Posts Tagged ‘NZDF’
Phil Goff is in the spotlight for supposedly leaking the results of a suppressed NZDF inquiry into the suicide of a soldier in Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan, on April 3, 2012. From what I can tell, what Mr. Goff has publicly commented about had already appeared in various media, so I do not believe that he leaked any suppressed details.
The inquiry focused on the deployment of the NZDF rotation to Bamiyan known as CRIB 19 (September 2011-April 2012). Besides the suicide, the inadequate training of CRIB 19 prior to deployment to Bamiyan has already been reported (as have complaints about the training of the ill-fated CRIB 20, which suffered five combat deaths in two ambushes). CRIB 19 only had three weeks (rather than five) of training prior to deployment (a 40 percent reduction), with some modules apparently taught on the flights into the theater or upon arrival. The deployment was also abruptly extended from six to eight months. The soldier killed himself in the last month of that extended deployment.
It appears that the NZDF is trying to suppress a full report on the command failures involved. The excuse that CRIB 19 could not receive full training prior to deployment due to RWC duties is laughable and an insult to the public’s intelligence. For example, since rotations to Bamiyan were planned well in advance, does it really seem plausible that those designated for deployment were diverted to crowd control and other logistical support connected to the RWC rather than to combat or at least conflict zone preparations? With a complement of 6000 Army and another 6000 in the Air Force and Navy, could not 100-200 soon-to-be deployed soldiers and sailors been spared RWC duties?
Given that there were/are serious hand-off and hand-on issues involving PRT/NZDF command leadership and personnel changes in foreign theaters, can it be true that the RWC threw a spanner into what was by that decision time an opened and extended international security commitment known locally as a longer tour of NZDF duty and commitment to major ISAF allies?
Put shorty: did successive New Zealand governments commit troops to Afghanistan (and Bamiyan) under false or changing pretenses and then blamed rugby for the contradictions in its policy enforcement?
As an aside, it should be noted that the size of the NZDF PRT contingent grew steadily over the years, from around 50 in the first rotation to nearly 200 in the last. That is one indication of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan during the course of the Bamiyan PRT mission. It would also indicate that more rather than less conflict-related training prior to deployment was advisable given the obvious mission creep.
If CRIB 19 personnel were diverted to RWC duties to the extent that their training time was shortened before they deployed into a combat zone and then their deployment was extended by two months without notice and without the usual leave provisions, then that is a command failure. Worse yet, if–and I emphasize that this is only an if–the training time was shortened as a result of cost-cutting measures undertaken by the NZDF as part of the government’s across-the-board spending cuts, then it was a political as well as a command failure. Whatever the case, the reasons for the shortened training needs to be explicated in better detail than the simple “they were on RWC duty” line.
After all, sending people into harms way without adequate training is nothing short of criminally negligent.
Whatever happened to the disinfectant impact that the light of public scrutiny has on government (and this case NZDF) behavior? If ever there was a need for such light, it is in the case of CRIB 19.
Journalist John Stephenson is a person of high integrity and a strong memory. He does not report anything until he is exactly certain he has the facts correct. Prime Minister John Key has a difficult relationship with the truth and suffers from memory loss well in advance of his age. He responds to unwanted or contrary facts and opinion with derision, distraction or insult.
John Key says that the SAS is in Bamiyan after the dual ambushes of NZDF troops to provide logistical and intelligence support. He initially said that only four SAS officers were dispatched but now admits there could be a couple of others in Bamiyan as well. John Stephenson reports that the SAS are actively engaged in the hunt for those who ambushed and killed NZDF personnel, and that their numbers exceed those offered by the PM.
Given their track records, if I had to take the word of one against the other, I would take the word of John Stephenson.
I also think that it is perfectly fine and natural for the SAS to deploy to Bamiyan after the ambushes. After all, the NZDF has been the lead ISAF force in that province since 2002 so has the best (albeit insufficient) knowledge of terrain, transit routes, local politics and the nature of the enemy. The SAS’s most basic role is long-range patrol, infiltration and surveillance. Thus they are a natural fit for the job of hunting down those responsible for the deadly attacks on NZ soldiers. The hunt for the killers involves but is not reducible to utu or revenge. It is about letting the Taliban know that attacks on the NZDF during the process of withdrawal from Bamiyan will not be tolerated. The Taliban understand utu. It is in fact part of their fighting culture. To not engage the SAS with the purpose of delivering a lethal response would be seen as a sign of weakness and encourage more attacks. Bringing the SAS into the equation reduces that possibility.
The Bamiyan PRT consists of approximately 4 platoons with an engineering and medical complement. The SAS officers deployed after the ambushes likely have assumed command of those platoons in order to sharpen the latter’s respective patrol skills. Although bad for the conventional officers who likely were relieved of their duties in the wake of the ambushes (one of them was seriously injured in the first attack), this is a smart thing to do given the worsening security situation in Bamiyan. It would also not be surprising if SAS enlisted personnel were sent to reinforce those platoons with their sharpened combat skills.
Since all of this is pretty well understood in military circles, the question begs as to why Mr. Key insists with a cover story that is patently bogus. Has his experience as a money trader made him believe that he can bluff, hedge and bluster his way out of every corner? If so, then his condition is pathological and undermines his mana. After all, what worked amongst the closed community of money traders does not always work in an open society with a critical press and a political opposition looking for cracks in his leadership facade. With John Stephenson as his main counter when it comes to what the NZDF is really doing in Afghanistan, Key is on a hiding to nothing when he persists with his obfuscation on military-security matters.
Although I have no technical expertise in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), I have discussed in various fora the military, intelligence, domestic security and political implications of their use now and in the future. The hard fact is that, bad press notwithstanding, UAVs (aka “drones”) are here to stay and will dominate the air space in the years to come. Already the US air force is training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. Ninety percent of what drones do is non-lethal: reconnaissance; surveillance; search and rescue; maritime patrol; signal, thermal, optic and other forms of technical intelligence gathering; geological exploration and terrain mapping–the applications of these types of platform are many and will continue to grow in the years ahead.
The utility of drones is due to a simple calculation: the three “Ds.” They do jobs that are dangerous and/or dirty, and they do them dispassionately. To this can be added the fact that their operational costs of drones are less than those of manned aircraft and they do not expose pilots to the physical risks of flying. That combination guarantees that policy-makers will look to UAVs as the future of military and law enforcement aviation even if manned aircraft remain the bulk of commercial and private aviation for the foreseeable future.
