Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Afghanistan

The End of the War on Terrorism?

Soon after the recent bombing in Jakarta killed 9 including an 3 Australians, Kevin Rudd along with his Foreign Affairs minister Stephen Smith sought to draw a link between the attack and continuing the fight in Afghanistan. Responses were swift rejecting the PM’s claim. Hugh White from ANU told journalist Michelle Grattan that

“in practical policy there’s no link. It’s an illusion to think that if you fix Afghanistan, we’ll be safe from terrorism.” Ideologically and practically, the activities of Noordin Top, the alleged mastermind behind the Jakarta bombings, have nothing to do with Afghanistan, White says.

Meanwhile over at the Interpreter Allan Behm makes the case that there is a connection:

the fact is that many terrorist groups, be they in Chechnya, Palestine, Pakistan or even Indonesia draw ideological, ideational, inspirational and motivational solace from the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden and the actions of al Qaeda.
At the high end of anti-terrorist strategy is the goal of denying any oxygen at all to terrorist organisations and their followers. That is why the pursuit of al Qaeda, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is important.

So who is right amongst these two highly knowledgeable and respected experts? Well I side more with White’s approach, but he doesn’t explain this to its full significance. Behm’s point is well taken and worth noting. Whilst Al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on a US embassy in 1999, the USS Cole in 2000 and of course the 9/11 attacks, it has not had a recognised attack since that day. Despite it’s name being taken as a synonym for terrorism around the world, it has been reduced to little more than a communications company sending out videos, sometimes training orientated (and funds) but largely just well made propaganda. It is this which Behm means when he talks of providing solace and inspiration. Denied the opportunity to attack the west directly through international counter-terrorism efforts, Al Qaeda has had to outsource its efforts with varying results. How you interpret this effort is the clearest diviner of how experts regard the success or failure of the war on terrorism.

The worst case scenario tends to note details such as the 9/11 attackers had connections to Hambali the Indonesian terrorist who was key in the Bali 2002 attacks, or the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi leading Al Qaeda in Iraq . It sees the general values that motivate these groups in their Islamic faith, rejection of western modernity, and desire for independent Islamic states as primary compared to local values such as between various sects, personality and ethnic differences and on the ground conditions. It emphasises the flow of money, intelligence and training, especially through the internet between these various groups. Under this reading, the USA and west is facing an enemy who can change face and location with ease. Like trying to stop water flooding through a grill, each blockage in one place simply increases the pressure coming through in another. Our very size and strength makes us vunerable to a thousand cuts leaving us to bleed out, in finances, troops and resolve. This is also an approach that places great store in the concept of confidence. It interprets most events primarily in psychological terms, rising or reducing the motivation of both the west and the terrorists according to the ebb and flow of events. Every attack is seen as significant in re-enforcing this pattern. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is critically central to how events in Indonesia play out. (Afghanistan perhaps even more than Iraq or other locations due to its historic role in bringing down the soviet empire). This is a somewhat zero-sum approach, we are winning so they must be losing, or vice versa, with confidence a limited commodity effectively traded between the groups through their various successful or failed missions. At its worse this results in mush like Andrew Bolt’s effort, which conflates all threats as one, and indeed all Muslims as somehow suspicious. This however is very far from the considered approach of scholars such as Behm who highlights the significance of local links and issues. Still, for all their certainty, those who take this approach can as Behm does write sentences like “Noordin Top would derive considerable encouragement from that[withdrawal from Afghanistan], even without any formal or operational links with al Qaeda ” without ever qualifying what this ‘considerable encouragement’ means in practical policy terms. It could be meaningless heart warming or a game changing recruitment & financial driver. We don’t know and they don’t say.

