of the 19th century cannonball drawn on the board. Bibi draws a red line at the “90%” mark, declaring that it was time to draw a red line on the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Pardon me if I cough. Forget the fact that Israel has at least a dozen nuclear warheads, some of them submarine launched. Forget that even if Iran was to develop a trigger for its fissile material, it still would have to place it in a warhead that in turn must be installed in an artillery shell, airborne deployed bomb, or on a missile, all of which are exposed to attack at the point of loading. Forget the Iranian nuclear physicists have one of the highest occupational morality rates in the world, dying in a myriad of unfortunate and unexpected ways. Forget that the computers governing the Iranian nuclear enrichment process are unusually susceptible to catastrophic failures caused by worms and viruses. Forget the fact that Iran is merely seeking what could be called deterrent parity: no one seriously messes with a nuclear armed country, as North Korea, India, Pakistan and yes, Israel, have demonstrated.

Forget all of that. Why should Iran not seek deterrence parity given what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan in light of the US attacks on them even though they threatened no vital US national interest (let’s be clear: terrorist attacks, no matter how atrocious, are not existential threats to any well-established state). Given the attitude towards it on the part of the US and other Western countries, to say nothing of Israel, Iran has every reason to seek the ultimate deterrent.

In fact, Iran is on the horns of a classic security dilemma: the more it feels threatened by the actions of hostile states, the more it is determined to protect itself by seeking the nuclear trump card. The more that it does so, the more the US and Israel will feel compelled to move against it.

One might say that it is the Iranian regime’s rhetoric and support for terrorism that warrants grave concern. I say give us a break. Ahmadinejad talks to his domestic audience the way Netenyahu and Romney talk to theirs, especially during electoral season or times of internal crisis. However Westerners may wish to misinterpret and mistranslate what he says (which, admittedly is offensive and often bizarre, as his latest “homosexuality is a product of capitalism” remarks demonstrate), and no matter what an unpleasant fellow he may be, Ahmadinejad is no more of a threat to international security than any of the dozen or more Central Asian despots that the West supports, and who do not even try to hold contestable elections. They may not have nukes, but that does not mean that they are any more peace-minded than the mullahs in Teheran. As far as the use of armed proxies are concerned, does anyone remember the Contras?

And even where nuclear states have elected leaders, they are not often the most stable or impeachable. I mean, does anyone seriously think that Iran is a worse threat of starting the nuclear apocalypse than Pakistan? And yet billions of dollars in foreign aid flow to the Pakistani government, whose corruption is matched only by the rapidity with which they take offense at perceived slights.

No, the real problem is that the Persian Shiia did a bad thing to the US three decades ago by throwing out the US-supported Shah and holding US embassy hostages for more than a year (the latter a definite inter-state transgression and diplomatic no-no, to be sure). They also pose a grave threat to the US-backed Sunni Arab autocracies because of their evangelical and proselytizing Shiaa fanaticism. Yet Iran has attacked no other state directly (Iraq attacked Iran to start the 1980s war between the two), even if it uses proxies like Hezbollah to pursue military diplomacy and exact revenge on its enemies. After all, plausible deniability can work many ways.

In any event, Bibi’s show and tell show at the UN demonstrates the hypocrisy and disdain he and his supporters hold for that international organization and the intelligence of the interested public. Trying to reduce and simplify into a cartoon a complex diplomatic and military subject that is layered upon centuries of cultural, religious and ethnic enmity is not a useful teaching aid: it is an insult to the audience.

If anything, with a different presenter that ticking/fizzing poster bomb could be well be read as an indication of the state of Palestinian frustration with a territorial occupation and ethnic subjugation that has been decades in the making.  As the leader of a state that yields nothing to the self-determination aspirations of the Palestinian people, aspirations that have exacted a terrible toll on both sides of the conflict, Bibi’s bomb poster is an incitement, not an explanation.

What is galling about Bibi’s demonstration is a) his denial of Iran’s right to pursue a course of action that has proven to be an effective deterrent against aggression by larger powers and which Israel itself has availed itself of; and b) his disrespect for the UN in trotting out a kindergarten poster as an illustration of the threat he claims that Iran poses.

I am no fan of the Mullahs regime and Ahmadinejad. I believe that the Iranians are lying when they say that there nuclear program is entirely peaceful. But I understand their reasons for doing so, especially since the Israelis have lied all along about their nuclear program.