Lethal drones such as the infamous Predators are constantly being refined so that their acceptable Circular Error Probable (CEP)–the chances that a missile fired from the UAV will fall within 100 feet of the target crosshair center–is now greatly increased. Since they loiter at 15,000 feet for up to 36 hours, US drone pilots (who work in 12 hour shifts and who must have experience flying manned aircraft prior to their assignment as drone pilots) spend hours and days watching a potential target before pulling the trigger. The protocols governing the kill shot are quite tight (for example, no shots at family compounds or while the targeted individual(s) is or are in the vicinity of innocents), which contrary to popular opinion has greatly reduced the collateral damage occasioned by drone strikes when compared to the early days of their use.
In fact, manned aircraft continue to cause the bulk of unintended civilian deaths in Central Asia, which most often is the fault of faulty or misleading tactical intelligence on the ground (the use of misinformation by local informants acting for their own purposes has been a major contributor to the unintended civilian deaths caused by air strikes). As a remedy, special forces teams are increasingly being used to track, spot and verify legitimate targets in conflict zones (to include Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as Afghanistan).
Although there have been many protestations about the use of lethal drones (so far the US is the only country to use them in anger), it is interesting to note that Pakistan has never attempted to intercept US drones operating in Pakistani air space even though the latter are slow, not particularly maneuverable and relatively easy to spot by electronic means (the recent downing by Israeli forces of an Iranian drone operated by Hezbollah demonstrates the case). This is not to say that drone incursions into the sovereign air space of foreign countries are always or even generally acceptable. What the different responses suggest is that the Pakistanis may not be aggrieved by US drone operations as they claim to be.
To be sure, the US military has tighter protocols governing lethal drones than does the para-military arm of the CIA. That has led to disagreements within the US security apparatus about who should be in control of lethal drones and under what circumstances are they to be used. The president currently has to authorize the CIA strikes, which are mostly directed at suspected jihadis operating in failed states. The military has a bit more latitude in targeting militants or insurgents in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, although all lethal strikes must be authorized by the chain of command. As of yet, that debate about unifying the command and control of lethal drones is unresolved and both the US military and the CIA continue to deploy armed and unarmed drones in foreign theaters using their own set of criteria (which if largely overlapped are not identical).
That is what brings me to the major point of this post: the fact that the legal apparatus governing the employment of drones in the international as well as the domestic arenas is very underdeveloped when compared with the technologies themselves. Already 60 countries employ drones, and domestic security agencies in a host of countries have explored their usage. The US uses them for border control and Coast Guard purposes, and true to form, some police department in Texas is reported to have expressed interest in a lethal version that could also dispense non-lethal crowd control justice from above.
Yet in no case are the legal protocols governing the use of drones in domestic arenas as well developed as are those used by the US military when engaged in foreign conflicts. This is worrying because the potential for abuse is great. UAV technology has outpaced the legislative framing of their fair use not only in undemocratic states but in liberal democracies as well.
New Zealand is not different in this regard. The Army and Navy are exploring drone technologies, as are other non-military government agencies. The Department of Conservation already has deployed a drone for geothermal and geographic research. The police are interested in UAV platforms as a substitute or complement to helicopters and terrestrial patrol vehicles. It is only a matter of time before drones are a regular presence in New Zealand skies, and the Civil Aviation Authority is already being tasked with drafting technical regulations governing their operations.
Even so, the legal structure governing the why, when, how and by who of UAV use in NZ is virtually nonexistent. Parliament appears disinterested in the subject and the agencies who would have the most use for drones have not been particularly proactive in drafting guidelines for their use. It is time that they did.
One reason is because the future of drones is not only in their greater use but in their increasingly varied configurations, to include miniaturization based on developments in nano technology. Consider this gem:
Sent to me by a friend borrowing from an unnamed source, the following blurb came with the photo.
“Is this a mosquito? No. It’s an insect spy drone for urban areas, already in production, funded by the US Government. It can be remotely controlled and is equipped with a camera and a microphone. It can land on you, and it may have the potential to take a DNA sample or leave RFID tracking nanotechnology on your skin. It can fly through an open window, or it can attach to your clothing until you take it in your home. Given their propensity to request macro-sized drones for surveillance, one is left with little doubt that police and military may look into these gadgets next.”
UPDATE: The source for the photo is this: http://www.snopes.com/photos/technology/insectdrone.asp
In light of the implications of developments in UAV technology and the growth in their employment, it seems appropriate that New Zealand confront the legal aspects of said use. New Zealand could, for example, be the first country to prohibit the use of lethal drones either in foreign conflicts or for domestic security (no other country has of yet discounted the use of drones for lethal purposes). Likewise, because there are no regional or international protocols governing their use, New Zealand could try to introduce resolutions in international and regional bodies that would lead to the regulation of UAVs on a broader level. At present the field of UAV operations is basically uncharted, much less regulated, so the opportunity now exists to try to match advances in UAV technology and deployment with advances in the legal architectures governing them.
Since New Zealand has in the past shown initiative and boldness in enacting policy with both domestic and international import, the field of UAV regulation might be another way in with it can demonstrate its fore-sightedness when it comes to areas of universal concern.
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.
It may seem insensitive to ask questions about the ambush that killed two and wounded six NZDF troops in Bamiyan, but I do not trust the government or NZDF brass to come clean on what really happened. They have spent too much time lying about the real security situation in Bamiyan and the real nature of what NZDF troops are doing there and elsewhere, such as during the SAS deployment.
The official story is that Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) personnel were ambushed in a village when they went to arrest a suspect, suffered losses, and called for reinforcement from the NZDF. The village is located in a narrow high mountain valley. Four NZDF patrols were in the area and at least two responded, although it took 2 hours for the convoy to slowly climb up to the village. The original story was that after laying down suppressing fire, an NZDF armored vehicle was hit by an “anti-tank rocket,” resulting in one NZDF death, and when the troops dismounted to secure the area another was killed and the others were wounded by a separate group of insurgents hiding in the surrounding terrain (it is unclear if some of the wounded were injured in the missile attack on the armored vehicle). A subsequent official version states that both soldiers were killed by rifle fire from a distance of 50-100 meters after they dismounted from the armored vehicle. A number of insurgents are claimed to have been killed, and 17 were seen withdrawing from the area carrying their dead and wounded. No enemy bodies were recovered although two insurgents were captured.
My questions are these:
Knowing that the valley was narrow with much high ground cover above the village in question, and given the time it took to reach the scene, why did the reinforcements not dismount, spread out and walk into the fire zone rather than drive all the way in? I say this because a standard guerrilla tactic, which has many variations, is the “sucker ploy” whereby a small ambush is staged on local forces so that the call for reinforcements is made. A second, larger ambush is staged using better cover and heavier weapons on the reinforcements, which in Afghanistan are inevitably foreign. The real target is the reinforcing forces, and faulty intelligence feeds are often used to lure the initial responders to the scene. The idea is to hit the reinforcements hard and disengage as rapidly as possible.