The more optimistic scenario again notes these early links, but also their paucity and the local nature of the connections and the difficulty of maintaining these once key individuals are taken out (Hambali currently sits in Guantanamo Bay, the 9/11 attackers are dead, as is al-Zarqawi). They also note that when Al Qaeda has attempted to significantly involve itself in the local fight, the results have usually been poor. Whilst Al Qaeda in Iraq had a significant number of successes in the early years after the war, they have come to be combated by the US effectively. More importantly when they tried to integrate into the Iraqi system they ran into two fundamental problems. The sunni/shia divide, and the suspicions of the tribes. Where they had been largely non-sectarian in the early years, Al Qaeda found that the best way to bring in new recruits was to emphasize it’s Sunni origins, and help the fight against the true enemy: the Shia. This immediately cleaved the groups influence across vast sections of the islamic world, not only the Shia, but Sunni and other moderates who rejected the internal conflict and wanted attention focused on the West. Secondly, where Al Qaeda tried to integrate itself with the tribes it often did so in a ham-fisted, culturally insensitive manner (much like the US soldiers similar errors) It’s measures were often too extreme and lacked local knowledge and so came to be rejected by 2006 in the now infamous Al-anbar awakening where Tribal groups once supportive of the insurgents switched to help the US and gave the US it’s first big break of the war. This is a pattern that has been repeated around the world. Rather than Al Qaeda creating terrorist franchises as the pessimists had feared, we have seen that invariably local issues, personalities and conflicts have dominated and distracted the effort. Some groups have simply taken Al Qaeda’s money and men and used them for their own local pre-jihad efforts, whilst occasionally mouthing similar rhetoric to keep the cash flowing. Instead of a global war on terror we are seeing the emasculation of the worst of the groups (Al Qaeda), and a significant reduction in capabilities for their supported groups (Jemaah Islamiyah is still a shadow of its former self despite the recent attacks). And importantly the more the global group shrinks, the more the local groups will return to their own local concerns and local efforts, and fail to be drawn by the global values that once threatened to envelop the west. Therefore what happens in Afghanistan is of minor concern. It may give an individual or group solace for a day or week, but very soon local realities like a lack of skills, funds or the omniprescence of the police will do more to change their actions than any psychological acts. Especially when the overall trend of the war has been quite strongly against the Jihadist’s. Psychology is important, but both groups can be gaining confidence whilst one side is technically ‘winning’ (ie a withdrawal from Afghanistan may not provide extra terrorists, whilst freeing up western resource – though I do not advocate such an act)

Whilst the recent attacks surprised some adherents of the common wisdom that JI was broken (Though perfect timing by Carl Ungerer to warn of the groups risks the day before the attacks), what it most significantly shows is that the ‘Global War on Terror’ is almost over. What we are facing instead are local threats from nihilistic, barbaric misfits of a form that states have been dealing with successfully for over two thousand years. Though these days we don’t use the gruesome techniques these groups were usually suppressed by (ie killing anyone and everyone related to the group), we have far superior tools through the information revolution to track, isolate and bring down such groups. We can shut off their funds, listen in on their communication and highlight their barbarism to win the PR war (there have been sharp declines in the support for suicide bombing across the muslim world from 2002-2007).

What is perhaps most significant about the recent attacks in Jakarta is how low key the public and press responded to them. The media brought information quickly to the public, but soon moved on from the story. The general public took it largely in their stride, with it barely meriting a mention in most people’s gossip over the weekend. This was terorrism without terror. Of course it may make many re-think that Indonesian holiday, but Australians have condemned, mourned, and gone on with life. This is a pattern of terrorism that we can live with, and take precautions against, in the same way we avoid dark city ally’s and ask for more cops to patrol our streets to keep away the drunks and street thugs. (If the government’s new anti-terror laws move in this direction of on the streets social changes, great, if not, it is an authoritarian over-reaction).This is not to downplay the threat that these groups could still do to many of us, but it is to suggest we have entered a new phase. One where this violence is seen for what it is, petty and unpredictable, but not threatening everyday life or the nation-state as it stands. And if the public here recognise this, then soon the local population in islamic countries who may otherwise fall under the sway of terrorist groups will recognise it too. And who want’s to die for a tiny group of losers who are never going to achieve their aims? We still have terrorism, but maybe we have almost ended the war.

Government not Guns

What We Could Learn from the Taliban on Governance

It is not news that swaths of Afghanistan — particularly rural Pashtun areas in the south — now fall under the influence of the Taliban’s “shadow government.” What has been overlooked is why. Force certainly plays a part as the Taliban conquers new territory. But it’s the insurgents’ management structure — one that supplements rather than supplants existing tribal structures — that explains the Taliban’s staying power. NATO and Kabul aren’t being outfought in Helmand; they’re being outgoverned.

