Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Ron Smith: Talking about war
One consequence of this is a perpetual failure, by societies like ours, to make adequate provision for likely defence contingencies. Thus the period up to the New Zealand humanitarian intervention into East Timor (now Timor Leste) in 1999, was characterised by vociferous criticism of defence expenditure (‘toys for the boys’) by people who were then enthusiastic advocates of the operation. The consequence, of course, was to deploy forces that were inadequately trained and inadequately equipped.
There is another consequence of this sort of naïve pacifism and that is to force those responsible for the formulation of defence policy (both political and military) into ‘double-speak’. Humanitarian objectives and minimal harm activities are emphasised, and the nasty business of the effective use of military force is minimised. It is this essential ambiguity in the way we talk about war that was so extensively exploited by Nicky Hager in his recent book, Other People’s Wars. Of course, as the title suggests, it is Hager’s view that the ‘war on terror’ is not New Zealand’s war, but that is not (was not) the position of New Zealand governments over the period he reviews. Both administrations (Clark and Key) did wish to support the United States but they were confronted with the kind of reluctance hinted at above. This was dealt with in a number of ways. As far as the SAS was concerned, the policy was to say as little as possible about what was being done and where it was being done, and this, on the plausible grounds that any comment might be prejudicial to their security and the success of their operations.
By contrast, in the case of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in the Bamiyan province of Afghanistan, there was plenty said. As the name of the deployment suggested, this was purportedly a military effort directed towards improving infrastructure in the district and based on peaceful interaction with the civilian population. Some of this certainly went on; but not all that much, according to Hager. Bamiyan was also the centre for an intelligence-gathering operation, relevant to general military operations in Afghanistan. It had been a base for this kind of activity before the New Zealand party arrived and it continued to function in this way, after New Zealand took over the base. NZ patrols from Bamiyan took US intelligence operatives with them and NZ forces were debriefed by CIA personnel. Indeed, occasionally, local intelligence-gathering activities were conducted by specialist NZ personnel. Hager supplies copious evidence for all these assertions, much of which came from official NZ reports, or the comments of NZ service personnel who were there.
All this is a matter of considerable regret as far as Nicky Hager is concerned. He may not be against all (conceivable) wars but he is certainly against all wars that involve cooperation with the United States. He is profoundly and comprehensively anti-American. For the rest of us, cooperation with the various agencies of an ally (even the Central Intelligence Agency) may not seem such a shocking thing. Intelligence is at the heart of military operations, and of security in a theatre of war, and the product in the Bamiyan case could have been relevant to the security of our forces there, as well as serving wider military objectives. Indeed, there was always something naïve about the notion that we could deploy our military to such a dangerous place as Afghanistan, without any consideration for their defence in the event of serious insurgent attack. Of course, had that happened, there were air and air-mobile assets that would have been available, and, of course, available from our principal ally.
There is something else about our PRT deployment and that is the extent to which, even if there had been no connection with the NATO/ISAF military operations, it might have been considered non-threatening, in the way that an NGO might be. In a theatre like Afghanistan, the issue is substantially a matter of values, and Western civilian NGOs and PRTs represent a challenge to those values, even if those involved in them do not engage in overt proselytisation. We should be under no illusion, ‘hearts and minds’ activity is an adjunct to military operations.
We may talk freely of these things in an academic context but for governments, who need to sell their policies to a population with widely differing views on these difficult and emotional matters, it is a different thing. In this case there is an understandable temptation to dress the message to its best advantage by focussing on the positive and not inviting divisive debate by raising wider matters. In the end, though, there is a need for public debate on the basis of reliable information about what is actually being done. Nicky Hager is to be complimented on providing some of this primary source material.
at 11:13 AM