Thoughts about Key’s Afghan PR Exercise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9 thoughts on “Thoughts about Key’s Afghan PR Exercise.

  1. What a rant. Pray tell, which former or future NZ PM would not look goofy in a flak jacket and helmet?

    You are critical that he met the top brass, but I’m picking you would be equally critical if he went all that way to Afghanistan and didn’t meet them.

    Then you expect Key to have hauled Karzai and McCrystal over the coals. Your expectations are unrealistic, considering our pathetically small contribution to the overall operations over there. Perhaps you have visions of Helen Clark thumping the table over human rights issues while signing the FTA deal with China. Yeah, right.

    And then you are critical of his transportation? I’m sure a Toyota van was available, maybe that would make you happy.

  2. That post was beneath you. I grew to respect one thing about Helen Clark. She did respect the memory of NZ Armed services.

  3. “Mr. Key managed to offend the Bayiman locals by trying to shake hands with a girl, a cultural taboo in that region.”

    Maybe he should have asked for her hand in marriage as his 3rd wife in exchange for 100 of our sheep. I suspect this would be more in accordance with their traditions.

  4. Mr. Key managed to offend the Bayiman locals by trying to shake hands with a girl, a cultural taboo in that region

    It’s astonishing that anyone who’s had their head outside their ass in the last 10 years would even need a prompter from MFAT to advise them against this. He’s really pushing his “just a dumb Kiwi” schtick way too far.

  5. What a rant. Pray tell, which former or future NZ PM would not look goofy in a flak jacket and helmet?

    Here is Massey meeting the troops in WW1:

    He isn’t wearing a uniform. That’s probably because HE ISNT A BLOODY SOLDIER.

    And while we have WW1 in the forefront of our minds, that ever keen to please nice man Mr. Key has apparently changed his tune on the SAS deployment because the troops there said they rather like killing the locals, and would happily stay if you wouldn’t mind. Now, apart from that sobbing you can hear – that’s Jesus over at MFAT – since when did the preferences of our soldiers matter a jot in foreign policy formation? We last tried that out in 1914-18, can you remind me how that worked out for us again Pat?

    Key has made himself out to be half-wit, fully deserving of Pablo’s excoriation.

  6. To be fair, Tom, Massey’s visit to France took place in both an era and a location where insurgent warfare was not such an issue, where battle lines on a map were clear representations of military realities, and where rear areas were generally extremely safe. In other words, he doesn’t really offer a template for Key to follow in terms of assuring his safety.

    I’m pretty sure that in wearing a flak jacket Key is simply taking precautions similar to most other civilians in the area. As mentioned elsewhere, journalists wear them, and I’ve seen plenty of photographs of UN and NGO administrators in Iraq wearing them too – wouldn’t be surprised if the situation in Afghanistan is parallel.

    Of course, reality is reality and symbolism is symbolism; political leaders are open to criticism that they’re indulging in militaristic posturing. But the Massey comparison isn’t necessarily the best way to demonstrate this. (Not least because Bill Massey was a horrible military glory hound)

  7. Although undiplomatic to a fault, the point of the rant (and indeed it is) is that although the trip itself had value (which I acknowledge in the post), its stage-management was poor at best. That, to my mind, undermined the message being sold.

  8. Stage-managed, sure. Another way to put it is that the press were allowed to come along for the ride.

    Which shows we have come full circle, from the time we were not allowed to know if the SAS were there or not. Now the press get to fly into their camps.

    The next logical progression of all this transparency is to get a journo and film crew to go along for the ride on missions, as the Poms occasionally do. Tracey Watkins may get her wish after all. I hope she is working out at the gym so she doesn’t slow them down.

  9. He isn’t wearing a uniform. That’s probably because HE ISNT A BLOODY SOLDIER.

    I thought the reason PM’s and presidents wore camo duds in war zones was to confuse would-be assassins:

    “Which one is the target?”
    “The guy in the suit!”

    BTW Tom, could you not find a picture of Peter Fraser visiting 2NZEF? (I think he wore a safari suit).

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