OnPoint by Keith Ng


Other People's Wars

The main point of Nicky Hager's new book, Other People's Wars, is that the story we have been led to believe - that Kiwi troops are in Afghanistan to do reconstruction and peacekeeping, and that this is distinct and kinda independent from the actual war that America is fighting - is just PR bollocks. Essentially, New Zealand soldiers played a part in US operations which blew shit up and killed people; New Zealand's reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are "poorly planned" and "wildly exaggerated", but justifies their presence while they support US intelligence operatives working out of the Bamiyan base.

But the twist is that the source of the deception/obfustication (depending on how generous you are) wasn't politicians, but the military itself. That it "blurred" reports which went up the chain of command, kept ministers in the dark and undermined or ignored government directives.

A major theme throughout the book is the military media control and public relations.

That's the context in which Guyon Espiner asked Hager if he'd ever been to Afghanistan. Hager said no. "Well," said Guyon, "I've been to Afghanistan."

It started as a really interesting point. Espiner challenged Hager's assertion that the US intelligence operation in Bamiyan was somehow secret or hidden. When he was there, Espiner said, he asked about the civilians on the base and he was told, quite openly, that they were US intelligence operatives. This formed a view shared by many of the journalists in the room (i.e. The Press Gallery): We are part of an American war. It's not surprising that American agents are around.

So why should we care that CIA agents are operating out of Kiwi Base? An excerpt from the book:

Clearly, having CIA operatives inside the Kiwi base fitted poorly with the deployment's stated goals. Why would the New Zealand authorities risk the New Zealanders working at Kiwi Base, and the credibility of the New Zealand peacekeeping mission, by mixing them up with a CIA operation? After the suicide attack on the FOB [forward operating base] Chapman, the issue of CIA operations inside a provincial reconstruction team was widely discussed. The Times wrote that "PRTs have been criticised widely for endangering civilian aid workers by blurring the line between development staff and the military. 'Having CIA operatives in a PRT raises serious concerns fo us,' said a senior Western official in Kabul. We are hardly going to be encouraged to set up shop in dangerous areas if the insurgents get the message that PRTs come promising development but bring CIA agents.'"

I don't think that the CIA presence in Kiwi Base is completely unjustifiable, but it's at least concerning and worth looking into if, you know, it's your job to look into things. It's jawdropping that a reporter like Espiner could have been there, known about this, and just flat out considered it not worth reporting.

Instead, we get this "I've been to Afghanistan. I have seen some shit, man." narrative. Sure, I've been known to describe my work in Sri Lanka as "war reporting" - but only when I'm drunk and trying to impress a hottie. In reality, it's parachute reporting, at most. I didn't go areas where people were actually getting shot, because I didn't want to get goddamn shot. I didn't have sources in the army or people who trusted me enough to tell me secrets.

Arguably, a choreographed, chaperoned tiki-tour is even less than that. But because people like Espiner Have Been to Afghanistan, they can deliver the good news about our reconstruction efforts with sincerity and confidence. Because He Has Been to Afghanistan.

All Hager has to go on, on the other hand, are sections of a government review of NZDF's operation in Bamiyan, which was redacted on the basis that it would prejudice the security and defence of New Zealand:

The news was not good. 'The projects overseen by the [New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF)] through the [Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT)] do not appear to be sustainable in any way and anecdotal evidence is that some have already failed.' This was also the case with the bigger US-funded projects overseen by the PRT... These 'fundamental errors in contract management and basic assessment raise questios about the competence of military forces to run aid projects.'

The report concluded that the NZDF was 'not an effective aid provider'. There was 'a huge lack of continuity [and] conflicting priorities...'

And so on.

More after I actually read the bloody thing.

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