If NATO and the Afghan government want to cement any future military gains in the south, they will have to offer an alternative to justice à la Taliban. The official answer is to build up the nascent Afghan court system — a near impossible long-term task unlikely to win hearts and minds anytime soon. Realistically, another option would work far better: accept informal local and tribal courts as reality and explore new avenues of interaction and, possibly, support. …Relying on traditional mediation under tribal or religious elders is hardly a radical idea; the U.S. military in Iraq has been doing it for years. In areas with strong tribal authority and sparse government representation, U.S. military units have been walking a tightrope — implicitly allowing tribal law while halting any excesses. In Afghanistan, the existence of local courts is a fait accompli — the only question is who will influence them, NATO or the Taliban?
– Patrick Devenny is an employee of the U.S. Department of Defense. The views expressed in this article are his own.

The line in Italics rather overplays the comfort of the US with such behaviour. Outside isolated Special Forces working on their own initiative, for most of the past 6 years tribal groups have been seen as hostile and contrary forces to be overcome in the development of a modern, democratic, capitalist Iraq. It was only in mid 2006 that the US began to include tribal groups as serious partners, and recognise the role these groups played in Iraqi society. The error for this process was not just the army, but came from the top down, where so strong was the desire to present the occupation as an easy task that Iraq was painted as a modern society, just caught under a brutal leaders control. Well it was, but even in cosmopolitan Baghdad many still identified with tribal groups, and out in the sticks the tribe was far far more important than any supposed border line on the map or identification on the passport.

But that aside, Devenny’s point is a good one and gratifying to see expressed publicly. Not only is this a battle of that boring old cliche ‘hearts and minds’ but this is in fact the main battlefield for victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. Contrary to the views of many Iraq (and Afghanistan) were always winnable fights (and still should be). There was nothing automatic about the stumbles, violence and failings exhibited by the US in these countries. And whilst some on the left might urge adoption of such a view so as to help prevent further foolish Neo-Con adventures, it would be wise to remember such a view would do more to prevent and stop humanitarian interventions from occurring, than it would to stop wars which the right will always seek to sell as existential threats (and words dont even begin to explain the strangeness of seeing the proliferation of the term ‘existential’ amongst arch conservatives. But such are the small laughs of life).
The US will win in Iraq and Afghanistan when the average citizen decides that their best interests in food, shelter, security, services and economic opportunity lie with supporting the west. Until then, they will happily (and wisely) give their support to whoever can best provide (or intimidate away from an alternate choice). That is why so many in Iraq went from supporting the invasion in the early days of 2003 to taking up arms in 2004. They felt betrayed and abandoned by a occupying power which cared naught for governance or service provision (instead it assumed a combination of exiled leaders and a ultra-free market could resurrect a broken society). They were not pre-formed terrorists but often ‘accidental guerrillas’

This isn’t an easy choice morally or ideologically. Tribal groups will use measures we can’t endorse, and will at times lead their people and countries away from the ideals of democracy and capitalism which we seek. But whilst these are our ideals, they can only be achieved once the country has stability and security. We have to have faith in the power of ideas that we can allow countries to wander from the path in search of the essentials until the inevitable rise of the middle class will demand public involvement in the political process and a higher standard of prosperity. Until then, we just have to do what we can to aid and supplement the systems the locals want, rather than imagining that we can replace then and leave. The alternative, never expressed but oft thought of just shooting until the system works can never work. For all the power of violence, no country has ever or at any time been ruled through it. This is the mirage of material power. Whilst the dominant view of power in International Relations, read carefully any of the major realist thinkers like Carr, Morgenthau or Waltz and you will find whispered agreement. Even tyrants like Stalin and Saddam can not bring a fist against every single individual who might object to their rule. Instead they use violence in a complex network of power that acts to legitimise their rule, provide clear lines of authority, and most importantly justify and persuade people that this rule was in their interest. In the end these forces work to convince the people themselves that this is the right way to run a country. Countries are socialised to tyranny, not brutalized. It is through governance, not guns that you bring a country under control, and good to see the US recognising that.

Making good on our promises

Ever since taking office, the Rudd government has sought to differentiate itself from the Howard legacy by strongly pushing for a greater NATO focus in Afghanistan, rather than Iraq (See here and here). This not only made tactical sense in that Afghanistan is the real front in the WOT these days, and helped offset any political tags of being weak because of a push to get out of Iraq. (Though it’s noticeable that with incumbency Labor has become virtually unchallenged in foreign affairs, with regular critics like Greig Sheridan quickly changing their tone)

With that in mind, it’s hence rather perplexing why the Rudd government has reacted decided not to help Obama’s increase of 17’000 troops to Afghanistan.

