Category Archives: governance

The incremental shift.

In the build up to the Xmas holidays I was interviewed by two mainstream media outlets about the recently released (December 2021) Defence Assessment Report and last week’s 5 Eyes Communique that included New Zealand as a signatory. The common theme in the two documents was the threat, at least as seen through the eyes of NZ’s security community, that the PRC increasingly poses to international and regional peace and stability. But as always happens, what I tried to explain in hour-long conversations with reporters and producers inevitably was whittled down into truncated pronouncements that skirted over some nuances in my thought about the subject. In the interest of clarification, here is a fuller account of what is now being described as a “shift” in NZ’s stance on the PRC.

Indeed, there has been a shift in NZ diplomatic and security approaches when it comes to the PRC, at least when compared to that which operated when he Labour-led coalition took office in 2017. But rather than sudden, the shift has been signalled incrementally, only hardening (if that is the right term) in the last eighteen months. In July 2020, the the wake of the ill-fated Hong Kong uprising, NZ suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, citing the PRC passage of the Security Law for Hong Kong and its negative impact on judicial independence and the “one country, two systems” principle agreed to in the 1997 Joint UK-PRC Declaration on returning Hong Kong to Chinese control. At the same time NZ changed its sensitive export control regime so that military and “dual use” exports to HK are now treated the same as if they were destined for the mainland. 

In November 2020 NZ co-signed a declaration with its 5 Eyes partners condemning further limits on political voice and rights in HK with the postponment of Legislative elections, arrests of opposition leaders and further extension of provisions of the mainland Security Law to HK. The partners also joined in condemnation of the treatment of Uyghurs in Yinjiang province. In April 2021 Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta gave her “Dragon and Taniwha” speech where she tried to use Maori allegories to describe the bilateral relationship and called for NZ to diversify its trade away from overly concentrated partnerships, using the pandemic supply chain problems as an illustration as to why.

She also said that NZ was uncomfortable with using the 5 Eyes intelligence partnership as a public diplomacy tool. I agree completely with that view, as there are plenty of other diplomatic forums and channels through which to express displeasure or criticism. The speech did not go over well in part because NZ business elites reacted viscerally to a large tattooed Maori woman spinning indigenous yarns to a mainly Chinese and Chinese-friendly audience (and other foreign interlocutors further afield). From a “traditional” (meaning: white male colonial) perspective the speech was a bit odd because it was long on fable and imagery and short on “hard” facts, but if one dug deeper there were plenty of realpolitik nuggets within the fairy dust, with the proper context to the speech being that that Labour has an agenda to introduce Maori governance principles, custom and culture into non-traditional policy areas such as foreign policy. So for me it was the balancing act bookended by the trade diversification and 5 Eyes lines that stood out in that korero.

Less than a month later Prime Minister Ardern spoke to a meeting of the China Business Summit in Auckland and noted that “It will not have escaped the attention of anyone here that as China’s role in the world grows and changes, the differences between our systems – and the interests and values that shape those systems – are becoming harder to reconcile.” That hardly sounds like appeasement or submission to the PRC’s will. Even so, Mahuta and Ardern were loudly condemned by rightwingers in NZ, Australia, the UK and US, with some going so far as to say that New Zealand had become “New Xiland” and that it would be kicked out the 5 Eyes for being soft on the Chinese. As I said at the time, there was more than a whiff of misogyny in those critiques.

In May 2021 the Labour-led government joined opposition parties in unanimously condemning the PRC for its abuse of Uyghur human rights. The motion can be found here.

In July 2021 NZ Minister of Intelligence and Security Andrew Little publicly blamed China-based, state-backed cyber-aggressors for a large scale hacking attack on Microsoft software vulnerabilities in NZ targets. He pointed to intolerable behaviour of such actors and the fact that their operations were confirmed by multiple Western intelligence agencies. He returned to the theme in a November 2021 speech given at Victoria University, where he reiterated his concerns about foreign interference and hacking activities without mentioning the PRC by name as part of a broad review of his remit. Rhetorical diplomatic niceties aside, it was quite clear who he was referring to when he spoke of state-backed cyber criminals (Russia is the other main culprit, but certainly not the only one). You can find the speech here

In early December 2021 the Ministry of Defense released its Defense Assessment Report for the first time in six years. In it China is repeatedly mentioned as the major threat to regional and global stability (along with climate change). Again, the issue of incompatible values was noted as part of a surprisingly blunt characterisation of NZ’s threat environment. I should point out that security officials are usually more hawkish than their diplomatic counterparts, and it was the Secretary of Defense, not the Minister who made the strongest statements about China (the Secretary is the senior civil servant in the MoD; the Minister, Peeni Henare, spoke of promoting Maori governance principles based on consensus and respect into the NZDF (“people, infrastructure, Pacifika”), something that may be harder to do than say because of the strictly hierarchical nature of military organisation. At the presser where the Secretary and Minister spoke about the Report, the uniformed brass spoke of “capability building” based on a wish list in the Report. Let’s just say that the wish list is focused on platforms that counter external, mostly maritime, physical threats coming from extra regional actors and factors rather than on matters of internal governance.

Then came the joint 5 Eyes statement last week, once again reaffirming opposition to the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and its gradual absorption into the Chinese State. Throughout this period NZ has raised the issue of the Uyghurs with the PRC in bilateral and multilateral forums, albeit in a quietly diplomatic way.

I am not sure what exactly led to NZ’s shift on the PRC but, rather than a sudden move, there has been a cooling, if not hardening trend during the last eighteen months when it comes to the bilateral relationship. The decision to move away from the PRC’s “embrace” is clear, but I have a feeling that something unpleasant may have occurred in the relationship (spying? influence operations? diplomatic or personal blackmail?) that forced NZ to tighten its ties to Western trade and security networks. The recently announced UK-NZ bilateral FTA is one step in that direction. AUKUS is another (because if its spill-over effect on NZ defense strategy and operations).

What that all means is that the PRC will likely retaliate sometime soon and NZ will have to buckle up for some material hardship during the transition to a more balanced and diversified trade portfolio. In other words, it seems likely that the PRC will respond by shifting its approach and engage diplomatic and economic sanctions of varying degrees of severity on NZ, if nothing else to demonstrate the costs of defying it and as a warning to those similarly inclined. That may not be overly burdensome on the diplomatic and security fronts given NZ’s partnerships in those fields, but for NZ actors deeply vested/invested in China (and that means those involved in producing about 30 percent of NZ’s GDP), there is a phrase that best describes their positions: “at risk.” They should plan accordingly.

Along with the New Year, there is the real possibility that, whether it arrives incrementally or suddenly, foreign policy darkness lies on the horizon.

The unshackled straitjacket.

In the 1980s the political scientist Jon Elster wrote a book titled Ulysses and the Sirens where he uses the Homeric epic The Odyssey to illustrate the essence of democracy. In book 12 of The Odyssey, the enchantress Circe warns Ulysses of the dangers posed by the mythical Sirens, purportedly half women and half bird but in reality monsters, whose songs were irresistible to men and who endeavored to lure wayfarers to their deaths on the rocky cliff faces of the Siren’s island. Circe advised that only Ulysses should listen to their “honeyed song,” and that his men should plug their ears with beeswax while he be lashed to the mast of his ship after his men plugged their ears, and that even though he cried and begged them to untie him once he came to hear the Siren’s alluring tones, that he only be freed once his ship was far our of reach of the Siren’s voices. So it was, as Ulysses heeded her advice, made safe passage in spite of the temptress’s calls, and he and his crew proceeded on their decade-long voyage home from the Trojan Wars to Ithaca. As it turns out, it did not end well for all, which is a story for another day. (Thanks to Larry Rocke for correcting my initial mistaken read about their fate).

Elster’s use of the story is designed to highlight three related things. First (the minor point, about the false promise of ethereal options), that, as with the Sirens, while there may be many seemingly attractive alternatives to the inefficiencies of democratic governance, the perils imbedded in purported alternatives outweigh the (mythical) rewards that they claim to confer. Second, that a good leader prizes wise counsel and heeds their advice. Third (the major point), that democracy at its essence is a self-limiting (self-binding) form of governance in which incumbents of political decision-making positions deliberately refrain from making full or untrammeled use of the powers vested in them by virtue of the popular vote. The underpinning belief is that political decision-makers will adhere in principle to self-limitation because they understand and share Elster’s view of democratic governance: it is not just about the means of power acquisition and subsequent use once it public office; it is about (self) restraint in the exercise of power in pursuit of the common good. Power is exercised not for personal or partisan again. It is exercised for the benefit of all. And for that to happen, self-restraint is necessary.