The real issue here is that Netenyahu is trying to provoke the US during an electoral campaign into supporting a pre-emptive strike on Iran. He is doing so more for his own domestic political reasons than out of concern about any imminent Iranian nuclear threat. He is a scoundrel, and he is mistaken. The US, quite frankly, is in no position to do support his preferred move, which Israel cannot do on its own. The US needs a break from more than a decade of constant war and Iran is a far more formidable adversary than Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. Thus the timing of the cartoon presentation is ill-advised as much as its substance is childish.

The bottom line is that only a clown would find explanation and justification in Bibi’s poster bomb. That clown is Bibi himself.

Media Link: The GCSB and the Dotcom case

datePosted on 08:07, September 25th, 2012 by Pablo

I was interviewed by the RNZ Nine to Noon program on the subject of the GCSB involvement in the Kim Dotcom case. Nicky Hagar followed me. Although it now has been confirmed that the Police misled the GCSB as to the residency status of Dotcom and his associates, the dates of the awarding of residency status to at least some of the group, including Mr. Dotcom, is somewhat nebulous in the MSM reporting.  This is being clarified as the media dig into the issue, but my initial comments before yesterday’s revelations might be of interest to some. They are here.

Blog Link: A Romney Foreign Policy and the South Pacific.

datePosted on 04:53, September 21st, 2012 by Pablo

For those interested in US domestic politics and the potential impact of a Romney presidency on US foreign policy with a South Pacific angle, my thoughts on the subject are gathered here.

A surfeit of services.

datePosted on 09:23, September 17th, 2012 by Pablo

My yearly sojourns to the US provide a regular opportunity to garner a snapshot of the state of the union, at least from my limited perspective. This year I returned to my old stomping grounds in the desert southwest and to the home away from home in South Florida. After a wet monsoon season the desert was lush and the 360 degree skies saturated with cumulus, cirrus and stratus cloud. It was great to hear Norteno music and Spanglish spoken in the street.

My son joined my partner and I for a trip to the old mining town of Bisbee, where we stayed at the haunted Copper Queen (est. circa 1880) and had a long night on the town that ended up in some biker/metalhead dive bar. It was great. I highly recommend the Arizona desert to New Zealanders interested in a dramatic contrast in landscapes and Western cultures.

South Florida has been less pleasant. There is a palpable tension in the air marked by hostile attitudes and unbelievably aggressive, to the point of criminally reckless, driving. The region is known for its fast pace and shallow materialism, but in this trip there is something darker about it. Some of this can be attributed to the election campaign, in which some of the local attack ads are truly astounding in their ferocity and disregard for decency (the issue is large: one-third of the US Senate, the entire US House of Representatives, and most local offices are in play). There is a buffoon Republican named Alan West running for the US Senate, and his ads make the Swiftboat and Willie Horton attack ads look tame. He says nothing about what he proposes and spends most of his time defaming his Democrat opponent. Seeing that Romney is set to lose the presidential race, the right wing talkback and television outlets have ratcheted up the hysteria and vitriol to the point that even John Stewart or Stephen Colbert cannot parody them adequately. In a word, the place is nuts.

This condition of political anomie may be compounding the sense of frustration and anger felt by an increasingly divided–the word “polarized” does not do justice to the chasm between the US right and left–polity that more than anything else is diffident in its regard for politics. Both the Republican and Democratic conventions were not as well attended and not as widely viewed by TV audiences as in previous years, and it appears that the election abstention rate is going to be very high this year. People appear to be cynical, bitter and lacking in hope for the future regardless of who wins in November. All in all, this is the sorriest state of mind I have found the US to be in since my move to NZ fifteen years ago.

That is the backdrop to the subject of this post. As readers will know, the focus of the 2012 US election begins and ends with the economy. Platitudes are proffered and panaceas are prescribed. Words like “competitiveness” and “innovation” are bandied about like lollies. But there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of a root cause of the American economic malaise: its reliance on services.