Australia has welcomed the US decision to send 17,000 additional troops to southern Afghanistan.
Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon says it does not change Australia’s role and he says there has been no request from Washington for extra Australian troops.
Mr Fitzgibbon also says he will not be offering to boost Australia’s contribution in Afghanistan….He says he is quietly confident some undercommitted NATO countries are also about to do more.
“There is no doubt that additional troop numbers are critical to securing better progress in Afghanistan, but we also need to properly resource and marry the civil effort,” he said.
“We would always consider such a request from our closest ally but there are a number of tests we would apply and of course we remain not inclined to do more while ever so many NATO countries remain under-committed.”
Australia has about 1,000 soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan.

Fitzgibbon’s arguments however are contradictory: Last month he was arguing we would only send more troops if other NATO allies contributed; whilst now he is refusing on the grounds that he’s “quietly confident” other nations will act; and therefore we are unnecessary.

Now, it certainly is true that no Australian presence can fundamentally change the situation in Afghanistan; indeed no troop presence of any number or nationality could (Obama shouldn’t be wishing for any Surge 2.0 with these numbers), but they can help create a bit of space for political developments to occur, and more importantly for Australia, sending troops is a sign of good faith and authenticity in our dealings.

The choice not to send troops would be actually acceptable, except for one little fact: Rudd & Fitzgibbon just spent the last two years calling for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan!

With this refusal we look like little more than a cheerleader, unwilling to actually take the steps we regularly call on others to do so. This is damaging, not just in this single case of Afghanistan, but on whatever projects we are hoping to push in the future, for instance our power as a honest bargainer in the Anti-Nuclear Commission I mentioned a few days ago).

And with the caveat of the general small size of our force in mind, I’m also not sure why more troops couldn’t be sent. Whilst there has been some disquiet in recent years about troop deployments in the army, it generally isn’t considered overstretched. We have less than half the number of soldiers operating in the field as we did during the 1999 INTERFET mission to East Timor, at less than 5% of the total permanent ADF size being involved. Indeed Labor’s own pull down from Iraq has reduced our force numbers there from 1500 to just over 120 in Iraq since the election, further reducing the burden. For more knowledgeable heads than mine, such as retired General Jim Molan (who played a major role in Iraq) have suggested that we could spare up to 5’000 more troops for Afghanistan. There are of course other reasons we could use troops, and any deployments are costly of course; but we have committed to this mission, the government has spent nearly 2 years calling for such an increase in troops and focus, and yet now we are turning down helping ?

The only other explanation could be a concern by Rudd that the public wont tolerate higher levels of casualties in Afghanistan, but it there is one real military lesson of the Bush years, it is that the left wing reticence to put soldiers in harms way (as Clinton was famous for) doesn’t bear huge political costs. Bush’s won in 2004 despite losing nearly 1500 troops come the election. Instead his numbers fell because people though the deaths were in vain, that he was not capable of commanding the troops, not because they are against the idea of soldiers doing what soldiers do and sometimes getting shot at. Neither Howard or Rudd suffered any noticeable hit to their popularity when Australian’s have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, and whilst public opinion is split on Afghanistan, the results largely reflect dissatisfaction with the War On Terror in general, and the last comprehensive look was taken before the US election occurred.

If Rudd wants Australia to have a role larger than its material power allows, a large part of that will depend on living up to the image we have created for ourselves. More troops in Afghanistan now wont win the war, but it will please an incoming Obama Administration, make good on the governments constant calls for more focus on Afghanistan, and help pressure those critical NATO allies that they too ought to get involved. And Rudd’s announcement of support needs to occur in the next few days, before the US calls and demands support.

Other than a physical limitation on troops available, there is no good argument for not sending troops. Rudd & Fitzgibbon should have seen this coming (Obama’s been promising it for almost a year) and been ready, or at least had better excuses prepared. Not a good showing by a Labor Government keen to establish its international and Defence credentials.

Update: Rudd has missed his window. I always thought Howard had minimal competence in International Affairs, but he understood Alliance politics as well as anybody. Rudd still has some learning to do, esp if in the next fortnight we see a rolled out announcement of more troops to be deployed. (or the thought strikes perhaps he is playing hard to get, but that doesn’t exactly work when your date is the newly celebrated prom king, and you don’t quite fit the dress you claim to wear.)