One way of preventing losses to such a sucker ploy is to have infantry dismount away from the point of contact and walk in from a range of 300-500 meters in a spread formation so as to minimize the risk of mass casualties and to provide better coverage of the tactical battle space. This is especially true for theaters in which the enemy uses remotely triggered IEDs as a tactical weapon against armored columns. Such a counter-move is taught as a basic defensive measure in most infantry courses.
One alternative that conventional armies rely on is to have an armored column carrying infantry move in tight on the enemy position, although this is usually an urban rather than rural tactic given tight space constraints and the limited lines of sight involved. It also assumes that the armor in question can withstand small arms fire, to include RPGs, at relatively close range. My question is therefore two-fold: why did the NZDF troops move in so close before dismounting, and what was the “armored” vehicle that was hit (and in fact, was any vehicle hit by “rocket” fire)? If one of the convoy vehicles was hit, what was it? An armored Humvee? An up-armoured Hilux? A LAV? If it was the latter (and I have seen video of NZDF LAVs being used in Bamiyan), what was the nature of the “anti-tank” munition used against it? Or was it hit by an RPG? I say this because one of the biggest flaws of the LAV, should it not be up-armored, is a relatively thin skin which is vulnerable to both RPGs and 50 caliber rounds. That flaw was the focus of much criticism during the debates about the LAV purchase, but the government and NZDF have consistently discounted the apparent vulnerabilities of the platform. Both the Humvee and Hilux, even if armored, are vulnerable to RPGs and large caliber rounds, to say nothing of IEDs.
>>Update: The NZDF have now reported that LAVs were involved and that one soldier was shot while sitting in the roof well position. The other was shot on the ground. There is no updated reports on whether the LAV took incoming small arms or RPG fire. Sanctuary and I discuss the issue of LAV vulnerability to such fire in the first two comments below.<<
Another question is about the report that 17 insurgents were seen leaving the scene, moving towards an area “not under the control of coalition forces” carrying their dead and wounded. First of all, the Taliban do not carry their dead, as that would be suicidal given that it would slow them down and make them vulnerable to pursuing forces or air strikes. Although they do at times carry their wounded, that also slows them down and makes them vulnerable to hot pursuit, particularly if they are climbing away from the battle zone. So why the claim that Taliban dead and wounded were being carried away and why no pursuit? What does “area not under control of coalition forces” mean? Given that the fire fight was supposedly over in 2-3 minutes according to the NZDF, how were the enemy forces able to escape in full sight of the patrol? Were they fired upon while retreating?
Why was no air cover called in before or after the initial ambush? Since the dead and wounded were evacuated by chopper in a relatively short period of time once the call for help went out, that means that air assets were in the vicinity (there is an airfield at the Bamiyan PRT). Were they otherwise occupied?
From what I gather in the press, this looks like a classic sucker ploy double ambush in which the NZDF was specifically targeted. That no enemy bodies or wounded were recovered, and that no pursuit of the fleeing insurgents was undertaken, suggests that this was a significant tactical victory for the “bad guys” (I presume that no pursuit was launched because the priority was to stabilize the wounded and secure a landing zone for the rescue choppers). It also suggests that there may be some issues with the patrol and response tactics used by the NZDF, particularly if these had been used before and established a pattern of behavior that the Taliban/insurgents could observe and learn from. The patrol in question was in its third month of deployment (the 19th PRT rotation), so questions of experience and local familiarity on the part of the troops involved are fair to raise.
I do not mean to question the actions or valor of the NZDF troops, nor do I claim any superior military expertise. I certainly do not have all of the facts on the ground. I can only speculate on what has been reported by the mainstream press so far. However, I do know a little about irregular warfare and about the tactical nature of that warfare in the Afghan theater. It is for that reason that I ask these questions, which I hope someone in the mainstream press will be courageous enough to ask of the government and NZDF. After all, there is still at least another year to go before the NZDF withdraws from Bamiyan, and whoever conducted this attack is clearly signaling what is in store in the months ahead.
Postscript: In his latest press conference held today Gen. Rhys-Jones stated that the NZDF troops were not specifically targeted, but were fired upon by insurgents protecting a valuable bomb-maker who was the object of the initial NSD search. He claimed that both soldiers killed as well as those that were wounded were dismounted when struck by small arms fire, and that the insurgents engaged in a fighting retreat before air strikes were called in. He asserted that the insurgents “took a battering” even though no bodies are found. This raises more questions even as it answers some of those outlined above. I shall leave it for readers to decide whether to take the General at his good word.
Posted on 13:57, June 28th, 2012 by Pablo
On June 20 New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta signed the Washington Declaration, which specifies priority areas of cooperation between the militaries of both countries. The Washington Declaration is a follow-up to the Wellington Declaration signed by New Zealand and the US in November 2010 (with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Murray McCully doing the honors). The first was a general statement of principle with regard to New Zealand-US security cooperation and bilateral foreign relations. The follow-up provides more detail on the specific areas in which military cooperation will occur. These are counter-terrorism, maritime patrol, anti-piracy operations and humanitarian relief. The details of the logistics involved in those areas have not been finalized and/or made public, and in the case of counter-terrorism operations they are not likely to be divulged beyond a general statement. This has as much to do with New Zealand public sensitivities as it does with US public opinion or classified operational details (for example, the role of the NZSAS in joint counter-terrorism operations with US forces).
What is different in the Washington Declaration is that the military-to-military bilateral relationship is now taking concrete shape, whereas the Wellington Declaration was a diplomatic opening rather than a definitive outlining of military areas in which joint operations and exercises will occur.
Robert Ayson described the relationship as a defacto alliance between the US and New Zealand. Professor Ayson used the phrase because the US and New Zealand are not entering a formal alliance agreement but a “strategic partnership.” An alliance is essentially a contract with mutual obligations; a partnership is a looser arrangement in which obligations are voluntarily assumed but not contractually defined, binding or specified. Partnerships can be reviewed and modified on a case-by-case or temporal basis, whereas alliances commit the parties to treaty-strength obligations that require a major diplomatic rupture for them to be abrogated. This distinction theoretically gives the US and New Zealand a greater degree of flexibility in their relations with each other on military issues. That is diplomatically advantageous for New Zealand, which seeks to preserve its image and reputation for foreign policy independence, and also avoids domestic voter backlash to the resumption of something akin to the ANZUS alliance so spectacularly undone by New Zealand’s 1985 non-nuclear announcement. The Labour, Green and Mana parties, in particular, would have been very resistant to the restoration of a formal military alliance with the US, so on political grounds the strategic partnership agreement works out very well domestically as well as bilaterally.