Unfortunately, humans are not those most righteous of creatures so in recognition of human fallibility in practice limits are placed on public authority not by voluntary adherence to principle but by institutional mores, norms, laws and conventions. Constitutions are the highest expression of that enforced restraint in the exercise of power, and systems of checks and balances between different branches of government are the means by which self-restraint is imposed and enforced. The key to adherence is that all actors accept the importance of self-limitation in the first place and understand that the constitutional/institutional rules are designed to encourage collective compliance in the face of temptations to pursue individual or partisan agendas and policies inimical to the common good.

I call this the “straitjacket” theory of democratic politics. Politicians voluntarily accept the limitations on their powers imposed by systems of checks and balances when assuming public office. The understand why self-restraint is the essence of democracy, along with consent and compromise in the pursuit of second-best solutions that, if not satisfying everyone all of the time, satisfy enough people most pf the time so that the political system because self-reproducing (and re-generating!) on its own terms. There is a material as well as social-cultural component to this grand contingent compromise (i.e. expectations have to be met in order for collective consent to continue to be given), but the combination of universal laws and institutional norms and mores promote a type of political socialization in which self-restraint is seen and promoted as a civic virtue, not a weakness, because it promotes exactly that type of compromise when it comes to policy outcomes.

The rule of self-restraint applies to all political actors in a democracy, local and national, in government or in Opposition. The temporal boundaries of electoral cycles means that all actors get to compete again at some pre-determined and relatively short-term date. That means that losers today can become winners in the near future, and that current winners need to deliver on their promises if they are to win again. The implicit bargain is clear: governments do not press full advantage even if widely popular and Oppositions do not go full contrarian on every government initiative. That encourages moderation in debate and policy outcomes because adopting extreme, polarized positions violates the law of self-restraint and in so doing inhibits compromise on collective outcomes. If sides go for broke today when it comes to policy, they may find themselves on the receiving end of equally extreme counter-measures down the road, with the vicious cycle continuing from there. Recognition of this fact–that today’s political behavior casts a shadow on the future for better or worse–is another contributor to the adoption of self-limiting strategies by political actors. This is not just a matter of principle. It is a matter of pragmatism for those committed to operating under democratic governance paradigms.

From a cynically Marxist perspective, the need for political self-restraint in pursuit of contingent compromises rests on the fact that otherwise the rapacious and undemocratic nature of capitalism would be exposed by the zero-sum politics of its political puppets. Over the long term that augers poorly for capitalist political control and the social and institutional advantages that go along with it, so moderation and self-restraint under democratic institutions are, as Lenin noted, the best “political shell” for capitalism. The idea is to not get too greedy or partisan when it comes to profit-taking and political competition and to macro-manage the economy consensually so that profit-driven or partisan avarice is constrained. That way capitalist hegemony can be disguised and maintained rather than exposed and challenged. Someone who appreciated this fact in a non-Marxist way was John Maynard Keynes, and the phrase “Keynesian compromise” is often used describe his approach to political economy.

Whatever the interpretation, for today’s liberal democracies and a few of the newer experiments in that political form, this has been the unwritten political understanding that overlaps the social compact between governed and governors. There are always exception to the rule and moments in which principle falls hard on the sword of hypocrisy, opportunism and privilege, but in the main the enduring feature of democracy has been that those in positions of power do not take full advantage of the authority vested in them. In may not always be a matter of voluntary choice for them, but they understand why the straitjacket must be worn.

Those days are over. In the US but also in other parts of the world where US-style politics has leached like a cancer onto local democratic politics (think Brazil, but even places like Chile, the UK or Italy), politicians not only do not adhere to self-binding strategies but no longer accept the straitjacket premise. Whether a matter of principle or pragmatism, the shadow of the democratic future holds no sway over them and so self-restraint or limitation in the use of their authority is no longer considered a virtue. Instead, they work hard to use procedural, institutional and legal maneuver, aided and abetted by external forces such as direct pressure and gaslighting campaigns channeled via lobbyists, partisan and social media, to undermine and subvert the system from within—in other words, to unshackle the straitjacket, political Houdini-style in order to impose their partisan and personal preferences on society.

Hence the rise of a phenomenon known as the “constitutional coup” whereby disloyal Oppositions attempt to impeach government incumbents on false or flimsy grounds (again, Brazil is a sad example). Now there has appeared something known as the “procedural coup” where one (or two) branches of government attempt to usurp and override the decisions of another, effectively voiding the balance-of-power premise inherent in constitutional systems such as the US. And it was exactly that goal that motivated Trump and his supporters on January 6—to usurp the power of Congress to declare a winner in last year’s presidential race.

That has been laid out in gory detail by the investigations into the January 6 insurrection-turned-coup attempt in the US, where it has been revealed that there were orchestrated links between the White House, Republicans in Congress and insurrectionists to violently impede the certification of the Biden presidential victory. It is seen in Republican attempts to stack state election offices with partisans and to gerrymander and engage in voter suppression programs that skew elections in their favor. It is seen in GOP and rightwing activist groups coercively attempting to gain control of local government offices and school boards via impeachment and recall campaigns waged against serving incumbents. It is seen in the insanity of GOP House members spouting Qanon and other MAGA extremist beliefs in and outside the debating chamber, including threats of physical harm to Democrat colleagues. None of this is an exercise in self-restraint and clearly is an attempt to loosen the fetters of institutional noms and practices.

The US is the exemplar of democratic corrosion but it is not alone. Already the same type of tactics—cries of election fraud before elections are held in places like Brazil and Chile; instigation of civil, including militia resistance to duly constituted government mandates such as in Australia; attempts to delegitimize government with calls to arrest, try, imprison or execute public officials because of their use of public health orders to impose pandemic control measures, all with a wink and nod from opposition politicians, such as in Aotearoa–the very edifice of global democratic governance is being shaken from without and within.

It is the latter threat that is the concern here because a stable democracy is impervious to seditious conspiracies. In contrast, unstable or fragile democracies whose political leadership is ridden with ideological extremists, charlatans, grifters, profiteers and other unscrupulous self-interested maximizers of egotistic opportunities, in which the fundamental law of self-restraint no longer applies, is fertile ground for authoritarian usurpation from within or without.

It is quite possible that the US is too far gone down this path to avoid a civil war. But if democracy is going to be saved there as well as elsewhere, then we must return to the foundational principles upon which that political edifice rests: that those in public office practice self-restraint in the use of their authority and abide by the the imposed limits placed upon that authority by the system of checks and balances inherent in the tripartite division of government powers. Only then can we return to the type of horizontal as well as vertical accountability that a political system built on self- or imposed restraint can uniquely offer the society that it governs.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” year-end review.

Selwyn Manning and I wrapped up this year’s “A View from Afar” podcasts with a review of the past year and some speculation about what is to come. We meander a bit but the themes are clear. You can find the show here.

Chinese influence and American hate diffusion.

Over the last decade concerns have been raised about Chinese “influence operations” in NZ and elsewhere. Run by CCP-controlled “United Front” organisations, influence operations are designed to promote PRC interests and pro-PRC views within the economic and political elites of the targeted country as well as Chinese diaspora communities. The means of doing so is transactional and convertible by cash. United Front organisations put money and operatives into the local political system exploiting loopholes or laxities in political finance laws and candidate selection processes, and buy majority ownership of or board membership in strategically placed local firms. This greases the skids for more “Chinese-friendly” perspectives in economic and political decision-making circles.

In parallel, local Chinese language media (both Mandarin and Cantonese) are purchased and their editorial orientation turned towards the CCP party line. This ensures that dissenting opinions are eliminated from outlets that cater to newer Chinese language immigrants, something that, for example, is evident in the coverage of Hong Kong over the last few years. Along with outright intimidation campaigns directed at critics, dissidents and so-called malcontents, this ensures that what is presented to local native and expat populations about China is what the CCP wants it to be. With large scale (now temporarily suspended due to Covid restrictions) immigration of CCP-approved or affiliated mainlanders on student and business visas and the emergence of ethnic Chinese lobbying groups, this ensures that pro-PRC narratives come to dominate how it is spoken about in targeted countries.

The practical goal is to present homogenous and uniform pro-CCP views among expat communities and to re-orient local elite perspectives and material interests towards a more China-friendly position, both in terms of international affairs as well as Chinese domestic politics. The broader strategy is to use the “Achilles Heel” of liberal democracy–freedoms of expression, association and movement–to subvert democratic societies from within. The approach is top-down and largely elite-focused, but has trickle down effects throughout the targeted society. Most importantly, it works. One only has to look at the wedding of NZ political and economic elite interests to those of Chinese agents and entities to understand why. Think Don Brash, John Key and Jenny Shipley as poster children for that type of unholy union, but Labour has, shall we say, some baggage of its own in this regard.