The US is a country dominated by the service sector rather than true productive enterprise. Think of the variety of services now on offer: wealth and asset managers; financial advisors; PR and other “communications strategists;” personal trainers; life coaches (of which there are half a million in the US); pain management specialists (aka pill doctors); landscapers; floral designers; escorts; private alarm and security companies; fishing, hunting and tour guides; real estate agents; internet and in-store movie suppliers; credit card purveyors; nail and hair “artists;” wedding planners; a zillion types of mental health counselors and ambulance chasing lawyers; insurers; car, cat and dog groomers; dog walkers; bird, cat, dog and horse whisperers; DJs; car valets; (for-profit) drug and alcohol rehabbers; tennis instructors; beauty consultants; fashion stylists; liposuction specialists; motivational speakers; management and risk consultants; self-help gurus; personal assistants and agents, accountants; home delivery services; website designers–the list is as varied as it is endless. While one might argue that all retail sales are a service, my point is that in the US the extent of service provision is on its way to infinite, and this infinite progression dominates its economy.

The basic problem of reliance on services as the core of economic activity is that making money through facilitation is not equivalent to being productive. Nor is working hard synonymous with productivity. Americans work the longest hours and take the shortest vacations of all OECD countries. By that standard they should be light-years ahead of the democratic capitalist world in terms of real productivity. But they are not. That is because hard work and income earned in services does not, in the larger scheme of things, add real value to productivity. It may make the national quality of life better, but it does not advance the overall condition of the productive apparatus. It is the economic equivalent of silver–it is nice and attractive, very malleable, easy to buy, wear and replace, but is no substitute for the economic iron required to build and progress a nation.

What is noteworthy about the US service sector is that, at over 75 percent and growing, it is steadily occupying a bigger and bigger percentage of the national GDP (agriculture is less than 2 percent and manufacturing is at 20 percent). The creative genius involved in the proliferation of services is matched by its relentless rent-seeking: in South Florida television ads are dominated by ambulance chasers (who prefer the term “personal injury lawyers”), pill-pushers and geriatric care providers who offer relief and compensation for a myriad of ills previously unheard of or for which personal responsibility used to suffice.

The majority of US college graduates, be they from two or four year colleges, receive degrees in areas other than science or engineering (business, education and liberal arts degrees are the majority of those granted in the US). Since the bulk of undergraduates do not go on to graduate school, this leaves a labor pool full of people who cannot actually produce or add value to anything other than by virtue of their slick talk and quick uptake on the job. Since most people coming out of US universities and colleges are neither particularly articulate or quick on the uptake, their default option is to join the legion of personal service providers.

No that all services are of the silver variety. Some of these are important, such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, doctors, firefighters, police and lifeguards (I shall defer from elaborating on the public versus private aspects of the service sector, but note that what are considered public services are basically considered to be core functions of government, many of which are being privatized and downsized in the current fiscal environment). Many services are linked via supply chains to the manufacturing and research sectors. Others, such as the information technology services that spawned Google, Facebook and Twitter, create wealth but do not always really produce anything tangible or contributory to the value-added project (which in part explains the lukewarm stock market reaction to the Facebook public stock float). The vast majority of US services are, needless to say, even less contributory to the national productive apparatus.

The critical and deleterious aspect of the services domination of the US economy is that it is moving the country away from the production of real value added assets, much of which is increasingly monopolized in terms of ownership anyway. Add to that the overwhelming influence of the financial service sector, and what is left is a country that buys more than it makes (and what it makes are increasingly capital goods as much as consumer durables and non-durables), and in which people increasingly use services rather than do things or rely on themselves.

The social division of labor created by service sector dominance in the US appears to produce two distinct cultural characteristics. First–and this is very evident in South Florida and a subject that I have addressed in previous posts–is a culture of blame-assignment and responsibility-shifting where nobody is personally accountable for the consequences of their actions. Even hardened criminals commonly use the excuse that their teachers, counselors and psychiatrists failed them in the lead-up to their crimes, and in many instances this suffices to mitigate their culpability and reduce their sentences. They are not alone in this. In fact, there is an entire service industry comprised of counselors, insurers and lawyers that profits from shifting blame and responsibility, criminal or not.

The second aspect is the increasing compartmentalization and personalization of service work, which in turn produces an erosion of horizontal solidarities brought about by common insertion in the productive process. Much of the service sector is characterized by individual entrepreneurial or material pursuits. The individualization of service work, often aided by stay-at-home technologies that facilitate the rendering of such services, removes the associational and emotive ties that are part of the working experience in mass productive enterprise. This atomizes and alienates individuals as social subjects, as their material fortunes no longer depend on common identifications and sense of purpose (which occurs whether the workforce is organized or not precisely because it is a collective enterprise).