In practice, the strategic partnership with the US aligns New Zealand with other “first tier” US security partners in the Western Pacific Rim such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. This is important for the New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) as it seeks to integrate more closely with Australian Defense Force operational doctrine, training and equipment (as was suggested by the NZDF 2010 Defense White Paper) at a time when Australia and the US are deepening their bilateral security ties (evident in the recently announced agreement to forward base a US Marine rapid response force in Darwin). Ayson is right in that the NZDF will now be working side by side with the US military on a regular and continuous basis in specified areas (such as the upcoming RIMPAC naval exercises that the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) has joined for the first time in two decades), although NZ will have a little more leeway in refusing US requests to join in foreign conflicts than if it had signed a formal alliance agreement that required both parties to come to their respective defense.
The resumption of near-complete bilateral military ties between New Zealand and the US is not a surprise. The 5th Labour government (1999-2008) started the rapprochement with the US post 9/11, and the National governments that followed it have openly embraced the prospect of finally overcoming the post-ANZUS freeze in security relations (with the exception of intelligence-sharing, which never suffered the curtailment of ties seen in military relations). Labour was wary of being seen as getting too close to the US, since that could jeopardize its reputation for an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy stance, particularly amongst non-aligned and small states. National prefers to embrace the US more whole-heartedly, in part because of the belief that there will eventually be economic as well as military benefits in doing so (such as via the Transpacific Partnership trade agreements currently being negotiated by the US, New Zealand and seven other Pacific Rim states). The idea behind National’s approach appears to be to use the improved military ties with the US as a hedge against the rise of The People’s Republic of China (PRC) by countering or balancing increased economic dependence on the PRC with the strengthening of economic and military ties with the US and other pro-Western nations along the Pacific periphery. National seems to believe that this balancing act (or straddling of fences), continues the tradition, or at least appearance of independence in foreign affairs.
That may be a mistake because independence in foreign affairs is most often predicated on neutrality with regards to foreign conflicts or great power rivalries. In aligning itself more closely with the US on military matters, New Zealand loses that appearance of neutrality in international security affairs. The New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Defense ministries may believe that this is the best hedge against attempts by the PRC to exploit its economic relationship with New Zealand (since the PRC is clearly the dominant partner in the bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with New Zealand and has much leverage on New Zealand when it comes to Chinese market access as well as exports and investment from the PRC to New Zealand). Balancing economic dependence on China with strengthened security ties with the US (and its allies) may appear to National to be the best way of New Zealand having its cake and eating it.
Strengthening of political ties with the US is part of National’s larger policy of reaffirming diplomatic alignment with traditional partners. The belief is that New Zealand shares more in terms of core values with these traditional partners due to the Anglo-Saxon liberal democratic traditions that bind them together, rather than the mixed Confucian-Communist values that underpin the core beliefs of the Chinese political elite (or the Islamic beliefs of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern trading partners). Even if the PRC was to continue growing economically at a pace similar to the last decade (which now seems improbable), it seems prudent under this logic for National to reaffirm its Western heritage, joint vision and general orientation until such a time as China and other non-Western authoritarian states begin to open up politically. Reaffirming political ties to the US and other traditional allies does not undermine New Zealand’s position with Asian democracies like India, South Korea, Taiwan or Japan, or with Southeast Asian democracies (such as they are) like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. All of these countries, as well as Southeast Asian authoritarian states such as Singapore and Viet Nam, fear the rise of China as a military power and/or economic hegemon in the Western Pacific, and therefore welcome any counter-balancing efforts on the part of the US and its strategic partners and military allies. The political alignment with the US also fits in line with the foreign policy approaches of Australia and the UK, and reasserts New Zealand’s position within that informal alliance structure (Canada is part of it as well).
There are benefits for both the US and New Zealand in this restored relationship. The benefits for New Zealand are that the NZDF will get to conduct exercises and operations with the most hardened, experienced and technologically advanced military in the world. That will expose it to the latest in US strategic doctrine and tactics. It may also result in the US providing military equipment to and training opportunities for New Zealand that it otherwise could not afford. It will reassure New Zealand of the implicit US defense guarantee in the event that New Zealand were to be threatened or attacked (to include economic coercion by the likes of the PRC). It may lead to closer economic ties, although that remains an open and much debated question (there is a large literature on security partners being preferential economic partners because of the mutual trust and dependence established between them. Most of that literature was written during the Cold War and things changed after it ended, but now with the emergence of the PRC and other powers some of those old assumptions are being resurrected and reviewed, especially in the US).
For the US the agreement is win-win. It gets an immediate benefit from securing another strong security partner in the South Pacific, one that has considerable “local knowledge” and relative influence in South Polynesia. This accords with the shift in US strategic emphasis to the Asia-Pacific, which is part of a long-term strategy of ring-fencing Chinese attempts at blue water expansion into the region. In signing New Zealand to a bilateral military partnership similar to those of other Western Pacific states, the US has moved to establish a security cordon in the region, something that also serves as a force multiplier in the measure that US strategic partners commit military assets to a common cause. New Zealand’s reputation as an honest broker in international affairs gives it diplomatic cover in this effort.
More importantly, after 25 years of estrangement and New Zealand foreign policy independence, at least with regard to international security affairs, the US has finally broken down New Zealand’s resolve and returned it to the fold. Post 1985 wooing of New Zealand began during the Clinton administration and continued with his successors. 9/11 accelerated the reconciliation (under a Labour government), and the Wellington Declaration codified it. In many respects, the US’s ability to re-gain New Zealand’s signature on a bilateral military-security agreement is a triumph of long-term great power diplomacy: after years of distance it secured junior military partnership from a small democratic state that prides itself on its modern history of foreign policy independence. To be sure, fluid global conditions since 1990 have contributed to the evolution in US-New Zealand bilateral relations, but at present it appears that the US has finally managed the contretemps of New Zealand non-nuclearism with diplomatic aplomb and to its ultimate benefit.
The negatives for New Zealand could be that the US will pressure it to increase its spending on defense, now below 1 percent of GDP, to something more in line with Australia’s two percent per annum. This would be on a par with other US strategic partners and around the NATO average, but will be politically unpalatable amongst New Zealand voters, who tend to under-appreciate defense when compared with education, health and welfare. Thus any such request will be politically thorny for a New Zealand government. However, the US can leverage the fact that the NZDF is not “pulling its weight” in the strategic partnership (the Australians already say this).
