Sunday, March 26, 2017

The NZDF's flawed damage-control model

My impression of the Defence establishment, admittedly from the perspective of an outsider who claims no special insight, is that it has a lot in common with the Catholic Church. Both are insular, hierarchical institutions that observe rituals and traditions that can seem mystifying to the uninitiated. This is not a criticism; it’s just a fact.

Both also strike me as being unaccustomed to, and therefore resentful of, outside scrutiny. Their natural instinct, when under criticism, is to close ranks and go into self-protection mode.

That seems to be what’s happened over allegations of civilian deaths in Afghanistan. The Defence Force has put its helmet on, hunkered down in its foxhole and is now waiting in the hope that the shelling will stop. Like the Catholic Church in its response to sexual abuse scandals, it seems ill-equipped to deal with public relations crises.

The government, too, seems to be hoping this will all blow over. Bill English appears to assume that the bland “Nothing to see here, folks” line that so often worked for John Key will be effective here too.  He and other ministers are counting on public respect for the SAS and suspicion of Nicky Hager’s motives to pull the government through unharmed. Besides, it all happened so long ago and far away.

I think they’re wrong. Yes, lots of people don’t want to think badly of our much-admired SAS and would rather not be confronted by the unpleasant possibility that they might have killed innocent people. But as human rights lawyer Marianne Elliott said in a thoughtful and balanced response to questions on Q+A this morning, even good people can make mistakes.

There are two issues here: whether the SAS did what’s alleged, and whether it was then covered up to avoid embarrassment. Both questions are troubling, but the latter arguably more so. Soldiers shooting the wrong people in a war zone, in the (presumably genuine) belief that their lives were threatened, is one thing; drawing a veil over it in the hope that no one would find out is quite another.

I wish we could be confident that the Defence Force would have been scrupulous in wanting to get to the truth of the matter, admit any error and atone for mistakes made, but the evidence suggests otherwise. I think the NZDF has made the mistake of taking the Catholic Church as its damage-control model. It’s surely only a matter of time before English and his ministers will have to accept that the allegations are too serious to be brushed aside. 


James said...

I somewhat sympathise with your analogy here, but I find it too simple for a complex problem.

Firstly, all current indications are that the raid in question was a joint ISAF-Afghan mission, albeit with fairly significant NZ SAS involvement. This means that the commander ISAF had legal culpability, not the NZ SAS.

Secondly, further indications (even admitted to by Mr Stephenson) are that the civilian deaths were caused by the US Apache firing in support of ground troops. Therefore any inquiry into deaths fall outside of NZDF / NZ Govt scope.

Thirdly, if a war crime has been committed by NZDF, then the appropriate investigating authority is NZ Police. An 'independent inquiry' would in fact jeopardise a potentially criminal inquiry.

Fourthly, you must sympathise with Lt Gen Keating here - up against two authors with a long history of antagonism (to say the least) towards NZDF, who both have a history of taking facts, and twisting them before presenting them with only one side of the story. Hagar and Stephenson deliberately avoided comment from NZDF - to do so would provide unfortunate context for their sensational claims. Then on top of that, this has all been released when CDF was visiting his troops in Iraq, with the Minister of Defence - small wonder the NZDF seems to be slow out of the starting blocks. Then finally, the Leader of the Opposition has jumped at the chance to get the boot in and prematurely demand an inquiry. Any comment the CDF makes now will inherently be political, and he must be very careful not to contradict the leader of the opposition.

So, I must respectfully disagree with your analogy to the Catholic Church.

James said...

I somewhat sympathise with your analogy to the Catholic Church, but I believe it is too simple an analogy for a complex problem.

Firstly, all indications are that the raid was a joint ISAF and Afghan National Army mission. This means that whilst NZ SAS may have played a key role in planning and conducting the mission, overall legal culpability must rest with the ISAF Commander and the Afghan military. David Fisher has written an article with some good sources pointing out how the US fed intelligence was a key driver for targeting that village.

Secondly, Mr Stephenson himself has admitted that the civilian casualties came from the US Army Apache helicopter, not any NZ SAS forces in the raid. Therefore any investigation or repercussions cannot come from the NZDF - hence their statements up until now that they do not believe that NZSAS caused any civilian deaths.

Thirdly, if a war crime has been committed by NZ forces, any so-called ‘independent inquiry’ would probably jeopardise what would need to be a criminal inquiry - Hagar and Stephenson’s first port of call should be the NZ Police. This is a fact that has been pointed out by Lt O’Donnell’s family in the Manawatu Standard.

Fourthly, you have to sympathise with Lt Gen Keating here - he was in fact in Iraq seeing his troops there, and has only returned today. Hagar and Stephenson never approached the NZDF for comment (modus operandi here - get facts, twist them out of context, present them with only one side of the story), but now Lt Gen Keating must be careful to protect the reputation of the NZDF, not criticise allies (including the Afghan National Army and the US who by all accounts gave the faulty intelligence and caused the casualties themselves), and now must navigate a political minefield not helped by the Leader of the Opposition immediately taking a premature position - anything the CDF says now will have overtly political results.

Hagar and Stephenson have a long history of being antagonistic (at a minimum) towards the NZDF, and they both have form in presenting sensationalised, one sided versions of a story, with no thought given to providing balance or context.

Therefore I respectfully disagree with your comparison of NZDF to the Catholic Church.