Social group associations, service group size and individual immersion in non-work related collective undertakings such as sports and churches mitigate against a complete return to survivalist alienation, but they do not fully overcome the dissociative effects of the nature of service provision. The effect of this is to reduce the ties that bind people together, which helps explain the turn to shifting blame and responsibility onto others.

Needless to say, I am only extrapolating from what I am seeing in the US during my limited time here. I recognize that generalizations are fraught and speculation based on fraught and fragmentary generalizations are to be suspected. So take this appraisal as an opinion, nothing more. Moreover, the US remains the largest national economy in the world, the largest trading nation, and the largest manufacturing economy. Its information technology, robotics, telecommunications and aerospace industries are world leaders. Its automobile and construction sectors are on the rebound. It is by no means weak in spite of what I have outlined above.

Even so, the trend is disturbing (at least for those with an interest in the US). For small countries not intent on projecting power or devoid of natural and human resources, reliance on services as the mainstay of the economy is acceptable if not advisable. Competitive advantage in services may counterweight a lack of comparative advantage in productive resources.

However, it seems to me that if a large, militarily aggressive country with a global reach relies on services as its engine of economic growth rather than on value-added production, than it will find it increasingly difficult to hold the its position over time. I might be wrong and, like (but better than) the USSR, the US can continue to ride on the production associated with an immense military-industrial corporate complex that spins off technological innovation and civilian applications as a matter of course even as the overall presence of value-added manufacturing as a component of GDP decreases. But if that is the case, it seems a risky proposition for sustained growth and global prominence given that an increasing percentage of the inputs to that type of production are derived from external rather than internal sources.

Meanwhile the life coaches continue to facilitate personal self-realization, realtors hustle properties, lawyers litigate and asset managers channel money made from services into other services. Wall Street and Washington both believe that ongoing reliance on services for economic growth is sustainable and desirable. In broad economic terms, that is like equating a merry-go-round with a wheel. It is that merry-go-round that Obama, Romney and other US politicians are trying to fix.

“Tokens of sovereignty” are state-issued commodities such as stamps, passports and internet domain suffixes. They differ from symbols of sovereignty such as flags in that only nation-states can legally own, sell and trade them. I examine the issues surrounding one such token, known as a “flag of convenience” (FOC), here.

Beefing up in order to leave.

datePosted on 15:07, August 22nd, 2012 by Pablo

In the wake of the most recent NZDF deaths in Bamiyan Province, the Prime Minister has decided to accelerate the timetable for withdrawal of NZDF from the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team to April 2013. After that the PRT will remain in UN and local hands. The original withdrawal date, originally slated for 2014, had been moved up to late 2013 after discussions with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) partners, but the April date represents a six month advance on that deadline. Even so, the PM says that his government will not “cut and run” on its obligations to ISAF, NATO and the UN (and presumably the Hazara people who are the majority in Bamiyan but who are an oft-oppressed ethnic and religious (Shiia) minority in Pashtun Sunni-dominated Afghanistan). That means that for the next eight months the NZDF will continue its mission regardless of what comes its way in Bamiyan.

The Prime Minister has said that the NZDF troops have adequate equipment with which to defend themselves and that no major increases in troop numbers is needed to fulfill the PRT mission requirements. He and the Chief of Defense Forces have also said that they will increase patrols, including into neighboring Baghlan province, in order to prevent and interdict cross-border incursions by Taliban such as those that have resulted in the deaths of the NZ soldiers this month (I shall leave aside the snide critique by the PM of the Hungarian PRT in Baghlan since its rules of engagement (ROE) never involved long-range patrols and the Hungarian government has never succumbed to the pressure to do so (seeing it for what it is: “mission creep”). Other Hungarian forces as well as those of ISAF partners did and do conduct day and night patrols in Baghlan). The government has gone on to say that the NZDF have been successfully engaged in a “hearts and minds” campaign as part of their patrols in Bamiyan, which is what has prompted the increase in attacks by the Taliban.