For example, although the Washington Declaration speaks about closer bilateral military cooperation in the areas of maritime patrol and anti-piracy, New Zealand has very little in the way of long-range patrol and interdiction capabilities. Specifically, New Zealand only has two blue water ANZAC-class frigates, two off-shore patrol vessels and six long-range P-3 patrol aircraft, and its multi-purpose ship, the HMNZS Canterbury, spends more time in port being repaired than at sea, As for its logistical lift capability, not only is the HMNZS Canterbury unreliable, but the RNZAF C-130 fleet, at five aircraft, is also small and already stretched in terms of its operational readiness. Thus the US and Australia can pressure New Zealand governments to increase spending on defense so as to be able to perform the responsibilities and tasks that are expected of it as a strategic partner in the areas designated as joint priority.
There is the risk of being drawn into US conflicts that have nothing to do with New Zealand or an imminent threat to it. Even if New Zealand has leeway in terms of refusing a US request to get involved in a non-immediate foreign conflict, once bilateral military ties are established and consolidated they constitute a source of leverage on the part of the US since any retaliatory cancellation or disruption of the bilateral relationship will hurt the NZDF more than it will the US military. Moreover, the bilateral diplomatic backlash from a public refusal to work with the US in a foreign conflict theater could overcome any domestic and international support for the move.
There is also the more immediate issue of diplomatic fallout over the partnership. The more that New Zealand is seen as aligning itself with the US on security matters, the more US rivals such as Russia, the PRC, and various Latin American and Middle Eastern states will see it as a tool of US foreign policy and military strategy. Even other “independent” states like Uruguay, Finland, Costa Rica, Estonia and Turkey may begin to recast their view of New Zealand as an honest broker in international affairs. That is why National’s belief that its fence-straddling or hedging strategy will continue the image of independence may not work out to be the case, which could have adverse diplomatic consequences.
(The original version of this essay appears at 36th-Parallel.com)
When John Key authorized the re-deployment of an SAS company to serve as counter-terrorism advisors to the Afghan Police’s Crisis Response Unit (CRU) in 2009, he was authorizing a mission that differed from the long-range patrol, tracking and infiltration missions that are the mainstay of SAS deployments and which were the basis for its original deployment in that theater from 2001-2005. In doing so he was placing the SAS at the forefront of the urban guerrilla war in and around Kabul (to include Wardak Province) that was part of the Afghan resistance’s two-pronged (urban and rural) irregular war conducted against the foreign occupying force led by the US and NATO under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). By the time Key authorised the deployment the security situation in Afghanistan had evolved into a civil war involving the Western-backed Karzai regime, the Pakistani-backed Haqqani network, and various Taliban factions based in and outside of Afghanistan (with Pakistan facilitating cross-border cover for those based inside its territory).
The SAS inherited the counter-terrorism advisor mission from the Norwegian special forces, who had advised the CRU from 2007-2009. The CRU has its origins in 2005, so rather than a new unit it is almost seven years old and has had foreign professional military training and advice for nearly five years. In most modern militaries the time taken for specialisation beyond basic training (such as sniping, sapping, intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorist response) varies from 6 to 18 months. That means that the CRU, which has 285 members, is lagging behind when it comes to being able to autonomously respond and fight on its own.
The SAS initially sent a light company’s worth of troops (70) in 2009, but the number has been reduced to 38 in the last year. The job consists of providing training on-base in which counter-terrorist assaults are mounted in various scenarios, using abandoned buildings, vehicles and other simulations that replicate the dense tactical environment in which the CRU must operate. Close quarter clearing and entering, airborne rappelling, hostage rescue and a host of other skills are initially imparted in these exercises. But the mission also includes accompanying the CRU into real situations, which means taking leadership roles in responding to live incidents when the CRU forces prove unable to cope on their own. As Taleban attacks on symbolic and military targets have increased over the last year in concert with the announcement that the US will be withdrawing the bulk of its forces by 2014, with other ISAF members already doing so, the pace of these “live” responses has accelerated as well. Most of the operations conducted by the SAS/CRU consist of pre-emptive strikes against imminent threats based on intelligence flows provided by Afghan and ISAF forces. A smaller percentage is dedicated to responding to terrorist incidents in progress such as the attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel and British High Commission. The accelerated pace of operations now sees the SAS/CRU deployed in “live” mode 2-3 times a week on average.
Urban guerrilla warfare has no fixed lines or fronts. In fact, by definition the battle space in a guerrilla war is amorphous and permeable. Thus the counter-terrorism mission is a combat mission within an irregular warfare context. Training and advising in such contexts means involvement in close-quarter small unit kinetic operations, which given the dense (heavily populated and urbanised) environment in which they occurs means that support and leadership roles are indistinguishable to the enemy. Thus the SAS has always had a combat role in this mission.
It is evident that the CRU is not performing up to professional standard, particularly when confronted by a committed and well-prepared enemy. This may be due to a lack of will on member’s part, which in turn may be rooted in the deep divisions extant in Afghan society and in the knowledge that a post-ISAF political settlement that avoids massive bloodshed will have to include the Taliban and the Haqqanis. Under such conditions in may appear foolish to be closely identified with foreign forces working with the Karzai regime. That could sap the desire of some CRU members to engage robustly in the counter-terrorism effort, no matter how eager they may appear to their SAS advisors when back on base. This is compounded by faulty intelligence flows in which individuals or groups with personal vendettas supply misinformation about rivals so that ISAF forces, including the CRU/SAS, launch raids against innocent people. There is already at least one incident in which the SAS has engaged in an operation that resulted in the deaths of innocents based upon faulty intelligence. The manipulation of intelligence by Afghan sources, in other words, raises the probability that the SAS will be involved in the deaths of civilian non-combatants.
The SAS dilemma is compounded by the fact that, given CRU unreliability, the risks to SAS troopers increases every time they deploy with them. It is one thing to deploy with fellow SAS on long-range patrols or in a counter-terrorism situation. They are a tightly knit and cohesive fighting unit playing off the same tactical page. But adding the CRU to the mix brings with it a lack of discipline and resolve, which forces the SAS troops to compensate by leading by example. Doing so exposes them to a degree seldom seen when fighting on their own.