However, there is another malign foreign influence operating in NZ as well as places like Brazil and Italy. It arrives as a type of cultural or ideological diffusion and it is propagated by US-based non-state political actors like Steve Bannon and his Counterspin media channel as well as the Qanon conspiracy network, Alex Jones and Infowars plus assorted other alt-Right and neo-fascist outlets channeling anti-government and anti- “Deep State” views of the likes of the Proud Boys, Oathkeepers and Three Percenters. Rather than the top-down and elite-centric approach adopted by Chinese influence operators, US cultural-ideological diffusers use “alternative media,” direct marketing (such as by distributing leaflets and cold calling with false information) and social media (including using political blogs, fake websites, plus trolls and bots on large platforms) to exploit pre-existing social fault lines and amplify newer divisions in a targeted society. In doing so they copy and adapt Russian (and now Chinese) psychological operations models of disinformation, misinformation and false-flagging. They prey on gullibility, ignorance and/or hate and their currency is rage: rage born of frustration with life opportunities or personal grievance; rage against institutions and processes (i.e. the “system”), rage against past injustices and/or modern offences or slights; rage against assorted ‘others” challenging status and privilege; outrage at offences big and small–the sources of rage are both individual and collective and with enough coaching and channeling can be marshalled into a powerful force for good or evil. Cultural-Ideological diffusers such as Bannon travel on the dark side.

The approach is bottom-up and grassroots in orientation, and works along what Gramsci called the trenches of civil society to push a counter-hegemonic notion of “good sense” against the hegemonic conception of “common sense” purveyed by the mainstream (elite-controlled) media. These trenches include social movements as well as social institutions in which historical and contemporary grievances can be combined into a civil resistance front.

In the contemporary NZ context, that means uniting anti-vaccination/mask/lockdown sentiment with anti-tax, anti-environmental, anti-1080, Christian conservative, libertarian, gun-rights and assorted other rightwing views as well as outliers like Maori sovereignty proponents. To cultivate grassroots resistance it uses local activists as well as “Astroturf” entities such as the purportedly farmer-led group known as the “Groundswell Movement,” which in fact is a creation of the urban rightwing (and National Party-aligned) Taxpayers Union. The rhetoric of cultural-ideological diffusion protests is imported to a large extent and at times seemingly at odds with local issues: witness the proliferation of Trump and MAGA-supportive references amongst current anti-government demonstrators. More worryingly, unlike most of the NZ protest movements of the past, the rhetoric and actions of local protestors influenced by cultural-ideological US agitators is tinged with overt hints of violent punishment, retribution and revenge against the government, “liberals,” and even the mainstream media (which if anything has shown itself to be largely uncritical and mild Fourth Estate that is mainly interested in generating clicks or viewership based on controversies-of-the-day and scandal). References to NZ authorities as Nazis deserving of Nuremburg-style trials lend an ominous tone to the recent exercises in civil rights, to which can be added the open displays of racist, misogynist and neo-fascist sentiment among those involved. That may be a more “natural” form of discourse for a deeply polarised country like the US with a long record of political violence, but it has no organic roots in NZ’s otherwise vigorous culture of civil disobedience and public protest.

Less the smorgasbord approach to forming anti-government movements seem hopeless as a political strategy or praxis (and hence dismissible), the key to its success is to use cultural-ideological diffusion tactics to create a temporary coalition of convenience, not a long-term alliance. It’s immediate purpose is to sabotage the government from without, not undermine it from within. It uses contemporary political conflicts such as the debate about pandemic mitigation to sow social and political division while exploring the same Achilles Heel as do the Chinese influence operators (the freedoms of speech and protest in particular). Ultimately, its long-term end is similar: to undermine public faith in the liberal democratic system as given in order to impose a more authoritarian order of some sort. But for the time being, the focus is on the short-term: sow unrest, promote sedition and usurp authority using social media to import US-sourced cultural-ideological framing of “wedge” issues in order to do so.

Gramsci of course wrote thinking about Left political praxis in Mussolini’s Italy, so there is a certain irony in the adoption of his thought by the likes of Steve Bannon. But that is part of why Bannon is an evil genius: he knows what works and does not care from where good strategic ideas come from.

Not surprisingly local security “experts” have jumped up to state the obvious that things might get violent if the anti-government rhetoric continues to escalate along the lines mentioned above. Raising public consciousness of this possibility is a good thing. More helpfully, the NZ intelligence community has warned that a terrorist attack is possible within a year or so and that it will likely come in the form of a “lone wolf” emerging out of the anti-vaxx/mask/lockdown movement (although the process of radicalisation and likely profile of such an individual has not been specified). The media is covering itself as a target of extremists because some of its members have been threatened by anti-government bullies, and politicians, with good reason, are increasingly concerned about their security given the vitriol directed at (some of) them. While it is laudable to focus attention on the security threat angle implicit in recent protests, a deeper understanding of the methodology and mechanics of cross-border non-State cultural-ideological diffusion is in order, especially when it is subversive in intent. Unless one understands what the likes of Bannon want to do when directing their malevolent gaze on Aotearoa and who are the most susceptible to the entreaties of their perverse siren song, then all that can be done is to react to rather than pre-empt whatever harm is headed our way.

Our security authorities need to be cognisant of this fact, but as a stable and largely peaceful society, so do we.

Random Retweets: Pandemic mitigation.

Introduction.

I have recently seen a trend whereby people turn their twitter ruminations into op eds and even semi-scholarly essays such as those featured on Spinoff, Patreon or The Conversation. It makes sense to develop ideas from threads and maximise publication opportunities in the process, especially for academics operating in a clickbait environment that has now crept into scholarly journals. I am not immune from the thread-to-essay temptation, although I have tended to do that on my work page and stick to subjects more pertinent to my work because the twitter account I use is a business rather than personal one.

With that in mind and because I have not posted here for a while, I thought it opportune to edit and repurpose some twitter thoughts that I have shared on the subject of what might be called the security politics of Covid mitigation in New Zealand. Below I have selected, cut and pasted some salient edited tweets along that analytic line.

Security aspects of pandemic politics.

There are traditional national security threats like armed physical attack by external/internal enemies. There are non-traditional national security threats like rising sea levels and disasters. Anti-vaxxers are a non-traditional national security threat that must be confronted.

Social media is where state and non-state actors (criminal organisations, extremist groups) link with local agitators in order to combine resources for common purpose. Viral dis-/misinformation and influence campaigns designed to socially destabilise and politically undermine public faith in and support for liberal democracies like NZ are an example of such hand-in-glove collaboration. If left unchecked it can lead to mass public disorder even when seemingly disorganised (e.g. by using “leaderless resistance” tactics). This growing “intermestic” or “glocal” threat needs to be prioritised by the NZ intel community because otherwise social cohesion is at risk. On-line seditious saboteurs must be identified, uncovered and confronted ASAP. That includes “outing” the foreign-local nexus, to include state and non-state actor connections.

If people are going to complain about Chinese influence operations in NZ, then they would do good to complain about US alt-Right/QAnon influence operations in NZ as well. Especially when the latter is manifested in the streets as anti-vac/anti-mask protests. The difference between them? PRC influence operations attempt to alter the NZ political system from within. US alt-Right/QAnon influence operations seek to subvert it from without. Both are authoritarian threats to NZ’s liberal democracy.

In the war against a mutating virus initially of foreign origin NZ has a 5th column: anti-vax/maskers, religious charlatans, Deep State and other conspiracy theorists, economic maximisers, venal/opportunistic politicians, disinformation peddlers and various selfish/stupid jerks. Their subversion of a remarkably effective pandemic mitigation effort should be repudiated and sanctioned as strongly as the law permits. Zero tolerance of what are basically traitors to the community is now a practical necessity (along with a 90% vaccination rate). Plus, as a US-NZ dual citizen who had his NZ citizenship application opposed by some hater, I would like to know who let in the rightwing Yank nutters now fomenting unrest over masks/vaxes/lockdowns/mandates etc. They clearly do not meet the good character test.

A counter-terrorism axiom is that the more remote the chances of achieving an ideological goal, the more heinous will be the terrorist act. Anti-vax and conspiracy theorists using Nazi/holocaust analogies to subvert democratic pandemic mitigation strategies are akin to that.

