The measure of military commitment is taken in blood.

The death of Lt. Timothy O’Donnell in an ambush while on patrol in Bayiman province is a tragic but inevitable consequence of the NZDF participation in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. His death, the first in ten years since the killing of Private Leonard Manning in an ambush by Indonesian militias in East Timor, is a sad reminder of the bottom line when soldiers are sent into conflict zones. But that is a cost worth paying when the soldiers are volunteers, understand their orders and the risks involved, deploy willingly and enjoy the support of politicians and public back home. The latter depends on how the public perceives the conflict in question, which usually reduces to perceptions of immediate or proximate threat weighed against the costs and benefits presumably involved.

The costs of the NZDF deployment to Afghanistan are now clear and are likely to mount in the months ahead as Taliban sharpen their attacks in the build-up to ISAF withdrawal as of July 2011. The question for NZ is now not so much military as it is diplomatic and political: will the NZ public continue to support the deployment if casualties continue to mount, and will the National government have the political will to continue in the fight in the event of growing public opposition and the intangible diplomatic benefits to be accrued from ongoing participation?

Although it is a bit dated, I have explained why I believe the mission is worth continuing here. I have also explained why I believe that the ISAF mission is bound to change once the July 2011 withdrawal commencement date begins. As a follow up, I have written a short piece that will appear in a mainstream media outlet tomorrow on Lt. O’Donnell’s death in the context of a Taliban resurgence and switch to a “balloon” guerrilla strategy in which the Taliban retreats from large kinetic confrontations in Halmand and Kandahar provinces and regroups in areas such as Bayiman where the ISAF presence on the ground is thinner (i.e. when they get squeezed they pop up elsewhere rather than fight a superior force at the point of massed contact).

All indications are that the security situation in Afghanistan will get worse rather than better, if it ever does. ISAF commander General David Petraeus and US Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Millan have said as much. John Key has committed the NZDF to the Bayiman PRT until September 2011 and is considering extending the NZSAS deployment past its schedule end date of March 2011. But now that the costs of the mission are etched in blood, does he have the nerve, resolve and most importantly public support to keep that promise should things get worse in the months to come? Given that 2011 is an election year, will polls rather than principle drive his decision? One thing I believe will be certain. More Kiwi blood will flow in that forsaken land.

12 thoughts on “The measure of military commitment is taken in blood.”

  1. Pablo. Thanks for your insight into the situation, but after reading several of your pieces you offer much information, but little actual personal opinion as to what you think NZ’s ongoing involvement should be. Maybe you have professional or simply partisan political reasons not to do so, but as a leading analyst/commentator, surely it would be helpful for the NZ public to know what analysts/advisors like you think should happen. Otherwise the more sensationalist sections of our media will set the the agenda.

  2. will the NZ public continue to support the deployment

    I think you’ll find that opinion poll after opinion poll has showed a majority New Zealanders have never supported the war in Afghanistan.

    The public’s luke warm acceptance of the PRT was conditional on them never being in action with anyone and no one getting killed.

    New Zealanders have no appetite for imperial adventures in far off lands.

  3. Tom, I think the clearest conclusion you can draw is that the public is pretty evenly divided and to the extent they do hold a position, they don’t hold it very strongly. While the public clearly supported Clark’s “not without a UN mandate” position, nobody has managed to make any great ground by advocating a rapid withdrawal. Even Labour, calling for deescalation and the withdrawal of the SAS now, is doing so quietly and gently and has failed to gain any real support due to the stance. Likewise the Greens.


  4. nobody has managed to make any great ground by advocating a rapid withdrawal.

    But no one has run that line either.

    Given that New Zealanders, unlike the rest of the Anglosphere, have never brought into the whole war on terror meme and the significant anti-Americanism that is rife here I would say both our mainstream parties are yet again (surprise surprise) much more to the right than the general public on this issue, a fact tacitly recognised by the fact both Labour and National use the fig leaf of “security” to never talk about combat action by the SAS and the PRT has be sold (very effectively, if Russell Brown is any guide) to the public as a friendly Fulton-Hogan road gang who just happen to have some guns.

    John Key has made no effective case for our involvement beyond mouthing some simplistic and crude rubbish about fighting terrorism. I suspect from his lifestyle choices he is slavishly pro-American and therefore well out of kilter with the public on that score, something he manages to conceal from the voters ue to the usual sycophantic conservative media and excellent PR.