The latest raid that resulted in the second death of an SAS soldier in a month demonstrates the problem. In a pre-emptive raid against suspected bomb-makers (or a family feud, depending on who you believe), the SAS deployed 15 advisors along side 50 CRU troops. This is a ratio of 1 advisor for every 3.1 CRU soldiers. That is remarkably low if the SAS were merely “mentoring” in a support role. The fact that the SAS trooper was killed while climbing a ladder to gain a better vantage point on the compound in which the raid was taking place shows that even such basic tasks, usually assigned to the most expendable soldiers of lower-rank, are having to be done by SAS troops. This demonstrates a lack of faith in the competence or reliability of the CRU personnel and the need for first-responder proaction on the part of the SAS in such situations.
Given that the Afghan resistance have increased the tempo of their operations in and around Kabul, the likelihood is that the CRU/SAS will be involved in an increasing number of armed incidents. That may force the NZDF to re-increase its complement of SAS back to the original 70 personnel, and raises the question as to whether it will be asked to extend the SAS deployment past its March 2012 withdrawal date. Given the strategic dynamics at play in Afghanistan, that is a sticky question.
It also raises the question as to why Mr. Key has from the day he announced the re-deployment insisted that the SAS are in a non-combat “mentoring” and support role. The NZDF and Minister of Defense have now admitted that combat is part of the mission. Mr. Key continues to deny that it is so. Besides the lack of synchronization of the government PR spin, the question rises as to whether the government has misled the NZ public on the true nature of the mission, or the NZDF deliberately misled the Prime Minister and his cabinet on the matter at the time the request for SAS assistance was made by ISAF (it should be noted that Mr. Key’s agreement to redeploy the SAS was based on his eagerness to curry favor with the US, which may not have seen a trade deal as a reward but which has seen NZ elevated to the status of full US security partner with the signing of the Wellington Declaration of November 2010. This may well mean future involvement in US-led military operations that have little to do with NZ’s national security per se).
All of this makes the government and NZDF attacks on the credibility of Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager, two journalists who exposed the true nature of NZDF missions in Afghanistan and the duplicity surrounding them, all the more contemptible and desperate. It also was very stupid to do so because the conflict environment in which the SAS operates has deteriorated rather than improved since it arrived back in theater, which made the deaths and wounding of its personnel much more likely if not predictable. Once that began to happen (there have been about a half dozen SAS troopers wounded in combat on this mission), it was only a matter of time before the corporate media began to focus attention on the dubious explanations about the nature of the deployment. With that now happening the house of cards that is Mr. Key’s justification for authorizing it has begun to crumble, and it will not be surprising if senior NZDF heads will roll as a result.
Timing is everything, so they say. The Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was a masterpiece of symbolic defiance. Apparently modeled on the Mumbai attacks of 2008 (which suggests the possibility of links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) Islamicists that carried out that attack and which are reported to have links with the Pakistani Intelligence Service ISI), the assault comes on the very week that overall security responsibility for Kabul was being transferred from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Afghan hands. It comes in wake of the announcement of the US withdrawal plan, which sees 33,000 US troops headed home between July 2011 and September 2012, and the bulk of the remaining 70,000 withdrawn by late 2014. It occurred during a conference held at the hotel between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on the subject of “anti-terrorism,” considered against the backdrop of an overall ISAF reduction in presence along with the US military draw down.
The first areas to be handed over to Afghan control are Kabul and Bamiyan Province. NZ troops are stationed in both places, with the SAS company located in Kabul while the majority of the other NZDF personnel serve with the PRT in Bamiyan. If the Taliban logic holds true, they will accelerate the pace of attacks on remaining ISAF forces in areas that are handed over to Afghan security control. It is therefore plausible to think that NZDF troops will be the subject of targeted hostilities in both theaters, with the timing and intensity of Taliban attacks increasing. As the symbolic centre of the foreign occupation, Kabul is a target rich environment for urban guerrillas. In Bamiyan the local ethnic Hazari population, long victims of Taliban discrimination, now must ponder a post-PRT future in which the Taliban will be a major player. That advises them to look to negotiate with the Taliban on post-PRT terms and to consequently distance themselves from the PRT. That will have an impact on tactical intelligence gathering as well local logistics, to say nothing of the security of the NZDF personnel stationed there. PRT force protection, rather than combat patrols, could well be the objective of the day once Afghan security forces assume control in Bamiyan.
In terms of the assault itself, the Intercontinental Hotel operation demonstrated sophistication and professionalism. The combined grenade, IED and small arms fire tactic involved a mix of attackers, apparently disguised as guests and Afghan police. It is speculated that some may have checked into the hotel days before the assault, while other reports have the 9-man assault squad launching the attack from the hill that the hotel backs on to. The five rings of road block blast barriers on the road leading to the hotel were ineffectual against the assault. Afghan security forces at and around the hotel are said to have run rather than engage the attackers from the onset, which allowed them to move beyond the lobby and pool areas and into the floors above. While the bulk of the guerrillas fought floor to floor and room to room with the eventual responders, a few made the roof and used it to engage sniper fire on reinforcements (thereby demonstrating knowledge of standard counter-terrorism tactics using troops rappelling from helicopters onto rooftops). The fact that the battle lasted 5 hours indicates the planning and tenacity of the Taliban fighters, with the last one killing himself at 7AM (the attack began at 10PM).
That is where mentoring comes in. “Mentoring” in the context of the NZSAS relationship with the Afghan anti-terrorist force known as the Crisis Response Unit means training and combat support. The SAS trains the CRU and follows them into battle in incidents precisely like the hotel siege. That is what they train for, in a variety of scenarios. Should the CRU vacillate or prove ineffectual, then the SAS mentors assume leadership roles and coordinate the counter-attack. The involves them at the initial point of contact with the enemy–at the pointy end, if you will. The two wounded troopers were engaged in such roles, which along with the duration of the battle suggests that the initial CRU response was less than optimal.
If reports are true that SAS snipers platformed on a NATO Blackhawk hovering near the hotel killed the rooftop snipers (at night), it will have brought valuable and highly specialised combat experience to to the unit. Re-taking the hotel will have given the rest of the SAS team (reported as “around a dozen”) equally important live fire exposure (and at least two scars). Should this scenario be true, from an SAS standpoint the engagement was a mixed bag, with the CRU not holding its own without help against a determined and prepared enemy, but where SAS troops combat tested a range of tactics and skills.
The bigger issue is what does this attack mean for ISAF and the NZDF. Let me suggest this: it means that whatever the technical skills and material improvements imparted by NZDF forces in reconstruction, nation-building and “mentoring” roles, the balance of forces vis a vis the Taliban indicates that their efforts have not prospered as hoped, and their security is increasingly compromised as a result.