Long-term community well-being requires commitment to collective responsibility and acceptance of individual inconvenience in the face of a serious public health threat. It is part of the democratic social contract and should not be usurped for partisan or personal gain. Elephant in the room: when cultural mores contradict and undermine public health scientific advice but for political reasons cannot be identified as such. If true, partisan-focused approaches to Covid is not just an Opposition sin. The virus does not see culture or tradition. Anti-vax/mask views are no excuse to violate public health orders. Likewise economic interest, leisure pursuits, religious or secular beliefs no matter how deeply held. Ergo, cultural practice cannot override the public good. Collective responsibility is a democratic obligation.

Those that set the terms of debate tend to win the debate. In politics, those that frame the narrative on a subject, tend to win the debates about it. By announcing a “Freedom Day” the govt has conceded the debate about pandemic mitigation. The issue is not about human freedom. It is about managing public health risk in pursuit of the common good. Using “freedom” rhetoric injects ideology into what should be an objective debate about prudent lockdown levels given uneven vaccination rates, compliance concerns, mental health and economic issues. Bad move.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on supply chain bottlenecks, commodity (over) concentration and the need for post-pandemic structural reform.

Selwyn Manning and I have created YouTube channels under our respective business names in order to promote the “A View from Afar” podcast series. The latest episode examines recent problems of global supply, production and exchange, using a micro-to-macro lens to discuss the interplay between economics, policy and politics in creating and hopefully ameliorating the failures of the pre-pandemic system of trade. You can find it here.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on PRC-Taiwan tensions.

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the upsurge in tensions between the PRC and Taiwan and what are the backgrounds to and implications of them. You can check the conversation out here.

The supermarket stabbing spree was not a terrorist act.

Blood had not even been mopped up from the floor after the supermarket stabbing spree when the prime minister strode to the parliamentary theatre podium and declared it to be an act of terrorism committed by an individual following an extremist ideology. Within minutes of her pronouncement the media sped to get reaction to the event. I declined nearly a dozen interviews in the first day after it occurred because I did not want to speculate on an ongoing investigation, but the terrorism studies industry jumped into action and joined the bandwagon labeling the stabbings as an act of terrorism committed by a “lone wolf,” followed by cheerleading the official line arguing that the powers of the State needed to be expanded so as to include acts of preparation and planning along with actual crimes of ideologically-motivated violence in the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA). That several of the critically unreflective media-ordained “experts” who featured over the following days are associated with research centers that receive government (including security community) funding does not appear to have given a second of pause to the media booking agents.

I have written about terrorism on and off for 30 plus years. I have written about it in professional journals and on this blog. In a previous life I was involved with the counter-terrorism community in the US as an analyst and part of contingency planning and profiling teams, and more recently have consulted with various entities about the phenomena. I believe I have a pretty good idea of what terrorism is and is not. Because of this I would like to outline some basic facts and offer a brief defense of why I do not believe that the supermarket stabbings were terroristic in nature. I am a minority voice swimming against the current of official discourse, but have confidence in my view on this matter and ask that readers please consider what I write below.

There are several forms of terrorism. These include state terrorism (the most common form), where a State terrorizes its own people or other targets; state-sponsored terrorism, where a State uses a proxy to commit acts of terrorism against an enemy or its core interests (think of the Iranian relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah, or—dare I say it–the Saudi relationship with al-Qaeda); non-state terrorism, including criminal (for example, Mafia) and ideological terrorism perpetrated by non-state irregular warfare actors (al-Qaeda, Daesh, the IRA, Sendero Luminoso in Peru, Mano Blanca in El Salvador or “Triple A” in Argentina). The list is extensive and covers the entire ideological spectrum. The bottom line of non-state ideological terrorism is that it must have an explicitly political focus—it has a political end or endgame in mind.

There is also terrorism committed during war time and terrorism that occurs during peace. War terrorism is mainly a sub-set of state terrorism but is also found in irregular warfare. The fire-bombing of Dresden had little military purpose but was designed to have a psychological impact on the German population. Likewise, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were done not so much because of the military importance of these targets but because of the psychological impact that a single bomb annihilation of a city would have on the Japanese. In both cases the purpose was to terrorize, not gain a military advantage per se. Likewise, beheadings and other atrocities committed by jihadists do not improve their military positions but do have a psychological impact on those who are witness or subject to them. Terrorism during peace are those that occur outside of recognized (declared or undeclared) conflicts. Again, this includes terrorism by the State against dissidents and criminal terrorism against authorities or non-compliant members of the public. As of 9/11, the focus has been on non-state ideological terrorism even if the specific ideology behind many acts of terrorism has shifted over time.

Terrorism can involve large-scale mass attacks or small cell and solo operator (“lone wolf”) attacks. The tactical logic at play is to commit acts of seemingly random and disproportionate violence against soft targets with the purpose of instilling fear, dread and a sense of powerlessness, if not hopelessness in the population. As I wrote professionally more than two decades ago, the terrorist seeks to atomise and infantilize the social subject so as to isolate and paralyze it in the face of the perpetrator’s actions. That facilitates surrender or acquiescence to the terrorist will.

Terrorism has a target, subject and an object. The target are the immediate victims of a terrorist act, the more vulnerable and helpless the better. The subject(s) is the wider audience, including the public, government and even sympathetic or like-minded groups and individuals. The object is to send a message and to bend the subject to the will of the perpetrator, that is, to get the subject(s) to do or not do something in accordance with the perpetrator’s objectives and desires.

Having said all of this, by way of illustration let us run a comparison between the Christchurch attacks and the supermarket stabbings.

The Christchurch killer meticulously planned over at least 18 months an act of mass murder, stockpiling weapons and ammunition in order to do so. He did so in secrecy and without drawing attention to his actions (or so the Royal Commission of Inquiry would like us to believe). He displayed cunning, situational awareness and observed operational security as he counted down to the attack date, which was chosen for its historical significance (the Ides of March). He wrote a lengthy manifesto detailing his ideological views and reasons for committing the attacks. As believers gathered in houses of worship on a day of prayer, his targets were highly symbolic and chosen after considerable observation and research. The acts of mass murder were carried out in a cold blooded, calculated, methodical manner, live streamed on social media and eagerly shared by his co-believers world-wide. After capture, he was determined to be sane if narcissistic in personality and interviews with those who knew him prior to March 15 said he exhibited no signs of mental illness. In fact, even though a foreigner, he had friends and socialised normally (I use the last term neutrally as opposed to differentiating between so-called “normal” and “abnormal” or “unusual” conduct).

Now consider the supermarket stabbings. By way of a broad summary, let’s note the following. The perpetrator—I will refer to him by his suppressed identity “Mr. S”– had been granted refugee status in NZ after leaving Sri Lanka in 2011 (he was Tamil) and yet for years had publicly spoken of his desire to kill infidels and his hatred of the West. He was said to be lonely and homesick, with few social contacts in NZ. After being arrested in 2015 he was assessed as being depressed, subject to wild mood swings, prone to violence as a result of having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stemming from experiences as a Tamil in his homeland. He had come to the authorities’ attention by openly posting jihadist supportive rants online, making threats to others (including muslims) on social media, and for seemingly preparing to wage jihad in NZ or abroad. When searched his flat contained violent extremist literature and videos and hunting knives. After being arrested while trying to leave NZ on a one way ticket (which the authorities believe was to be a journey to the killing fields of Syria), he was bailed and promptly went out and bought an exact copy of a knife that had been confiscated from him, apparently from the same store that he had bought the first one. He was then re-arrested and charged with possessing an offensive weapon (charges later dropped) and with posessing objectionable materials in the form of jihadist literature and videos. 

When in court he railed against the injustices done to him, threatened the judge and openly spoke about his desire to do harm to others. But, because his refugee status was being disputed, further cases against him were pending and he had served three years already while waiting for and then during trial, he was sentenced to community supervision for a year, then released on July 16 and bailed to a mosque that, as it turns out, did not have its own Imam but did have a bed. He was ordered to undergo psychiatric evaluation but refused to do so and was never forced to comply. Then came Friday Sept 3.

Rather then the culmination of months of meticulous planning and preparation, that day we saw a spontaneous act of white hot rage (which makes suggestions that strengthening the TSA to include acts of planning and preparation would have prevented the attack utterly ludicrous). He grabbed a knife off a shelf and started stabbing other shoppers (who, fortunately, were observing social distancing rules during the Level 4 pandemic lockdown). His targets were chosen opportunistically and at random–they were simply close enough to attack. He ran through the aisles yelling and shouting, thereby alerting other potential victims to impending danger. He ran from victim to victim rather than pause to finish them off in deliberate fashion. He had no manifesto and he he did not video his actions or communicate or transmit his attack to others. He had no subject other than his immediate targets and he had no object other than to satisfy his own bloodlust and sense of being wronged by society.  His message was to himself.

