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NZ Intel Failure Evident In Timor Leste Crisis

Intelligence Failure, Lack Of Contingency Planning And Mission Creep In New Zealand Regional Security Assistance

By Paul G. Buchanan

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. The specific areas under scrutiny are New Zealand’s intelligence gathering capability in the region, its military preparedness to respond to emergencies region-wide, and the possibility of mission creep due to ill-defined strategic objectives in its sphere of influence.

Political intrigue and tense civil-military relations have been the order of the day in Fiji for more than a decade, with the abortive coup staged by George Speight and his armed followers in 2000 being the immediate backdrop to saber-rattling and political interference by current commander of the Fijian Defence Forces Commodore Frank Bainamarama. Even so, each new military demand and political twist appears to force the New Zealand government into reactive crisis management rather than proactive institution building in pursuit of democracy promotion.

In the case of the Solomons and East Timor there appears to be a complete intelligence failure. Ethnic tensions between the indigenous population and Chinese community, translated into often-armed struggles between power contenders contesting national elections in the Solomons, rippled seemingly unnoticed by New Zealand intelligence for months prior to the rioting of mid April. This resulted in the New Zealand government being surprised by the outbreak on collective violence in Honiara after a Chinese-supported candidate won the prime ministership.

In East Timor rising tension between Eastern and Western Timorese in conditions of mass unemployment, overlaid on the increasingly bitter rivalry between Timorese army and police over control of national security, raised questions about the quality of Timorese democracy at least a year ago. Yet here too the outbreak of collective violence after the firing of 600 soldiers two weeks back caught the New Zealand government off-guard, seemingly unaware and unprepared to deal with the contingency.

Instead, the latest annual threat assessment offered by the NZSIS, the main New Zealand intelligence agency, focuses on the threat posed by local would-be jihadis and Islamicist supporters. Not a single mention is made about the possibility of political crisis and ethnic violence in the southwestern Pacific, or of the threat that such poses for New Zealand’s interests. Since the NZSIS receives most of external threat assessment data from the External Assessment Bureau (EAB) in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, the failure to collect and accurately analyse intelligence on these regional hotspots extends to the core of the Labour government.

In the Solomons and East Timor New Zealand waited for the Australians to react, and contributed police and soldiers to the contingency forces sent to Dili and Honiara after violence became wide-spread. To be sure, the Australians appear to have been caught on the back foot as well in both instances, so it may be the case of the blind leading the blind into these conflict zones, with leadership of the reactive intervention forces being determined by size as opposed to superior knowledge of the tactical realities on the ground. Given that both countries had armed personnel stationed in the Solomons and East Timor in the months leading up to the outbreak of violence, it begs the question as to the quality of military intelligence reporting from the area, or at least its interpretation by intelligence analysts within the respective Ministries of Defence.

New Zealand has promised a complement of 200 soldiers and police to help restore order and stabilize the political situation in Dili. This is approximately 100 more troops than the number sent to Honiara two months ago. Aside from an initial platoon, the bulk of the New Zealand troops have just begun to arrive in the Timorese capital. In both cases there were problems in delivering soldiers and equipment to the crisis zone in timely fashion due to equipment failures, logistical logjams and problems of coordination with Australian military authorities. This raises questions about the extent of contingency planning for such events, and about the physical and material capacity for New Zealand to operationalise regional crisis contingency plans should they exist. Such is the stuff of futures forecasting, strategic planning and net assessment, all of which can be focused on the short to medium term requirements of regional crisis management if policy-makers are cognizant of the need for said capabilities. If that has been the case here, it is not apparent.

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. It is bad enough not to have adequate intelligence collection and analysis in the region, particularly given that New Zealand has primary responsibility within Western intelligence gathering networks for monitoring southwestern Pacific island states. It is equally bad not to have contingency plans in place for likely regional crisis scenarios requiring a security response. This is worsened by not having the capacity to effectively carry out contingency plans once ordered to do so. That is made more grievous by failure to specify the mission—its terms, its conditions, and its duration—in a clear and transparent manner, so as to bring it into the realm of public opinion and parliamentary debate.

Ignoring these questions makes for one more. Is Timor Leste Portuguese for “Kiwi Vietnam?”


Paul G. Buchanan is a strategic analyst who lectures at the University of Auckland. Digital Printing Group Ltd published his latest book, “With Distance Comes Perspective” last year.


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