The hallmark of professional militaries is that they are non-partisan, subordinate themselves to elected civilian leadership in exchange for corporate autonomy and serve the nation as a commoweal organisation–that is, as an agent providing a universal public good (in this case national defense). The same is true for intelligence agencies, which are supposed to provide objective, factual and politically neutral analysis of threats, current trends and longer-term strategic developments. Conversely, praetorian militaries (named after the Roman praetorian guards that made and unmade emperors) are highly politicised, overtly partisan, permeated by sectarian or class interests and prone to manipulating threat assessments or broader strategic evaluations for corporate or political gain.
The reason I make these distinctions is because there appears to be a disturbing trend at play within the NZDF. Evident in the official misrepresentations and dissembling about the reasons for, and rules of engagement governing the SAS re-deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, the NZDF appears to be following the NZSIS approach to its charter. That is worrisome because the SIS has shown itself to be extremely politicised and prone to praetorian behaviour under the protection of national security legislation that prevents transparency in the reporting and investigation of its activities. The Zaoui case, the branding of Jane Kelsey as a security threat, the spying on peace and environmental activists engaged in lawful dissent, the attempts to portray the Urewera 18 as something far more sinister than they are–all of this is symptomatic of the deep institutional malaise and anti-democratic propensities of the SIS. Hopes that the praetorian culture within the SIS would change with the appointment of Warren Tucker as director have been dashed as time goes by, and instead its powers of surveillance and scope of authority have been expanded under National-led reforms of the Terrorism Suppression Act and attendant security legislation.
That is why current developments within the NZDF are troubling. Unlike its intelligence counterpart, the NZDF has a reputation for professionalism and straight talk. That remains true for the bulk of the armed services, which for a small fighting force perform admirably within the budgetary and operational constraints incumbent upon them. But over the last decade or so the NZDF leadership–those of field and flag rank–have increasingly shown a propensity to dovetail their assessments with those of the government of the day. While consistency in approach between the military and civilian leadership is needed for security policy to be effective, this marrying of political interests has begun to look suspiciously like incipient “praetorianisation” of the NZDF. Rationales for foreign deployments, operational requirements, assessments of legal authority and liability, weapons procurement policy, justications for alliance commitments–in virtually every sphere of corporate interest the NZDF leadership appear to be taking their cue not from the objective requirements of the security environment in which NZ operates but from the political necessities of the government.
Although the Clark government manipulated the NZDF for its own purposes, this trend towards praetorianism has become amply evident with National in power, particularly in its reaffirming of security ties to the US (which is now confirmed by a “strategic partnership” codified in the Wellington Declaration of November 2010). This relationship certainly has benefits for the NZDF but it also has potential drawbacks in the measure that NZ is now tied to US (and Australian) strategic interests that are not necessarily those of NZ or which do not enjoy public support within it. There may be good reasons for this, but if so they have not been well enunciated and defended by the NZDF on autonomous grounds. Instead, without public consultation or debate, the government has agreed to the strategic partnership and the NZDF has followed the party line. The same is true for the Defence White Paper issued this past year, which rather than reflect a broad public consensus on the orientation and configuration of the NZDF given the security environment of the next decade, has arguably responded more to the internal logics of the defence establishment and the government (in other words, the public consultation process was ritualistic window-dressing on what amounted to the adoption of largely pre-determined decisions). None of this conforms to the military professional ideal in a democracy.
The politicisation of the NZDF leadership became acutely apparent in the response to Jon Stephenson’s article on the SAS in Afghanistan. The commander of the NZDF, General Rhys-Jones, parroted John Key’s slanderous denigration of the reporter and refused to consider the possibility that his predecessor, Sir Jerry Mateparae might have overlooked or whitewashed reports that the SAS were handing over prisoners to agencies involved in torture and violations of the Geneva Convention. There may be convincing reasons why this happened, but instead the NZDF closed ranks around Mateparae and Mr. Key, the former apparently out of corporate solidarity and the latter out of political obsequiousness. The trouble is that while the NZDF leadership and civilian policy-makers may find common defense in public stonewalling on matters of contentious security policy, it leaves troops in the field exposed to criminal accusations and undermines the professional ethics of the force as a whole.
That is not good. Although the NZDF is a long way off from being a coup-mongering praetorian military, the increased politicisation of its leadership is a troubling development. Obviously enough military leaders need to have good diplomatic skills and political sensitivities in order to ascend the ranks and interact with their civilian counterparts. There are certainly many–the majority–of NZDF officers who are full professionals. But for some in leadership roles to “spin” the military perspective to suit the political interests of the government of the day is a step too far, as it not only violates the responsibilities of the leadership to the troops that serve under them, but also the duty the military has to the nation as a whole as part of its commonweal orientation.
Perhaps the root of the problem of military politisation in NZ is more fundamental. Because NZ does not have a constitution NZDF uniformed personnel do not swear an oath to a foundational charter. Instead, they swear a loyalty oath to the Government and the Crown (“Crown” presumably referring to the State but which could also be taken as reference to the Queen given NZ’s ongoing allegiance to the monarchy). Little wonder, then, that the corporate logic of the NZDF parallels that of the SIS, because at the end of the day and regardless of the rhetorical commitment to the nation as a whole, its sworn loyalty is less than universal. In other words, rather than a commonweal organisation at the service of the State and Nation, it is merely a tool of government, with all of the partisan implications that entails.
Posted on 16:42, May 8th, 2011 by Pablo
Helen Clark understood well the axiom that in politics the best defense is a good offense. She was a master of the art of character assassination and discrediting the opponent. This was particularly true when the opponent was not a politician but someone from outside of the partisan divide who pointed out a dubious policy decision or raised ethical questions about the behavior of her government. I know this first-hand, because I was the subject of one of her attacks (with regard to the role of former ambassador Richard Wood, then director of the SIS, in the Ahmed Zaoui case). She also knew the value of having everyone in her government play off of the same sheet of music when it comes to cover-ups, hence the “lying in unison” refrain. Love her or hate her, Ms. Clark knew how to play dirty.
When National came to office it argued that it was going to end the sort of practices Ms. Clark was so adept at. But as it turns out, it has done exactly the opposite and instead deepened the dark “art” of shooting the bearer of bad news. The latest instance of this is its treatment of independent war correspondent Jon Stephenson. Mr. Stephenson is by all objective accounts a remarkably brave and serious journalist. He is also a thorn in the side of the NZDF. The reason is because he travels independently to conflict zones in which the NZDF is deployed, foregoes the embedded journalist niceties that accrue to the likes of TV talking heads, and asks hard questions about the actions of Kiwi soldiers as well as the polices and rules of engagement under which they operate. That line of inquiry does not conform to the scripted narrative that the NZDF would prefer that NZ audiences consume, so it makes the Defence brass uncomfortable. As a result some of the NZDF and Defence leadership are antagonistic towards Mr. Stephenson. The irony is that such antagonism does not extend down to the rank and file troops, many of who candidly share their views with Mr. Stephenson under conditions of anonymity. In fact, they are often the source of his insights into how the NZDF operates in combat environments. For his part Mr. Stephenson has repeatedly voiced his high regard for the integrity and professionalism of Kiwi soldiers, those in the SAS in particular. The animus, in other words, is not mutual.