He had no connections to any jihadist network because even if he once did (and that has not been alleged, much less proven) his internet access was cut off after his arrest and he was largely isolated within the Sri Lankan and Muslim communities because of his notoriety. He had no affective relationships to speak of since his family remains in Sri Lanka and he had no partner or romantic attachments. Described as normally behaved before he arrived in NZ, he descended into personal and political darkness in the years after, linking the two in his public and private utterances. In fact, although he glorified ISIS violence and fetishised bladed weapons, it is unclear how deeply rooted he was in the Salafist world view that underpins ISIS’s ideology.

After he was released in July he developed, according to media reports, an obsessive focus on someone whose identity is suppressed but who was deliberately distanced from him after concerns were raised about his behaviour towards that individual in the days before the stabbings. One can only wonder if this was a case of what is known as affective displacement or transfer in which his emotional focus shifted from jihad to something more immediate and personal, and when that object of attention was removed, he snapped. If so, his ideological focus was more an opportunistic product of his mental state than of true devotion to the extremist cause. Put another way, his homicidal ideation may not have primarily been driven by ideology, which may have been more of a convenient crutch for his grievances rather than the root cause of his sociopathy.

To be clear: I am no mental health expert and defer to them on the subject, but I have learned enough over the years to believe that something more than ideological zealotry may have been at play here.

What S did have is a constant armed police surveillance presence around him because unlike the judge who released him in the hope that he could be rehabilitated, the police had no illusions that he was anything but a danger to himself and society. They therefore devoted considerable resources to surreptitiously monitoring him. As it turns out, he received no rehabilitation as well, which meant that the police emphasis on covert surveillance from a distance was certainly not designed to be pre-emptive or preventative in nature (since an intensive rehab counselor could have given them daily updates on his state of mind). As quick as the police reaction was to the stabbings, they were at a disadvantage given the nature of their surveillance technique, which apparently did not benefit from regular psychological updates. This is no slight on the police. They did what they thought best given the difficult circumstances that they were put in, and in the end they saved lives.

Even lumping Mr. S with the Christchurch killer as “lone wolves” is problematic. The Christchurch killer clearly was such a threat, quietly stalking his prey and preparing his attacks. Mr. S, however, acted impulsively and without the type of deliberation usually associated with lone wolves. Rather than “flying under the radar” of specialised and dedicated counter-terrorism units in NZ (as the Royal Commission would like us to believe with regard to the Christchurch terrorist), he was a known, clear and present danger, at least as far as the police were concerned. Likening him to the March 15 killer as a lone wolf is , again, drawing too long a comparative bow. In fact Mr. S seems closer to the May Dunedin Countdown stabber (four wounded in that attack) than the Christchurch killer, even if the demons inside the Dunedin stabber’s head were fueled by meth rather than ideology and/or mental illness.

For those who would differentiate terrorism from other violent crimes by consequences or effects, here too Mr. S’s actions fall short of the definitional threshold. The Christchurch attacks had immediate and longer-term impacts at home and abroad. While championed by white supremacists and rightwing extremists and causing wide-spread fear in NZ society in the immediate aftermath, it had a more dramatic influence on counter-terrorism threat assessments and approaches world-wide. It occasioned considerable reflection within NZ about tolerance and community and has produced numerous government initiatives to address its root causes. Its message was heard globally, albeit in different ways by different audiences/subjects. In contrast, the supermarket attacks caused a media frenzy, some political debate, assorted commentary and much questioning of how S came to be loose in public. That focused scrutiny lasted about five days, but soon the story receded on media outlets and from the public eye, replaced by coverage of the lowering of Covid lock-down levels and the usual political and social news. Beyond the victims, immediate witnesses, some politicians, pundits, activists and police, NZ society is already moving on and the consequences of the attack outside of (and arguably even within) NZ is minimal. The Christchurch attacks had long-term and wide-ranging effect; the supermarket stabbing spree has had a relatively narrow and short term impact. In other words, in consequence it does not rise to the level of a terrorist attack.

Put another way. Although the supermarket stabbings were certainly terrifying to those who were in and around the store, they were not terroristic in intent or effect.

It is interesting to consider that Andrew Little is both the Minister of Health as well as the Minister of Intelligence and Security. While this may promote efficiency in the discharge of portfolio obligations, it meant that there was no ministerial cross-check on the decision about Mr. S. Instead it presented Mr. Little with a choice when it came to Mr. S: treat him as a mental health case or as a national security threat? The institutional bias underlying the decision about him given the portfolio arrangement is now clear. National security was the priority, not Mr. S’s mental health.

The government says that it considered ordering Mr. S into compulsory treatment under terms of the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act, but was advised that it was not realistic to do so because he did not meet the threshold for involuntary commitment. This is presumably because even though he was diagnosed with PTSD, depression and other ailments, it did not rise to the level of a recognized clinically diagnosed disorder. Fair enough, because the bar for involuntary commitment must be set very high. But what about him being a clear and present danger to himself and society? Should that have factored into the decision as to whether he should be held for assessment and treatment? Had he not held ideological views, would have national security even entered into consideration even if the threat he presented to the public was the same? What would have been the decision then?

Because the decision was made against the mental health option, the government tried to revoke his refugee status so that he could be deported as a national security threat. That is easier said than done given international protocols governing the treatment of refugees, but what seems clear is that even though (or perhaps because) the High Court struck down prosecuting S under the Terrorism Suppression Act since “planning and preparation” is not part of the language in it, the Crown was determined to treat him as a jihadist rather than someone who was violently unwell. However coincidentally, Sept 5 fell into the government’s lap when it came to pushing under urgency amendments to the TSA that incorporated “planning and preparation” into the definition of behaviour covered by the Act, and the chorus of experts all sang in harmony the government line that the law, as it stands without the amendment, is unfit for purpose.

Three things should be noted as an aside. This is the second time that the Crown has attempted to invoke the TSA when no act of violence was committed, only to be rejected by the Court. The first was after the Urewera raids, when the not-so-merry band of activists and misfits were initially accused of being terrorists for playing Che Guevara in the bush. That attempt to lay charges under the TSA failed even though people were in fact terrorised: the innocent Tuhoe who were held at gunpoint (including children on a school bus) by Police. The second point is that even though the TSA does not allow for prosecutions for planning and preparing for a terrorist act, the Crimes Act has enough in it to do so. Just imagine if police had evidence of someone about to commit a “common” (non-ideologically motivated) murder. Would they not step in to prevent the deed by using the evidence collected under the Crimes Act? If so, what is the difference with an ideologically motivated crime that makes it only prosecutable under the TSA? As it turns out, the Crown went for six and tried to test the TSA a second time on Mr. S. And for the second time, it was given out by the Court.

The third point is that the government had a legal remedy on national security grounds that would have kept Mr. S confined indefinitely while being assessed and treated but chose not use it: issuing a Security Risk Certificate against him recommended by the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) and once used in the Ahmed Zaoui case (even though Zaoui never threatened or committed any act of violence). The Certificate calls for the preventative detention of an individual deemed to be a threat to NZ’s national security while legal processes are pending. Unlike Zaoui Mr. S was a well recognized threat to himself and others and yet, also unlike Zaoui, the Security Risk Certificate remedy was not explored or was rejected (perhaps because it too was “unreasonable” to do so). Which is odd given that he could have been subject to the strictures of the Security Risk Certificate during and after his trial regardless of sentence on lesser charges and therefore would not have been free on September 3 or required a constant resource-draining police surveillance presence in the weeks leading up to it. (Hat tip to Selwyn Manning for alerting me to this angle of inquiry).

In any event, rather than an act of terrorism or terrorist act (take your pick), what I saw on Sept. 5 was the commission of a hate crime. I recognize that NZ does not have a hate crime statute (as far as I know) and understand that hate crimes are usually designated as acts of violence committed against individuals or groups because of who they are (e.g. gays, Muslims, redheads). Here I use the phrase “hate crime” because Mr. S’s hatred and rage was directed at non-Muslim society in general and because of the lack of compliance with the definitions and description of terrorism mentioned above. It does not make the supermarket attacks any less heinous than those done deliberately as terrorist attacks with the same (thankfully non-fatal) outcome. But it does help distinguish between underlying motive and rigorousness of method, which in turn helps prevent us from being suckered into agreeing and complying with the agendas of security officials and vested “experts” alike.