    One or two more deaths and public opinion will move quickly and overwhelmingly in favour of an immediate pull out.

  5. Given that New Zealanders, unlike the rest of the Anglosphere, have never brought into the whole war on terror meme and the significant anti-Americanism that is rife here I would say both our mainstream parties are yet again (surprise surprise)

    I think you’re making this up. Maybe with the Aro Vally crowd or or at a GPJ meeting but I’ve never encountered anti-Americanism within mainstream NZ. Maybe you should get out more often.

    I think the public opinion will not be swayed by several deaths if they occur in a singular fashion but if they were to be inflicted in a single incident like what happened to French troops in August 2008 this could change.

  6. Pat:

    I think that my writing on security issues reflects my background in the intelligence community. There the purpose of writing is to provide dispassionate analysis that covers all points of view so that policy-makers can inform their judgements with them. Bias and spin are not part of a good intelligence officer’s work. Thus my writing here and elsewhere on security related matters is designed to get readers to think through the subject rather than listen to my views on it.

    I tend to write more personally when it comes to social and class issues. In general I see myself as progressive on social matters and moderate conservative on security matters (owing to the nature of the latter).

  7. but I’ve never encountered anti-Americanism within mainstream NZ. Maybe you should get out more often.

    Dude, you must live under a rock, or have never travelled, or are not very widely read or possibly all three.

    The other Anglosphere countries are MUCH more conservative and right wing in foreign affairs than we are. New Zealand has a significant (I would venture to say in combination a majority) body of opinion that is relatively left wing, rather isolationist, quite anti-American and very complacent.

  8. Pablo – the downside risk to being dis-passionate is that if troop withdrawals lead to the persecution and death of the civilians left behind, you can’t very well say something like “Well, I always thought pulling out was a bad idea, but I didn’t want to say so at the time.”

    I’m not sure I would label it bias. I think informed professional analysts should not be afraid to voice an opinion. Because political protaganists with their own agendas will surely be voicing theirs loudly.

  9. Dude, you must live under a rock, or have never travelled, or are not very widely read or possibly all three.

    Not at all. The Anti-Americanism you talk about was simply confined to isolated individuals whose beliefs were more pathological than anything else. I’ve never seen an US flag burned in the streets and the only protests against the US were during the anti-Israel ones up on Queen st but the participants were mostly Arabs anyway. But as i alluded to before I don’t go out of my way to hang around with groups of people whose association is based on their political beliefs.

  10. I support Pablo’s dispassionate advice – it is the mark of not just a good intelligence officer, but also a good advisor (whether private or public). The role is not to be the decision maker, but to ensure that the decision maker(s) can say that they have been fully informed in making there decision. In the world of policy analysis, whilst you present a free and frank analysis, you may/should include information on options and possible an assessment of what might be preferred options, although preferred options may not work in the intelligence environment when providing strategic overview as opposed to tactical resonse. But it is important to remember that a decision maker will take on board your advice and possibly the advice of others (which may conflict with the framework you utilised) and even utilise their own intellect/opinion in making their decision.

    In the end the decision maker has to be able to justify there decision to the wider public/shareholder. Generally decision makers have quiet quick sanctions for poor decisions – elections or like the case of the late BP CE constructively moved on, or fired unceremoniously. Advisors/analysts in general continue on long after the decision makers have move on (whether promoted or demoted).

  11. Pat: WH has summarised my position quite well. An analyst gives the decision-makers a holistic view of a given matter, offers options and if asked will give advice or recommend a course of action. But it is the boss who decides, which is exactly why W. Bush blaming the CIA for the false Iraq WMD estimates was especially despicable (he ignored what they really said, ginned up bogus evidence using Rumsfeld’s black ops unit, George Tenet’s cherry-picked info and Cheney’s machinations inside the CIA and NSC, then refused to accept responsibility when the ruse was revealed, instead blaming the analysts who gave him the real data in the first place).

    However, I should also point you back to the January Scoop article I linked to in the post, where I offer a defense of the NZDF deployment in Afghanistan. In that essay I was wearing a commentator’s hat rather than that of an analyst.

  12. Pablo: Your writings in this blog is a good feed for me to chew on. While you say it is dispassionate and that it ought to help readers think through the issues, I for one have appreciated that candidness for what it is. I am bright enough to read between the lines and so thanks for your input into foreign policy and national security issues, from your Intelligence experience. I am really enjoying this site. It is also helping me to think about what to say in words.

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