In April Mr. Stephenson published an article in Metro magazine titled “Eyes Wide Shut.” In it he writes that in its previous and current deployments in Afghanistan the SAS transferred and continues to transfer prisoners to US and Afghan forces that have been implicated in abuses of the Geneva Convention. He makes very clear that the SAS does not abuse prisoners, although–contrary to the National government’s initial assertions–the SAS takes a lead role in counter-terrorism and search and destroy missions, kills adversaries as a matter of course (some of whom it turns out were not hostile but either misidentified or the victims of faulty intelligence), and detains and transfers prisoners to Afghan and US custody as part of its standard operating procedures. The trouble for the government is that after Labour withdrew the SAS from Afghanistan in 2005 in part because of concerns about the treatment of prisoners initially detained by the elite force, National turned around and re-deployed them in 2009 without getting ironclad assurances from either the US or the Karzai regime that prisoners detained by the SAS would be treated in strict accordance with the Geneva Convention. The lack of such assurances are what have forced UK forces serving in Afghanistan to refuse to hand over prisoners to the Afghan government and played a part in the Danish decision to withdraw their special forces from ISAF, so the concerns are wide-spread and well known. Yet, rather than wrestle with the ethical dilemmas involved, it appears that the NZ government has repeatedly misrepresented what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan, and on at least one occasion has played loose with the truth when asked about that role, to include, specifically, whether the SAS leads combat missions and takes prisoners on its own.
Mr. Stephenson’s article raises all of these troublesome points. Its well researched account of incidents in 2002 and 2010 raises questions about what National agreed to in 2009 that Labour could not stomach in 2005. It specifically questions General Jerry Mateparae, former NZDF head, current GCSB director and Governor-General-designate over his statements to parliament in 2010 that the SAS does not detain prisoners and does not lead combat engagements. It is damning stuff that should be the subject of an independent inquiry.
The government response has been to take a page out of Helen Clark’s book on character assassination, and then attempt to write it more crudely. Prime Minister John Key, current head of the NZDF Lieutenant General Richard Rhys-Jones and Minister of Defense “Dr.” Wayne Mapp have all attacked Mr. Stephenson as being “non-credible” and of having an anti-NZDF bias. Military sycophants like Ron Smith of Waikato University (who is reported to have a personal connection to General Mateparae) have accused Mr. Stephenson of having a “hidden agenda,” with the insinuation that the agenda is pro-Taliban as well as anti-NZDF. Although General Rhys-Jones has disputed some facts in the Metro article, Mr. Mapp has been forced to admit under questioning in parliament that the SAS does in fact lead combat missions, does detain prisoners and does indeed hand them over to Afghan or US authorities without proper follow up monitoring (worse yet, Mr. Mapp initially claimed that the NZ government has an arrangement with the Red Cross for the latter to monitor prisoners captured by NZDF forces once they are handed over to the Afghan authorities, but the Red Cross denies any such agreement exists, among other things because it only signs agreements with the governments holding prisoners, not with those who may have initially captured them).
The result of Mr. Stephenson’s reporting and its follow ups reveals that in effect, the National government re-committed the SAS either ignorant of what its operations would entail or fully cognizant of them, but then lied to the NZ public rather than admit the truth (or has the NZDF lie on its behalf). Either way it is not a good look.
Rather than own up to what was agreed to in 2009, the government is pursuing a campaign of character assassination against Mr. Stephenson. It cannot argue his facts so it is playing him instead. It is not surprising that a money-changer like Mr. Key would not have a strong ethical compass, or that a career politician like the good “Dr.” Mapp would weasel rather than front on the ethical dilemmas involved in the deployment. But it is unfortunate that the top military brass have joined in the campaign, regardless of whether or not they are simply trying to close ranks around General Mateparae. They of all people should know that the integrity of the force should come before politician’s political machinations.
If there are reasons of state behind the decision to commit the SAS back into Afghanistan under less than optimal ROEs (at least with regard to the treatment of prisoners), then they should be stated clearly and openly. It is quite possible that a majority of New Zealander’s would have no problem with the mistreatment of prisoners initially captured or detained by the SAS. However, if there are domestic political considerations behind the government’s apparently duplicitous approach to revealing the considerations involved and the terms under which the SAS was re-deployed, then the NZDF should not carry the water for it. Responsibility for the decision lies with the civilian command authority to which the uniformed crowd are ultimately subordinated, and if the NZDF has been asked to misrepresent the terms and conditions of the re-deployment, that is unethical as well as injurious to morale. Troops do not like to be pawns in some political game played by people with no experience in soldiering and no regard for their individual fate, which is why the NZDF leadership should come clean on what it has been asked to do and not do when it comes to its commitment of troops abroad.
In reporting on what the SAS does in Afghanistan, Jon Stephenson was just doing his job, in the time-honoured fashion of war correspondents. In that he is a rare bird in NZ, where flak-jacketed and helmeted media figures “report” in hostile theaters from “sanitised” positions miles away from the action that are surrounded by layers of armed security (i.e. these journalistic poseurs are kept away from real harm and instead are the guests of government-orchestrated field trips in the proximity of battle zones). It is because he adopts the independent, non-scripted line that Mr. Stephenson is being attacked, and in the measure that a democracy is only as good as the free flow of information allows it to be, the actions of this government against him are not only despicable, but a clear sign of the ingrained authoritarian (some would say bullying) ethos that permeates the NZ political elite.
The Greens have called for an independent inquiry and sensing a chance to wound National, Labour has joined them (since it can now use its 2005 decision to not continue the SAS deployment and objection to the 2009 re-deployment as ammunition against the government). Mr. Key has refused to agree to the demands, insisting that he is satisfied with NZDF explanations about the incidents Mr. Stephenson has reported on. What he really means is that he is applying the first rule of bureaucracy when it comes to handling prickly issues: CYA (Cover Yer A**e).
As a political community we should not allow the government to get away with such a cynical response, nor allow its slander of Jon Stephenson to go unchallenged. After all, basic principles of democratic accountability and NZ’s international reputation as a defender of human rights are at stake, as is Mr. Stephenson’s career.