In the last few weeks two major incidents have highlighted an ongoing dilemma. On November 4 the government announced the NZDF would, as had been forecast a few months earlier, start training the Iraqi Federal Police. An extension of the Building Partner Capacity Programme, this declaration was met with little public comment. More recently, a range of national and international military assets have been used to respond to the November 14 earthquakes that rocked New Zealand and caused devastation in and around Kaikoura. This time the public response has been overwhelmingly positive. However, these two incidents underscore an over reliance on utilising the military to respond to a range of issues. We need to have a conversation about this.
Let’s start with police training. In Iraq, Bob Perito pointed out in 2006, that “the U.S. military’s takeover of indigenous police training was unprecedented”. In previous operations this responsibility had fallen to the Departments of State and Justice. In Iraq (and Afghanistan), however, it was decided that only the U.S. military had the resources required to pursue the intended police training programme. In both countries heavily militarised police forces emerged; forces whose main focus was counter-insurgency. What happened as a result of this almost exclusive focus on counter-insurgency was not only a very high level of risk to those police officers, who were seen as softer targets than military personnel, but also a lack of emphasis on the skills and ethos actually needed to carry out civilian policing tasks. Significant abuses of power resulted and contributed to the conflict that continues on in both countries today.
Clearly there is a dilemma here. Bayley and Perito admit that there is the need for police to be able to survive, that weapons training is important and that potentially a focus on professionalism may come before community policing models are pursued. However they, as well as Will Fish and I have argued, this has come at the cost of other policing skills. These might be notetaking and literacy, understanding the rule of law and human rights, or a proficiency in investigative skills. It also delays the ability of such police to focus on engaging in a more constructive and positive manner with the local population – a central pillar in helping statebuilding efforts, as police are the main way civilians encounter the state. Even David Kilcullen, former counter-insurgency advisor to General Petraeus in Iraq, argues that policing in insurgency requires not just the ‘pointy end’ of elite paramilitary units but also a strong community policing element to secure the population from crime and disorder.
The concern, then, is not so much that military personnel may be contributing a very specific set of training in certain skills to the Iraqi police, but rather that this is the main or only training that they are receiving. New Zealand does not want to be part of any programme which could see Iraqi police again killing, torturing and brutalising people and fanning sectarian conflict.
The military contribution to the recent earthquake response is less controversial. Military personnel will be warmly welcomed for providing help in the form of supply-drops and evacuations. Setting up cordons, providing food, water and shelter, building roads or bridges, and so on are, in and of themselves, undoubtedly positive things. Yet there remains an underlying problematique at work here.
Like most modern militaries the NZDF is increasingly engaged in humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) activities. This is for a number of reasons, not least because of the unique set of resources at their disposal. Expeditionary in nature, the NZDF has a range of assets able to be deployed for the public good. Unimogs can range over very difficult terrain. NH-90s can access remote sites. Orions can provide surveillance. HMNZS Canterbury, the Navy’s Multi-Role Vessel can provide… well… multiple roles.
But the engagement of the armed forces in HADR has at least two major consequences. First, as many NGOs have pointed out over the years, it potentially ‘militarises’ responses and impinges upon humanitarian space. This may be in the form of an inappropriate set of priorities being developed. It may be in the form of a planning system which does not incorporate other sectors very easily. It may be in the form of the type of mindset, equipment and options brought to the table. It may be in the domination of the landscape or the public imagination.
Second, and interrelatedly, it potentially crowds out serious consideration of other options. The New Zealand Council for International Development asserts that the 2016 Defence White Paper allows for military engagement in this ”widely contested terrain” without due consideration for existing humanitarian networks, thereby opening “the door for the NZDF to assume a broad scope of delicate humanitarian tasks and responsibilities, without setting clear guidance or caveats around potential ethical, legal and operational problems this presents”. Although some of this is spoken to more specifically in an NZDF Aide de Memoire, there remain salient concerns that the the NZDF could dominate operations when it comes to ideas, priorities, methods and approaches.
Most fundamentally, then, the constant reaching for the ‘hammer’ in the toolbox when not all problems are ‘nails’ prevents us from thinking outside the box. Are there better ways to go about this? What other approaches might be used? What other sectors might be called upon? What are the broader consequences of utilising the military in this and other contexts? And – more long term – does locating these assets in our Defence Force prevent any serious consideration of creating alternative institutions such as a Coastguard or a Civilian Reserve Corps or a new form of Emergency Force? These are difficult questions that deserve a public debate.
B. K. Greener is Associate Professor of International Relations at Massey University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image: HMNZS Canterbury off Kaikoura taken by the New Zealand Defence Force