Other People’s Wars: New Zealand in Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror, by Nicky Hager (Craig Potton Publishing, 2011), 439 pp., $49.99.
New Zealanders may feel anger and betrayal at reading Nicky Hager’s latest installment of their country’s secret history. But for those described by the former United States ambassador to New Zealand Charles Swindells as ‘first worlders’ – the military and foreign affairs officials, business people and politicians who regard New Zealand as a US ally – the anger will stem from the fact that the lid has been lifted on their activities so comprehensively.
The rest of us, those who applauded then-prime minister Helen Clark’s decision to stay out of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, will feel betrayed to find we went anyway, as the diplomatic and military establishment took every opportunity to suck up to the US.
‘Sucking up’ is a common term of opprobrium in the New Zealand vernacular, but the top brass who are always shooting off to conferences about ‘security’, along with the diplomats vying for the plum Washington posting and the spies angling for secondment to Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters or the US National Security Agency, don’t appear to listen much to the normal patterns of Kiwi speech. Or if they do, as can be seen from the reams of intercept transcripts from the Operation Eight Urewera terror trial, they mishear.
Hager has been dismissed by one major NZ newspaper as not doing journalism. But if journalism is the first draft of history, better Hager’s Official Information Act requests, his diligent archive trawling, his Wikileaks turn-ups, and his nurturing of confidential interviews from informed sources, than the regurgitated spin and public relations pap that mainstream newspapers and television have served up over the past decade.
Sure, New Zealand troops in Bamiyan may have handed out toys and pencils and rebuilt some school playgrounds in their spare time. But ‘Provincial Reconstruction Team’ (PTR) turns out to have been an artful misnomer. Their real task was to be a cog in the green machine, the US army of occupation, freeing up American combat troops for redeployment to Iraq.
Hager helpfully provides the parts of the ‘all of government’ review of New Zealand’s achievements in Afghanistan that were redacted so as not to prejudice ‘the security and defence of New Zealand’. Behind the stream of good news stories being served up back home was the reality of an omnishambles, with the report concluding the New Zealand Defence Force was ‘not an effective aid provider’ in Bamiyan. Each Provincial Reconstruction Team commander on six month deployment would set their own agenda, and there were no mechanisms in place to monitor the impact, effectiveness or sustainability of projects. And anyway, outside its small compound, the force was too small to provide effective security. Its role was to maintain ‘a perception of security’.
Hager works through each of the services in turn, revealing consistent patterns of lying to politicians and the public, the manipulating of budgets, the undermining of any attempt for New Zealand to pursue an independent policy, and the sucking up – with a horrendous sucking noise – to a robotic US war machine that many of our troops on the ground distrusted and disliked, not only for its hubris but for the way its might was ‘disconnected from coherent strategy’.
If you thought the Royal New Zealand Air Force was a smaller burden on the New Zealand taxpayer because of the axing of the Skyhawks, think again. Hager reveals that when relieved of flying duties the brass fought back, capturing senior defence appointments, bamboozling politicians and winning hundreds of millions of dollars for high-tech systems which have little to do with the country’s needs but a lot to do with seamless integration with Anglo-US military adventures. In 2000 the Air Force told the incoming Labour cabinet that the upgrade of the Orions was mainly to detect illegal fishing, and it would cost $200 million to meet civil requirements, and maybe another 10 percent for military needs.
The government select committee which reviewed the bid found that the key specification in the tender documents was that the planes were able to be ‘employed as part of a larger coalition force integrated into an international, probably US-led, coalition maritime order of battle.’ However that’s the last time the military let our parliament sight a tender document: they are now routinely withheld on the ‘prejudice the defence and security of New Zealand’ excuse.
The government choked on the eventual NZ $562.1 million price tag, and requested a rethink. In 2004 the Air Force came back with a NZ $352 million bid, which the hapless Mark Burdon accepted – not realising it was actually the same bid, with the difference achieved through the NZ-US dollar exchange rate moving.
Over the past decade the ratio of officers to other ranks in the RNZAF has gone from one in four to one in three, and the pay for a Group Captain doubled to just under NZ $200,000. The Navy now has 23 percent of its staff wearing gold braid, and like the Air Force mostly in the higher ranks. The New Zealand Army in comparison has 17 percent officers, mostly in lower ranks.
While Clark tried to keep on top of what officials were telling her and did what she could to limit direct participation in the Middle East fighting, her successor John Key seems to have no such qualms. On the election trail National pitched its foreign and defence policies as a continuation of Labour’s. But Hager shows what Key says and does are two different things.
Despite getting advice (which it kept from the public) that the insurgency was heating up, National sent New Zealand SAS troops back to Kabul. Key assured New Zealand journalists the SAS would not be fighting alongside any of the Afghan forces they were training. It turned out, not only were they doing that, but National ‘provided the SAS for one of the bloodiest and most dangerous military roles in Afghanistan: frontline operations against suicide bombers and other attackers in the deepening insurgency.’
Since the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli, New Zealand has struggled to develop an independent sense of itself on the world stage, usually with Labour projecting an indigenous nationalism and National winding back the clock where it could. Taking us through this history, with special emphasis on the years since 2001, massively detailed and documented, Hager’s polemic arrives inexorably at its judgement: ‘New Zealand’s alliances are not about local security and defence; they are almost entirely about fighting in other people’s wars’. Hager suggests this has been aided and abetted by homegrown special interest groups: ‘Misuse of power by … a colonial non-intellectual business elite … is one of the main obstacles to progress in New Zealand as a distinctive independent nation.’
As a commentator, Hager is as fearless and outspoken as Robert Fisk, John Pilger or John Ralston Saul, and as much capable of finding the absurdist blackly comic Catch 22-type thinking in local military circles as those journalists have found in the Western military-industrial complex. Hager’s conclusion on the current state of play in New Zealand is that is that ‘the public and Parliament need to take control of the military, foreign affairs and the intelligence agencies’. His is a timely and important book that, as the back cover blurb states, confirms the need for open and transparent government.
ADAM GIFFORD is an Auckland-based journalist, writer and broadcaster.
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