Thursday, 1 June 2006

Still questions about Timor intervention

A week or so ago I suggested that with 160 NZ soldiers (and counting) now in East Timor for at least a year, it's surprising that there's been so little debate. Have I missed it somewhere? I invited debate here at Not PC, but it was muted, though intelligent, unlike the comments my invitation attracted elsewhere from bloggers who apparently can't read.

When troops are sent overseas into battle, most Parliaments and most people debate the intervention. Not here. I find that odd. It's essential to know what your goal is with any military intervention, and it's essential there's widespread public support for an intervention - if for no other reason than that support beeing needed if things do go pear-shaped. A debate would at least crystallise what's going on and why we're there, wouldn't it? Or should we just trust Helen and Phil now? Anyway, in response to my questions, Phil Howison responded [italics mine]:
If the intervention is well-led, it will probably be successful, at least in the short term. The gangs, rebels and factions are completely outgunned. It seems like the Aussies have allied themselves loosely with the ex-guerrillas - a smart move. After all, they defeated the Indonesians in guerrilla warfare, they could certainly force an Australian withdrawal if they saw it as opposed to their own interests (I certainly can't see the Aussies staying for 24 years, like the Indonesians).

As for the strategic rationale, this is definitely in Australia's interest, and New Zealand should contribute both to give more regional legitimacy and to support an ally. Operations like this pose little risk and offer troops a chance to put their training into practice.

Australia is currently surrounded by weak and failing states to the north and east. A full collapse of any of those countries poses risks for Australia including disease, refugees, arms trafficking, smuggling etc. One major threat to Australia is terrorism. Weak states north of Australia - Indonesia, the Philippines etc - are home to Islamic terrorist groups like JI and Abu Sayyaf. They haven't attacked Australia yet, but failed states close by could offer secure locations for training camps and staging grounds unless Australia intervenes. This would particularly be the case if those Islamic groups (or radicalised elements within the Indonesian military) launched a jihad against East Timor and the Australians based there.
Good points. The threat of failed states is a real one, which makes taking an interest in preventing failed South Pacific states is in our selfish interests, which is of crucial importance, but the items I italicised still worry me. Is there really so little risk? And as you say, the intervention is likely to be successful in the short term (we trust), but what about the longer term? Is there sufficient support for a longer haul there that starts to get messy? Mark responded to my question as to whom the beneficiaries of the intervention might be:
The beneficiaries will be the people of East Timor. Yes, the NZ taxpayer foots the bill, but we have an obligation to help out in our region. The troops will bring peace and stability, and save lives.
Well, let's hope so. But Trevor at New Zeal has a series of posts that might cast a less attractive light on who the political beneficiaries might be. Is Xanana Gusmao really such an unalloyed good thing as he's being said to be? And Helen Hill in The Age wonders why now-sacked PM Mari Alkatiri is being so demonised -- but then she's a sociologist, so we know she can't be taken seriously. Trevor has information about him too that sounds less savoury. The pertinent question is, do we really know enough about either man or about the so-called rebels to know who is worth defending and which side to take, which is a question we are ineluctably going to have to answer - if not in Wellington and Canberra but of necessity on the ground in Dilli. Beyond "peace and stability," who exactly are our troops fighting for, and against whom exactly? And let's not even mention Helen's UN ambitions -- unless of course they're relevant?

There's been little debate here in NZ. Paul Buchanan however asks some good questions, first about whether recent South Pacific crises might have highlighted a failure of intelligence:
Political instability and collective violence in Fiji, the Solomons and East Timor in recent months raises questions about New Zealand’s intelligence and security capabilities in its primary area of geostrategic concern, the southwestern Pacific Rim.
Given the surprise with which each crisis was greeted, that seems the case doesn't it. He continues with some concern about the vagueness to date of the precise mission on which NZ's troops are engaged:
Then there is a more fundamental issue. What exactly is the mission being undertaken? Geostrategic perspectives determine mission definition. Mission definition determines force composition, and force composition determines tactical orientation and deployment. The entire syllogism ideally determines weapons system acquisition and professional training, which are the ultimate determinants of mission accomplishment.