Disclosure: After a day of thought and research into the case, I agreed to selective media interviews in which I outlined the views expressed above. That included raising the question as to whether invoking the Mental Health Act was considered. That was not well-received by some in the mental health community who felt, to quote someone, that I “had strayed from my lane.” I was surprised by that comment because I did not realise that I was in a lane, much less that I was “supposed” to stay in it. I still think that it was a legitimate question to ask and as it turns out the government answered it, however vaguely, shortly after I posed the question to a reporter. A few days later it turns out that I was on to something.

9/11, forever wars and the end of liberal internationalism.

In the years that followed the post 9/11 US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, I wrote several essays about how, wittingly or wittingly, Osama bin Laden had successfully employed the well-known guerrilla tactic known as the “sucker ploy” on a grand scale. The sucker ploy is a tactic by which guerrillas commit an outrage or stage a provocation of some sort that draws a disproportionate response from the military that they are fighting, thereby shifting popular support from the latter to the former. A classic example is for guerrillas to shoot at passing military vehicles or aircraft with small arms fire from a village, then retreat into the surrounding countryside while the military responds by annihilating the village and its occupants. 

When the US stayed in Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted from government and al-Qaeda was eliminated from its territory (end of 2002), and then invaded and occupied Iraq under the false pretense that Saddam Hussein was an ally of al-Qaeda and was going to use weapons of mass destruction on the West or allow al-Qaeda to do so, it took the sucker’s bait. It embarked on a global “war on terrorism” that saw the US and others expend much blood and treasure in places like the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and Libya, Mesopotamia down to Mali, Kenya and many more places in between and beyond, stretching to Europe and Australasia. The US expended trillions of dollars and thousands of lives on these “forever” or “endless” wars, feeding a relentless military-industrial complex while spinning off the militarisation of US policing and some sectors of civil society that is creating the conditions for civil war, hints of which have already been seen over the last couple of years.

Whatever goodwill existed towards the US in the immediate wake of 9/11, it gradually dissipated as a result of US foreign policy recklessness and arrogance over the next twenty years. Yet partisan logics of saving face by “staying the course” or, if that is not enough, patriotically respecting the sunk costs invested rather than simply “cutting and running” locked the US into continuing the folly of pursuing forever wars in far-off places with little strategic value or which posed no existential risk to the country. Those wars have not resulted in any significant change favorable to the geopolitical position of US but have contributed to the polarisation of its internal politics.

Meanwhile US adversaries like the PRC and Russia built and rebuilt their military forces into peer competitors of the US and expanded their spheres of influence. Mostly as a result of US bungling, Russia is now the most important extra-regional power in the Levant and North Africa and is poised, however ironically, to become a major interlocutor between the Taliban and the global community. Chinese economic and diplomatic influence is world-wide in scope and its aggressive military presence is now a constant in East and Southeast Asia as well as along its land borders. Other actors such as North Korea, Iran and Turkey have been emboldened by perceived US weakness while traditional US allies fret about the stability of the international order without its central presence as a stabilizing force.

The Great Satan has seemingly turned into a Paper Tiger.

It gets worse. Across the world authoritarianism has replaced democracy as the dominant political form. Rather than embrace democracy as an antidote to the hatreds that produced 9/11, autocrats of all types have taken advantage of the post 9/11 moment to impose their rule. In another irony, this includes the US, which nurtured the conditions that led to the election of a bigoted sociopathic narcissist to the presidency and the unleashing of long pent-up hatreds within the body politic. “America First” in reality means “America in Retreat” into neo-isolationism and xenophobic defenses of borders, Anglo-Saxon Christians within those borders, economic nationalism and, when it comes to foreign relations, coddling of foreign dictators who shared the former president’s biases and/or his transactional view of how politics should be conducted. The Obama interregnum notwithstanding (and even he seriously compromised on the original idealism of his foreign policy perspective, which won him a Nobel Prize), the US continued to cast a blind eye on the misdeeds of “friendly” dictatorships like the Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis or Emiratis while barking about those in Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela (and even there, with relatively little bite).

US political/diplomatic leadership is on the wane at home and abroad. The truth is inescapable: since 9/11 the US has been in decline, for the most part due to its own ignorance and excesses.

Needless to say, there were other intervening factors and variables that contributed to the slow-moving, partial success of bin-Laden’s strategy. Sure, he was not around to see it come to fruition. Sure, there has not been a global awakening of Islamicism that threatens the socio-economic and political parameters of most established nation-states. Wahhabism and Salafism are not the dominant sects in the Muslim world. So bin-Laden’s strategy failed in that it did not produce the specific results that he desired. But 9/11 did set into action a chain of events that has left the international community very different that what was before, with the US diminished and divided and no longer the undisputed global “hegemon.” That must be acknowledged.

A key result of this decline is the collapse of the concept of liberal internationalism as a guiding foreign policy principle in the US. This principle, which long enjoyed bipartisan support in US foreign policy circles and which is premised on the notion that the combination of market economies and democratic governance is the best political-economic form (regime), was thought to be imposable by external actors—meaning the US and its democratic capitalist allies—on unstable or failed underdeveloped states where extremism was believed to breed and prosper. From that belief came the pursuit of nation-building and regime change as foreign policy objectives, even if the targets of such ambition had no history with democracy, maintained pre-modern economic, cultural and social structures in which notions of consent and compromise (two hallmarks of all democratic social interaction) were absent, and were ill-disposed to have an occupying force impose anything on them other than temporary physical security and material aid.

The futility of military and civilian “capacity-building” in such contexts is summed up by an essay written by a former US Army Green Beret about his time in Afghanistan titled “Throwing Rocks at a Fire.” The essay recounts the story of a fire in an Afghan commando barracks at an outpost outside the capital. The fire was started by a gas burner used to make morning tea, which was set on the floor of the barracks and surrounded by blankets pulled from beds for the commandos to sit on (the preferred to have their tea on the floor rather than on tables when inside due to the cold weather, much as they did in their home villages). One of them inadvertently knocked the gas burner over, which set fire to a blanket. Rather than smother the fire with dirt or water or toss the burner out a window or door, the commandos–the best of the best Afghan soldiers–threw more loose blankets on the fire, which then rapidly spread to the barracks beds and wooden floor and walls (which unlike village huts, were not made from earthen and clay materials). They then ran out of the building. When the SF trooper arrived, he found the commandos throwing rocks at the fire through the front door of the now fully engaged building. It burnt to the ground.

Rather than chalk it up to the actions of ignorant primitives, my reading is that for the Green Beret the moral of the story was the futility of attempting to impose modernity, to include modern concepts of rationality and logic, on deeply rooted pre-modern cultures and societies that were uninterested in the social aspects of so-called modern democratic living. Learning to fight better with modern weapons was one thing, but re-learning basic forms of social engagement was quite another. Their traditions worked fine for them and imposition of other forms of social organization only complicated things and turned out bad in the end. In hindsight, the Green Beret came to understand their view, but by then he was physically, psychologically, occupationally and temporally far away from that outpost.

As it turns out, for all the lip service paid to promoting democracy, the world is now governed by more authoritarians that democrats, and many of the places in which authoritarianism has flourished are those in which the US intervened the most heavily. As for the promotion of market economics, the major consequence has been greater global income inequality within a context of increased concentration of commodity production, demand and exchange. Contrary to what its adherents and proponents claim, market capitalism does not lead to a “rising tide raising all boats” phenomenon and trickle down (supply side) economics does not lead to a watering of the seeds of a budding middle class emerging out of poverty world-wide. Instead, it has baked in a socio-economic landscape of structural disparity and deprivation juxtaposed against and subordinate to a parallel world of opulence and waste.

In sum, there is very little that is politically or economically “liberal” about the world today.

More can be added to this litany of unhappiness but for the moment the point is this: the era of liberal internationalism has come to an end as both a practical objective and a foreign policy theory. It remains to be seen what will emerge in its stead once the repercussions of the pandemic and US decline fully filter throughout the global community. But therein lies a basis for hope, because in a multipolar world in which no one actor can impose its vision of the “proper” order of things and yet the need for international cooperation is more apparent than ever, perhaps the makings of more equitable and balanced global society can be made organically rather than by imposition even in the face of cultural and social difference.

The price of neo-imperialist hubris.