There are several aspects to the account that I find interesting. When the original timetable for withdrawal was announced by ISAF, the Taliban commander Mullah Omar and several of his lieutenants publicly stated that they would increase attacks on all coalition members in order to push them out earlier. They well understood that with a timetable fixed and with the Taliban, as an indigenous armed political force, in Afghanistan to stay, an increased tempo of attacks might force some coalition partners to depart earlier than schedule rather than suffer mounting losses. Add in the fact that the democratic policy-making processes of many ISAF coalition members make them very susceptible to public opinion, then a wave of increased attacks leading to increased losses could well move the political calculation with regards to withdrawal towards earlier rather the later. Indeed, some junior coalition partners have already departed.

In the past year, as the predicted attacks in Bamiyan increased, the nature of the PRT mission changed as well. From its primary objective of reconstruction and capacity-building it moved to force protection, indigenous security training and armed patrol. In recent months and in light of the anticipated withdrawal date, the latter functions–force protection, indigenous security training and armed patrol–have taken precedence over the reconstruction aspects of the mission (which are being handed over to civilian authority in any event).

In response, the last two PRT rotations (October 2011-April 2012, April 2012-present) have seen changes in force composition to more infantry troops and less engineers. Among other shifts, explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) specialists have been priority detailed to the mission. Infantry soldiers replaced engineers because the former are the means by which the hearts and minds, force protection and indigenous mentoring campaigns are undertaken, plus reconstruction work is already passing to civilian hands. Field medics are needed in equal or more numbers given their increasing combat requirement sharing space with the original public health orientation of the  PRT.

The armed Hiluxs that were initially used for “light” patrols were replaced by “up-armored” Humvees and then later by the infamous Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs, or as the US prefers to call them “Strykers”). Although reinforced in theater, neither of these type of vehicle have the V shaped hulls that are the best defense against IED blasts. The LAVs also are not suitable for steep narrow tracks or water crossings, so their presence is most effective in and around the capital of Bamiyan (Bamiyan City). Once NZDF patrols pushed further afield the onus of safety fell on the foot soldiers involved, since dismounted tactics are the most effective tools against small dispersed groups of insurgents given the challenging terrain in which the NZDF is forced to operate.

This shift in troop specialization was reasonable given the increasing pace of attacks, which included IED as well as small arms ambushes in growing numbers (besides the ambush in which Lt. Tim O’Donnell was killed in 2010, there have been multiple IED  and small arms attacks on NZDF convoys and patrols during the past 18 months). As independent observers have noted all along, the security situation in Bamiyan, as in the rest of Afghanistan, has deteriorated markedly since the withdrawal date was announced. It is therefore not surprising that the NZDF has come under increasing attack, and although sad, it is not surprising that it has suffered losses as a result. What is even more sad is that in spite of the worsening security situation, until very recently the NZ government insisted that the situation in Bamiyan was relatively stable and safe, perhaps because it feared what the public response would be if it told the truth.

Now confronted with the harsh reality of the situation, the government has announced its plan to extend NZDF patrols in Bamiyan and into Baghlan and to continue the hearts and minds approach to counter-insurgency. It also says that while doing so it will not significantly increase the combat force complement of the Bamiyan PRT nor raise overall troop numbers much above the 149 currently deployed. That seems odd.

The combination of extended patrols and hearts and minds is essentially the core of the inkblot counter-insurgency strategy that US generals David Petreus and Stanley McCrystal used in Iraq and Afghanistan. It involves stationing troops in villages or in forward outposts alongside local security forces, where they live and work amongst the local population. This gives them an extended armed presence that allows for better collection of local intelligence via the cultivation of personal ties with locals, and is seen as a way of incrementally denying the enemy control of territory in the measure that the various “dots” expand their areas of effective control and begin to merge jurisdictions. On the downside, it also makes the troops involved more vulnerable, particularly to so-called “green on blue” attacks in which local security personnel turn their arms on their foreign mentors (the Taliban have deliberately infiltrated both the Afghan National Army and National Police in order to engage this tactic, with remarkable success).

In order to undertake the inkblot counter-insurgency strategy, both Petreus and McCrystal argued that a “surge” in troops was necessary. That is, more armed “boots on the ground” were required in order to extend the range and scope of operations beyond the fixed bases and daily patrols that characterized the conventional approach to securing the countryside (which was premised on the attrition of enemy fighters resulting in a diminished level of armed conflict). Thus in Iraq and Afghanistan thousands of extra troops were deployed as part of the inkblot surge in order to push the enemy back and secure better conditions for both locals and foreign troops in the months ahead of the withdrawal date. The idea is to not only place the enemy on the defensive in order to give time and space to local forces to more effectively secure their own areas of responsibility, but also to set a more favorable stage for local authorities to negotiate the nature of the post-withdrawal regime. After all, it is better to negotiate from a position of strength than weakness. The inkblot surge is designed to provide the conditions for that to occur.