What then, is New Zealand’s security mission in the Solomons and Timor Leste? Originally defined as defending the East Timorese from Indonesian-backed militias and military aggression during the period surrounding national independence in 1999 and operating under UN mandates, the mission has evolved into something else. But what exactly is it? Peacekeeping? Nation-building? Embassy protection? Policing? Establishing Law and Order (if not the Rule of Law)? Showing the Flag? Humanitarian assistance? Support for the UN? Support for the (widely despised) Timorese and Solomon Island governments?

The reason mission definition matters is that without clear and concise grounds and guidelines governing the rules of engagement in conflict zones, these military expeditions run the risk of suffering mission creep: the re-definition of the objectives and rules of engagement over time due to changing circumstances in-theater. When that happens, as in the case of US military interventions in places as disparate as Vietnam, Somalia and Iraq, the threat of being bogged down in an irresolvable political-ethic quagmire looms large. This means a potential waste of resources and possible weakening of New Zealand’s security position there and elsewhere, as well as potentially compromising its economic and diplomatic interests in the region.

More importantly, mission creep is most often a product of inadequate strategic planning resulting from faulty intelligence, lack of foresightedness and logistical incapacity. This scenario courts disaster, as mistakes in the field of international security assistance are measured in blood—in this case potentially that of Kiwis as well as those they seek to dissuade or protect.

Hard questions need to be asked of New Zealand’s national security leadership regarding these matters.
I agree. As Greg Sheridan warns in The Australian,"it is time to speak bluntly." I agree with him at least on that.
The situation in East Timor is much worse than even most analysts and commentators realise. The savage killings and lawlessness of the past few days, the fighting between soldiers and police, and between soldiers and soldiers, and police and police, represent a catastrophic failure of the East Timorese Government...

This crisis reveals dreadful underlying problems in East Timor that cannot be solved quickly but that must be addressed...
So are our own troops up to that job? Are they well-enough equipped? Should they be there? What precisely is their mission? Was there an 'intel failure' in our security services -- or only in our own civilian radar screens? What intellectual horsepower (if any) is there for 'nation building'? Is that what we're doing there? Why is there seemingly so little debate about all this? Without direction, any involvement will be flawed. And without a decent debate, will there be enough support when (or if) things start to go pear-shaped.

I for one think these are reasonable questions to ask.

LINKS: East Timor: Why? How many? And for how long? - Peter Cresswell, Not PC
Stand up the real Mr Alkatari - Helen Hill, The Age
NZ Intel failure evident in Timor Leste crisis - Paul Buchanan, Scoop
Dig in to save Timor - Greg Sheridan, The Australian

TAGS: War, Politics-NZ, Politics-Australian, Politics-World, Timor


  1. Good article. There has been some frothing criticism about Australia's imperial ambitions from the loony left of the internet, but not much discussion of how it will all actually work.

    I'm still all optimism about Timor's chances. If the police massacre hasn't destroyed the UN's credibility it should take over responsabilities when the time comes, and preside over the transition to a largely police-based force, with a smaller military component backing them up. Hopefully the lesson about early disengagement has been learnt, and they will not be so keen to get out quickly.

    I'm not aware that incubating a nation for a prolonged period has been done well before, but it currently looks like the best option. East Timor has been crippled by 25 years of brutal Indonesian rule that the world did nothing to prevent. We owe it to them to give them a decent chance to become a nation.

  2. In late 2001 I saw question time at Parliament, when the Opposition attempted to start a debate over the deployment of NZ special forces to Afghanistan. I thought the government's refusal to allow debate was incredibly arrogant - Clark was actually ostentatiously jangling her car keys in a show of impatience, as if sending NZ soldiers to war was a decision not even worth debating. So I understand what you mean, Peter.


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