One of the year’s major foreign policy decisions will soon be landing on the table of John Key’s government. The US will be coming round to ask for our military help. Should New Zealand agree to offer more military aid to help out the Americans in Afghanistan ? Including perhaps, the offer of our SAS special forces? As tends to be the case on foreign policy and defence matters under National, New Zealand is waiting to see what other countries do first.
We may not be able to sit on the fence much longer. Late last month Australia’s Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon made two things crystal clear. First, Fitzgibbon confirmed, Canberra is expecting US President Barack Obama will soon ask Australia to make a bigger military contribution in Afghanistan. At the same time, Fitzgibbon declared no such extra military help would be given unless (a) other countries did more as well and (b) unless the US could show Canberra it had a workable plan to win.
Somehow, its hard to imagine either John Key or Foreign Affairts Minister Murray McCully being quite so forthright with the Americans – but plainly, a call for us to lend greater military help in the Afghan war is just over the horizon. What conditions, if any, will we seek to impose ?
In an ABC interview with Alexandra Kirk, Fitzgibbon laid it on the line :
FITZGIBBON : There are a number of threshold questions any responsible government would ask itself. And of course the most critical of those is: does the – do the international partners have the will and a plan to win?
Our troops are the best in the world. But the reality is, even doubling our troop numbers in Afghanistan will make no difference if others are not prepared to do more and there is no overall, overarching plan for better success.
And of course then we would ask ourselves: what would be the role for these additional troops within that overarching plan? What are the risks, of course, to our troops? Are they acceptable risks? But the threshold question really is….there would need to be a justification, we need to be convinced, that others are prepared to do more, and that doing more from our side of the world would make a difference. And if the risks were acceptable, and at the end of the day, doing more would make a difference.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: And have you got that strategic reasoning yet?
JOEL FITZGIBBON: No, no strategic justification has been made out for Australia to do more in Afghanistan.
ALEXANDRA KIRK: And do you expect that would happen if President Obama makes a request for more troops from Australia, that that would be accompanied by some strategic justifications?
JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, again, of course. Any such requests would have to come with a convincing argument that Australia doing more in Afghanistan would make a difference. And of course, alone we can’t make a difference.
A substantial number of countries would have to do substantially more, and we’d need to be convinced that they have the plan and the will to win. And that of course means a properly resourced and coordinated civil, military and political plan.
On that basis, it is reasonable to infer that Canberra may already be talking to New Zealand to see what extra effort, if any, we are preparing to make. Vice President Joe Biden is currently in Europe drumming up support for US policy in Afghanistan, with mixed results so far – Italy has agreed to send more troops, but France and Germany seem reluctant to do more. Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy on Afghanistan, is also currently touring Asian capitals to explain how the US proposes to proceed in Afghanistan.
In the recent past, National’s then Defence spokesperson Simon Power had famously vowed that New Zealand should go militarily wherever Britain, the US, and Australia decide to go – apparently with no questions asked, and no thinking required. That attitude would have got us into the Iraq war, with terrible consequences for our national security. It would be re-assuring if Key could make it plain hat he – like Fitzgibbon – will want to see a workable plan for success in Afghanistan, starting with what our achievable goals would be.
Would we for instance be defining our goal as the defeat of the Taliban – or merely the rendering of al Qaeda incapable of mounting any further international operations ? The former seems impossible, given that the Taliban now reportedly have a ‘permanent presence’ in 72 % of the country, while the latter goal seems to have already been achieved. Like Australia, we would want to know that other countries were on board – but how many troops in all would we regard as being enough to tip the balance of our decision, and render victory in Afghanistan possible ?
Key on Locke The news that the SIS kept open its file on Green MP Keith Locke even after he was elected to Parliament in 1999 is outrageous. In a democracy, the security services have no business in monitoring the constituency work of a sitting MP and in keeping up a clippings file of media reports of his activities. Given Locke’s keen interest and expertise in immigration matters, there is for instance, no way of knowing whether innocent immigrants seeking help from Locke might not also have come under a cloud of suspicion.
In the absence of any criminal or seditious behaviour during the 51 years that Locke has been under suspicion, his case demands a change of policy. Firstly, John Key, as Minister in charge of the SIS, should immediately order Locke’s file to be closed – and he should give instructions that when a citizen becomes elected, their SIS file should be automatically closed – and only re-opened if fresh and compelling evidence provides a reason to do so. That is the only way of trying to ensure the security services do not interfere in the legitimate activity of Parliament.
The Gaza War, Who Won? Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak’s cynical gamble that a bloody war in Gaza was their only chance of beating Benjamin Netanyahu in this week’s Israeli election, may finally be paying off .
However, if the Israelis thought that its military onslaught would cripple Hamas as a political force and boost the role of Fatah as a viable partner for ‘ peace’, then that tactic has failed, utterly. In opinion polls conducted among Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank during late January, the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre found some interesting results. Some 46.7% of Palestinians believed that Hamas had won the January war and only 9.8 % thought Israel had won, while a sizeable bloc of 37 % felt neither side had achieved victory.
A striking finding in this field poll is the disparity between opinions in the West Bank and opinions in the Gaza Strip on most of the issues tackled in the poll. For example, 53.3% of respondents in the West Bank believe that Hamas won in the recent war, while 35.2% of respondents in the Gaza Strip felt the same.
The poll, with a random sample of 1,198 respondents, found a rise in the popularity of the Hamas movement – especially in the West Bank – and the popularity of its leaders and government in Gaza Strip alongside a decline in the popularity of the Fatah movement and its leaders and government in the West Bank.
The subsidiary results show that that three quarters of Palestinians believe Israel deliberately started the war, and that no Palestinian action could have possibly avoided it. On the subject of civilian casualties, three quarters of Palestinians felt that Israel was deliberately targeting civilians, rather than the bulk of the casualties being caused by Hamas hiding among civilians.
Moreover, the rocket fire from Gaza is still viewed by Palestinians as a positive tactic. “ The percentage of respondents who believe that locally-made rockets help achieve the Palestinian national goals rose from 39.3% last April to 50.8% in this poll, with a decrease in the percentage of respondents who believe that the rockets harm national interests from 35.7% last April to 20.8% in this poll.”
Clearly, who-ever wins this week’s election in Israel will inherit a relationship with Palestinians that is even more polarized than ever. Domestically, the options in this week’s Israeli election could hardly be more bleak. Incredible as it may seem to the outside world – a Livni/Barak coalition victory would be the soft alternative. Netanyahu still leads. Yet this particular campaign has been dominated by the rise of the former Russian nightclub bouncer Avigdor Lieberman, and his ultra right Yisraeli Beiteinu party – largely on the back of a campaign waged against Israeli Arabs, whom Lieberman has described as being a fifth column in Israel’s midst.
Even before the Gaza war began, Livni was noting Lieberman’s popularity, and she began tacking rightwards to imitate his rhetoric. In December, Livni said that if elected she would tell Israel’s Arab citizens that ‘your national aspirations lie elsewhere,’ – comments that were widely seen as an endorsement of Lieberman’s plan to transfer Israel’s Arabs to Palestinian control.
A Netanyahu/Lieberman ruling coalition would make Barack Obama’s task in the Middle East virtually impossible. Yet the differences between that dire prospect and a Livni/Barak coalition may be little more than cosmetic.