One adage of warfare is that when a clearly weaker actor fights a clearly stronger actor to a standstill, then the weaker actor has won the contest. This is particularly so for asymmetric, irregular warfare where one side has the advantage of disproportionate force but the other side has time and willpower in its favour. So long as the weaker actor can remain steadfast over time when resisting the superior force, then not only will stalemate be achieved but eventual victory for the weaker actor is more likely. Where the weaker actor is fighting on home territory against a foreign force, the probability of its eventually prevailing are significantly improved. For the stronger actor fighting on foreign soil, the longer the conflict is drawn out, the more likely that it will be defeated, especially if domestic support at home (political and social) for the fight wanes over time. If the foreign power is simultaneously fighting another major land war (or wars), then its chances of victory in any of them are significantly reduced. Instead, such “forever wars” become deaths by a thousand cuts for the militarily stronger foreign power.

The Vietminh/Vietcong provide a good example of this. They resisted colonial and post-colonial French and US-led Western forces for more than two decades and eventually achieved independence, then fought off Chinese aggression to consolidate their hold over what is now the Republic of Vietnam. Like the VC, the Taliban have no Air Force, have no Navy, and what sophisticated ground warfare equipment they employ (which is not much), they captured from foreign forces or were clandestinely supplied by anti-Western states such as China and Russia. They used cross-border allies to good effect in getting supplies through (Iran and Pakistan in particular but not exclusively), and used guerrilla, hit and run tactics to extend the occupiers territorially until individual units or outposts could be surrounded and overrun by highly mobile and locally massed Taliban forces using surprise and local knowledge to their advantage.

The Taliban are, in a nutshell, a resilient, extremely determined, ruthless, cunning and resourceful adversary who fights on its home turf against foreigners and foreign-backed locals who (in the case of the former) do not understand them and who (in both cases) do not have the will to continue fight without an end in sight. For the Taliban it is Allah’s will that they fight and die for him, so there is no time horizon on or particular end point to their struggle against infidels. In effect, we may not like their medieval ideology, but we must recognise their will to impose it at all costs.

That brings up another maxim of warfare: The actor who prevails is the one that is willing to suffer the most losses and continue fighting. The Taliban have shown their mettle in this regard. To that we can add the historical observation that unlike secular (say, Maoist or Marxist-Leninist) guerrilla groups, religiously-inspired irregular warfare actors are seldom fully defeated, but instead ebb and flow like the tide depending on the political and social conditions of the day and the strength of countervailing forces.

That is because of the nature of their respective ideologies. Religion is a pervasive, deeply imbued primordial cultural organizing principle that, if driven underground, continues to reaffirm commonly shared traditional social values even in modern secular societies. In contrast, secularist ideologies, particularly anti-capitalist ideologies, start as minority belief systems that run contrary and seek to undermine the traditional or “proper” way of things. That makes it more difficult for them to clandestinely sustain themselves. Religious irregular warfare actors seek to reaffirm what traditionally is and has been; secular irregular warfare actors seek to overthrow and replace what is and was. Depending on the relative depth of religious belief in a given society, the former has a much better prospect of long-term success than the latter when it comes to asymmetric conflict.

Because of their lack of ideological support in most societies, secular irregular warfare actors either win or lose, the first via protracted irregular conflict culminated by conventional military victory and the latter via short intensive kinetic campaigns waged by overwhelmingly superior military actors. Faced with unfavourable warfare conditions, religious irregular warfare actors use society’s ideological depth as a subterranean means to avoid definitive kinetic and political outcomes and instead sink into the fabric of society and pursue guerrilla warfare as a form of counter-hegemonic struggle (often using terrorist tactics). Secular irregular warfare actors also attempt to do this, but their lack of ideological depth in society exposes them to relatively quick detection and elimination. Conversely, the deeper the religious culture into which religious irregular warfare actors can dive, the more likely that they will resurface as an intact fighting force once the stronger opponent has left the battlefield. That has now happened in Afghanistan.

The price paid by the Taliban during this conflict has been enormous. They have been killed in astronomical numbers by land, air and sea. A generation and more of their leadership cadres have been decimated. They lost control of cities and then rural areas, in some cases fleeing across borders in order to avoid complete annihilation. And yet, after two decades on non-stop warfare and the inter-generational destruction of scores of fighting cadres, they have regained control of Afghanistan now that the US and its ISAF partners have left the country.

In contrast, after twenty years of foreign-led military and civilian capacity building and billions of dollars spent on infrastructure in pursuit of national unification, the ISAF/UN-backed Afghan central government’s control throughout the country collapsed with astonishing speed. In the space of two months once the foreign forces withdrawal was announced, the Taliban gained control over the majority of Afghan territory. Kabul has fallen and the foreign-backed president Ghani has fled (along with millions in cash), leaving his subordinates and foreign patron remnants to fend for themselves. Taliban patrol the capital’s streets and assassins lurk in and around the Kabul “Green Zone” where foreigners and local elites lived and worked, selectively murdering journalists, pilots, teachers and other skilled labourers seen as associated with the occupiers or opposed to Taliban rule. The spectre of a genocidal, gendered bloodbath is a real possibility and there is a mass refugee migration underway from Afghanistan into neighbouring countries, especially from non-Pashtun, non-Sunni regions. Over a quarter million people have fled their homelands in the last two months alone, and the international airport in Kabul is a scene of chaos as thousands seek airlift rescue. It is not a stretch to draw parallels with the fall of Saigon, especially after seeing scenes of Chinook helicopters evacuating people from the rooftop of the US embassy.

Even more so than the failed experiment in post-Saddam Iraq, the US-led push to democratise and secularise Afghan politics and society has fallen hard on the double swords of corruption and traditional culture. The Western-backed governments that have held power once the Taliban were overthrown in 2002 have been little more than kleptocratic distribution wheels for the favoured and connected. Modernization in the form of aid programs to foment the likes of female education, road building, health and sanitation facilities, reticulated sewage systems, electrical power grids etc. have not only been a source of corruption but have been accepted without producing the cultural shifts that were assumed by Western patrons to be the logical and inevitable end result of such efforts. As a former US military officer noted with reference to the locals, “they will smile and gladly accept our help during the day, and then they will sneak back and kill us at night.”

In other words, the physical infrastructure of the country may have been modernised, but by and large the societal value structure was not.

The hard fact is that the seeds of the latest Western defeat in Afghanistan were sown the moment the nation-building project in that country began. Had the US and its allies defeated the Taliban and then left Afghanistan to sort itself out along traditional ethno-religious and tribal lines (say, by allowing warlords and tribal militias to contest local authority with central government advocates), the process of national reunification or reorganisation would have been violent but in all likelihood shorter and more durable when it came to the distribution of and balance of power between local and central authorities. As a Pentagon colleague of mine said when surveying the wreckages of US military intervention there and in Iraq, “we should have declared victory and gone home after the bad guys were defeated, then left (them) to it.”

Instead, the US-led ISAF coalition attempted to impose “democracy” on a country with extremely limited historical or practical experience with that concept. The project was therefore bound to be a failure in form (procedure) and substance (outcomes), both of which were manipulated to serve the ends of local elites. To put it in more general terms: attempting to impose modern and post-modern Western-style political forms, social norms and cultural mores on populations dominated by pre-modern (authoritarian) social hierarchies was akin to trying to get a fish to ride the proverbial bicycle.

The irony is that the notion of “nation-building” was a bastardisation of the counterinsurgency (COIN) axiom about psychological operations, where the point is to win the “hearts and minds” of a disputed population via provision of security, health care and other amenities of civilisation in order to gain their acceptance and trust while diminishing that given to the insurgent enemy. The original COIN focus was on very localised populations for relatively short periods of time, not entire countries for long periods of time, and involved using local grievances against domestic insurgents in order to gain information that allowed for their detection and elimination as part of what came to be known as the “inkblot” strategy of incremental taking and holding of enemy social space. In other words, it was one aspect of an irregular warfare strategy used against insurgents and was not an end of itself.

This was all known before the nation-building exercise began, not only by counter-insurgency specialists in military communities, but by anthropologists and sociologists who study places like Iraq and Afghanistan and their respective sub-cultures. It was/is also known by political scientists (aka “transitologists”) who study regime change from authoritarianism to democracy and vice versa–in short, it is hard to impose from the outside unfamiliar and often unwelcome types of governance on tradition-bound and/or pre-modern societies even if improvements to material standards of living are part of the package. The reasons are many but the conclusion is clear: external imposition of foreign social norms and political structures, no matter how well-wrapped in developmental assistance, is most likely to fail.