That is basically what the NZ government is arguing in favor of, but without the surge. In a place like Bamiyan, the stated intent to extend patrols as part of an upgraded hearts and minds campaign would appear to require more than the current number of soldiers. In fact, it would seem that an infantry company (around 130 soldiers) would be the basic minimum amount required to “surge.” The question is whether the NZDF has such a capability ready to deploy even if the government would like that to happen. And even if that is the case–that the government wants to undertake the surge and the NZDF can do so–the follow up question is whether that would be politically palatable to the NZ public. If the answer to any of these questions is no, then what exactly does the government think that the NZDF can do in Bamiyan to decrease the number of attacks on its troops?

At current levels the PRT cannot not cope with a rising wave of attacks. The IED on the NZDF medivac convoy was placed at night less than 15 kilometers from the PRT base in Bamiyan City.The placement of the IED appears to have been done after the medivac patrol headed out to retrieve the ill soldier from a forward post and in anticipation of its return. There were no LAVs on the medivac mission because they were too large and heavy for the dirt road leading to the post, so four Humvees were used.

The PM and CDF say that the IED had 20 kilos of explosives, so a LAV would not have survived the blast either. It is also possible that the triggering device did not act according to plan, resulting in a signal delay that transferred the  IED blast from the first to the last Humvee (and which could well have made impossible a small arms attack once the convoy stopped). Both may be true, but the ability of insurgents to carry, place and detonate  a 20 kilo IED close to the main Kiwi base in Bamiyan on a known route to and from an NZDF forward post without being detected should be a point of discussion in NZDF HQ. After all, mine sweeping is a requisite for mine defusing, and finding one after a fatal attack demonstrates that the NZDF EOD capability in Bamiyan is lagging behind that of the Taliban bomb-makers (one of whom is said to be the target of the previous fatal ambush and who is suspected of participating in the latest attack).

Since the NZDF cannot be everywhere at once, that means that the insurgents have at least partial control of the night very close to the PRT. Moreover, the IED appears to have been detonated by remote control rather than pressure plate, which means that the trigger man had a daylight line of sight on the convoy as it passed the blast zone. What that means, in sum, is that the Taliban operate very close to the PRT itself and can move with some impunity at night even when in close proximity to the very area in which the bulk of NZ troops are stationed. That is troubling.

The PM has given assurances that other country’s special forces will come to the aid of the NZDF if need be. I sure hope so, because the last time I looked other country’s special forces have their hands full in places like Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Be clear on this: the bulk of the fighting in Afghanistan is happening in the South and East, not in the Central Northwest where Bamiyan is located. That fighting occupies the full attention of the ISAF forces involved. Even if airborne reinforcements were sent from Kabul (which is about 100 kilometers away from Bamiyan), it may be too late for them to make the difference in any given confrontation.

Expanded combat patrols and increased forward basing mean more chances of contact with the enemy. More contact means more potential casualties. The best way to avoid losses is to have robust forces on the ground close to the point of contact(s) because air cover is not always available in real time, at the moment of engagement. That is why extended patrolling and variations of inkblot approaches to counter-insurgency require more ground troops in theater.

I find it unrealistic and dangerous for anyone to suggest that the NZDF will increase and expand its patrols in the months leading to the April 2013 withdrawal date without increasing the number of troops it will dedicate to that task. Perhaps there is something in the NZ government or NZDF game plan that I am not aware of that will do what even the US could not do, which is to embark on an inkblot counter-insurgency strategy without a troop surge in the six months before departure. That assumes that the NZ government and NZDF hierarchy are fully cognizant of what they are proposing to do, of what they are asking of their soldiers. I also hope that they will take full responsibility for whatever happens in the months ahead given the choices they have made.

In any event the NZDF soldiers in the next (and last) Bamiyan PRT rotation scheduled to begin in October are in for a very challenging six months. Let us hope that their training and resolve sees them through unscathed, and that they all return safely. However, while it is good to hope for the best, I also think that it is prudent for the NZ public to plan for the worst. There are trying days ahead.

 

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