Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On Bin Laden, Petrobras and Jon Stephenson

May 3rd, 2011

tim denee illustration – osama bin laden killed
Illustration by Tim Denee –

So now that he’s dead, we can bring the troops home now, can’t we? Because the only reason our troops are in Afghanistan is to defeat Al Qaeda and remove the threat it posed to the world, right? That’s been achieved. Bin Laden’s lieutenants are either dead or in Guantanamo, and now the leader himself is dead – and was killed in Pakistan – so, what possible reason can there be to have troops in neighbouring Afghanistan? Oh. To make that country safe? To build democracythere, and to defeat the Taliban as well?

If that is the new rationale, it cannot help but makes the death of Bin Laden recede in importance. It makes his death a historical relic in a war against global terrorism that was effectively won years ago. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t trumpet the death of the archfiend as a major victory, and in the next breath say that it doesn’t change anything about our mission, and that mission is now about some vague goal of nation-building – or ‘defeating’ ( militarily? politically?) a Taliban that long ago cut its tries to al Qaeda, and that is now split into at least four factions.

Bin Laden had become a historical relic. Yes, he did live long enough to see his enemy Hosni Mubarak deposed in Egypt. Yet one of the most consistent features of the uprisings across the Arab world this year has been that the tactics have been non-violent, and the movements have been largely secular in nature. In other words, the uprisings have been on terms almost the exact opposite of what Bin :Laden had hoped for. Ironically, it has only been the beleauguered dictators of the Arab world – such as Gaddafi in Libya – who have tried to blame the uprisings on al Qaeda. That’s the real advantage to be gained from Bin Laden’s death – from now on it will be very hard for any mad general, any Fox news anchor or any tinpot tyrant to blame any expression of Third World opposition to the US on the machinations of al Qaeda. In the wake of losing this bogey figure, perhaps the West can also stop viewing a major religion and the entire Middle East entirely through the prism of one man, and his extremist version of Islam.

It is worth remembering that Anzac Day was only a week ago. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves – and to the troops we are currently putting in harm’s way – to be able to say what Mission Accomplished in Afghanistan would look like? Or are we waiting for people in Washington, London and Canberra to tell us when that point has been reached?

PS Those people who say Bin Laden should have been captured and brought back for trial are deluded. One, that’s easier said than done. Bin Laden was a guerilla fighter willing and able to fight back against a US helicopter assault which could have easily gone wrong – witness the disastrous outcome of the helicopter attack mission that President Jimmy Carter authorized in Iran to free the US Embassy hostages.

More importantly, Bin Laden would not have received any kind of due process in an American criminal court. He would have been packed off to a military kangaroo court at Guantanamo, like the one that will hear the charges against his lieutenant, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Either way, Bin Laden was going to be executed without trial – and rough justice with a gun is arguably better than a travesty of justice.


Petrobras consultations, of a sort

Tonight, Prime Minister John Key will be meeting with the representatives of local iwi who – in unison with Greenpeace – have been protesting about the impact of the Petrobras explorations in the Raukumara Basin. At yesterday’s press conference, Scoop asked Key if he would be taking any fresh proposals to that meeting. “No,” he replied. Scoop also asked if Key had seen any estimate of the cost to date of the ongoing military presence around the Petrobras protests. No, he didn’t have that information. Apparently, there is no cap for that expenditure, no blowout preventer on the costs of keeping Petrobras’ investment safe and sound from local opposition.

Add that to the extreme vagueness of our objectives in Afghanistan and a pattern starts to emerge: apparently, when it comes to meeting commitments to foreigners offshore, money is no object. Yet when it comes to providing services to New Zealanders, costs have to be endlessly scrutinised, and the money doled out grudgingly. There’s a lot wrong with governing on those terms.


Jon Stephenson, Public Enemy.

One of the main features of the post-Cabinet press conference yesterday was the PM’s extraordinary ad hominem attack on journalist Jon Stephenson, of Metro magazine. Recently, Stephenson wrote an article in Metro alleging that New Zealand was not meeting its Geneva Convention obligations in its handling of prisoners captured in the course of SAS operations in Afghanistan.

You might think that as the only NZ journalist who has regularly been reporting from Afghanistan, Stephenson speaks with some authority. Not to the PM, who wrote off Stephenson’s credibility by citing to the press gallery an incident when Stephenson allegedly impersonated TV3’s Duncan Garner in order to get Key on the phone. End of story, for Key. Had Stephenson been finding it hard to get through to Key by more conventional means ? No, Key didn’t think so.

On the issue of prisoners and their treatment, Key preferred to believe the two in-house reports by then Chief of Defence Forces Jerry Mateparae and the MoD, which – unsurprisingly – had found no case to answer about the activities of the forces under their command.

Some of the points at issue in this dispute seem to be semantic. Article 12 of the Third Geneva Convention says flatly: “Prisoners of war may only be transferred […] to a Power which is a party to the Convention and after the Detaining Power has satisfied itself of the willingness and ability of such transferee Power to apply the Convention.” Afghanistan signed up to the 1949 Geneva Conventions in 1956, and late in 2009 it also acceded to the 1977 Additional Protocols I and II, which protect victims of international conflicts and civil wars. Has New Zealand really “satisfied itself” that the Karzai regime would treat prisoners decently – and if so, how?

That’s where the semantics kick in. Can New Zealand troops be said to be responsible for the capture and transfer of prisoners, if and when this occurs in the context of joint operations – when it can say that it was its Afghan colleagues who were the actual captors of the people at risk of subsequent torture and ill treatment? For Mateparae and the MoD to be credible, one would have to conclude that the SAS have never taken prisoners, and never been a party to the taking of prisoners – subsequently at risk of torture or mistreatment – in all the years that the SAS has been operating in Afghanistan. Somehow, I don’t think Jon Stephenson is the party with the credibility problem here.


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