All of this accumulated wisdom was ignored in Western capitals (including Wellington) when the macro-level dimensions of the ISAF mission were operationalised. Instead, intelligence and military organisations attempted to use social scientists to develop micro-level conceptual maps of the “human terrain” on which the military and civilian capacity-building campaigns were undertaken. Although they enjoyed some tactical success, at a strategic level these efforts ultimately failed and proved to be a harbinger of things to come.

Never has that phrase “graveyard of Empires” been spelled out in so much lost blood and treasure. But beyond the waste of Western efforts to construct a unified country in territory that is home to more than one nation, or the brutal toll taken on innocent Afghan civilians looking to live in whatever peace might come to them, what exactly has been lost? Is the impending calamity of a Taliban takeover as described by Western media and politicians really likely to come true?

As it turns out, after I started writing this post I got a call from my friend Jon Stephenson, the war correspondent and investigative reporter. Jon probably knows as much as anybody in NZ about that country, and it was fortuitous that he got in touch while I was thinking about what is written above. What follows is my distillation of some pertinent parts of our conversation.

The Taliban are not monolithic. They have moderate and militant factions and political and military wings. They exert more control and influence in the rural, less modernised countryside than they do in cities, especially the capital Kabul. The political leadership in Doha is more moderate than the military leadership on the ground in Afghanistan, and its degree of control over military commanders is comparatively looser than, say, that of the political leaders of Hezbollah or Hamas. The Taliban have been relatively well-received in Pashtun/Sunni dominant regions such as their birthplace, Kandahar Province, but have encountered local resistance in non-Pashtun/Shiia regions such as Bamiyan Province. In other words, their degree of support and control in areas outside of Kabul is uneven and at times contested by local warlords and militias. As for Kabul, the issue is pretty stark. The Taliban can infiltrate, surround, isolate and attempt to choke the capital into complete surrender in the face of significant armed resistance from foreign military forces and what is left of Afghan security units linked to them, or the capital can keep supply lifelines going by air and (perhaps, but unlikely) secure land corridors until a negotiated settlement is reached. Western military help will be needed to stave off or forestall a Taliban takeover of Kabul but if that is forthcoming (and it appears to be) a peaceful handover of power or power-sharing compromise may be possible.

In any event issues of national governance may prove problematic for the Taliban. After all, what they will have to do even if complete military victory is achieved is to build a State out of the ruins of the current one. They will need to provide public goods and services, organise a (Sharia) legal system, re-create a public bureaucracy that includes everything from health and education administration to border (immigration and customs) controls and transportation regulations, civil aviation rules, document issuance and certification, etc. For that they will need bureaucrats and other skilled labor, many of whom are fleeing the country as I write. They will need an institutional edifice–actually buildings with people and communications apparatuses in them– in order to discharge their nation-wide public service functions beyond those involved in local repression. Hence, although they may be adept at fighting and some may be willing to return to the Medieval Era when it comes to organising Afghan society, it is more likely that the Taliban will have to compromise on the extent to which Afghanistan will return to the Dark Ages and what aspects of modernity it can live with. The question is therefore how much will the Taliban be willing and able to compromise, and on what subjects and policy areas?

This is all the more true because other foreign actors, the PRC, Russia, India and Iran in particular, have their sights on mineral-rich Afghanistan as a geopolitical buffer and/or investment opportunity. Pakistan, as always, will be a major player in Afghanistan’s future because it would prefer to see Afghanistan weak and internally divided rather than unified and strong (if for no other reason than the latter encouraging cross-border irredentist sentiment in Pakistan). Islamicist groups in bordering countries and further afield may be emboldened by the Taliban’s success and seek to emulate them while looking for their support. That is bound to be of concern to the leaders of the above-mentioned countries as well as the other geographically contiguous “‘Stans,” all of which have indigenous Islamicist groups to contend with.

Getting these foreign interlocutors to invest diplomatically and economically means that the Taliban must offer self-binding assurances and guarantees and assume contractual obligations of various sorts, negotiated by people competent enough to engage with sophisticated foreign counterparts and legitimately representative enough to ensure that any deals they make or promises made are binding. That is by no means assured at this point because if one thing is certain is that Afghans are generally disposed to look at any foreign presence with suspicion and distrust. That includes non-Western foreigners as well as those from the West, who in any event will have to confront the compounded obstacles posed by corruption and traditional values.

At a minimum, besides the need to operate domestically-focused public bureaucracies, the Taliban will need a diplomatic corps capable of dealing with foreign entities. Those must include people competent to engage with aid agencies given the inevitable requests for reconstruction assistance as well as those responsible for interacting with various potential military and diplomatic partners. That requires significant levels of education and experience, which given the brain drain now underway in Afghanistan means that the Taliban cannot afford to go full Pol Pot on the country and kill all infidel locals off and in fact will likely have to employ foreign nationals in any event in order to operate their public sector, to say nothing of staffing the private interests that may establish a presence in the country.

This is not entirely unusual–Singapore would collapse in less than a week if “ang mohs” (Europeans) were withdrawn from upper and middle management ranks in all bureaucratic sectors of the Little Red Dot–but the retrograde cultural dispositions of at least some of the Taliban leadership may make that difficult to achieve and will require internecine settlements between moderate and militant Taliban factions in what may well turn out to be the “old fashioned” Afghan way of resolving conflicts. The larger point is that the world does not end with a Taliban takeover, they cannot survive as a regime governing a nation-state if they kill and repress everyone who is not an adherent of their ideology, they therefore need to know how to play nicely with a range of interlocutors, foreign and domestic, all of which means they need to get their house in order before they present a cohesive if not inclusive face to Afghan society as well as the global community.

Twenty years of foreign occupation has changed Afghan society, at least in the urban and suburban areas where Western influence and development projects were the most heavily felt. Just as the degree of religious density in a society facilitates the subterranean presence of religious irregular warfare actors, the degree to which that social fabric is imbued by new conceptions of the proper cultural order makes more difficult a return to the original Taliban past, especially when the return involves material and social deprivation for all or some of society’s component parts–say, for example, women, who are now an integral and vital part of Afghan public services.

In parallel, the Taliban of today are not exact replicas of their fathers. The intergenerational passage mentioned earlier with regard to warfare extends to how the contemporary Taliban differ in their view of how to rule post-occupation Afghanistan. As Jon Stephenson mentioned with regards to the situation in general, it is hard to predict what will happen but things have certainly changed for the Taliban when it comes to governing in coalition or alone. The society that they will now inherit is not the society that they left behind when the foreigners arrived to remove them.

In a signal of its defeat, the US has asked the Taliban not to attack its embassy in Kabul and warns that it will use aid assistance as leverage against future Taliban provocations or transgressions once it office. Both scenarios may come to pass but the truth is that the the Taliban will be looking for new international partners rather than redraw contracts with those who backed the deposed regime. For those Afghans who placed their bets on supporting the US and ISAF and worked with and for them, the moment is indeed uncertain and tragic. Like the Kurds, Iraqis and Vietnamese before them, many of those who sided with the US will lose their lives and livelihoods in the months to come. Others may find refuge in ISAF coalition member countries, including New Zealand. But the hard reality is that siding with a foreign occupier was always a fraught proposition based on significant inter-temporal (current and future) risk, and for many that dark future has arrived. What is puzzling is that even in the face of such foreboding prospects, many non-Taliban Afghans have chosen to surrender (in the case of security forces) or flee (in the case of civilians) rather than fight.

What this means is that indeed, there is a tragedy at play in the return of the Taliban. But it may not be the calamity that many in the West think that it will be because the circumstances surrounding the return mitigates against rather than in favour of wanton destruction and mass blood-letting. The Taliban need to demonstrate that they can rule over a society that is in significant ways different than the one they governed two decades ago, and they need to engage with an international community that also is different than the one that blamed them for harbouring al-Qaeda. The Taliban themselves are different in many ways, as are the foreign interests willing to engage with them on economic and diplomatic matters. Their domestic threat environment now includes co-religionists in the form of al-Qaeda and Daesh, to which can be added splinter groups from adjoining countries and local warlords and militias with foreign ties. It will not be easy for them to re-impose the status quo ante 2002 even if that is their unified desire (which it does not appear to be judging from the political leadership’s statements).

This is the basis for a glimmer of hope in the Afghanistan regime transition now underway. If not born of compromise, Taliban rule will likely be different out of necessity. It is important that the international community do all that is possible to ensure that the political necessity of the moment becomes long-term governance fact not only for the good of the Afghan people but in order to pay the fair price of making amends for what ultimately is the result of Western neo-imperialist hubris.

Postscript: What was heard from above. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/08/what-i-learned-while-eavesdropping-on-the-taliban/619807/