The announcement on the weekend by the Timor Sea Conciliation Commission is the first indication that Australia and Timor Leste are making real progress towards resolving their maritime boundary dispute.
If this process reaches a successful outcome, a permanent maritime boundary will have been drawn in the Timor Sea between Australia and Timor Leste for the first time. However, the conciliation still has some steps to complete. A formal treaty will need to be negotiated, signed and ratified before a new legal framework exists.
The catalyst for the dispute was the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty, negotiated by Australia and the United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) in the lead-up to East Timor’s independence. That treaty was based partly on a precedent – the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty between Australia and Indonesia.
The 1989 treaty agreed on a joint development zone for the Timor Sea, providing for a 50/50 sharing of oil and gas revenue. Importantly, existing continental shelf boundaries concluded in 1972, which lay to the east and west in the Timor Sea, were not disturbed. The result was an unusual set of maritime boundary arrangements for the region.
However, this approach was justified because of developments in international law, following the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the contested oil and gas riches of the Timor Sea.
The 2002 Timor Sea Treaty was a variant of this approach, though the joint development area was smaller and the royalty split was 90/10 in favour of Timor.
While the treaty provided some continuity from the previous regime, it left many issues unsettled. There was no permanent maritime boundary and no clear timetable for one to be finalised. There was no clarification of the status of the Greater Sunrise field that straddled the northeastern quadrant, and no clear framework for oil and gas development for the direct benefit of Timor Leste.
These issues formed the basis of Timor’s campaign of the past decade to bring to an end what Dili considered to be an unjust series of associated treaties.
Since October 2016, the Timor Sea Conciliation Commission has met with the parties on six occasions. The most recent meeting concluded on August 30 in Copenhagen. There a breakthrough occurred, which has given confidence that a maritime boundary delimitation in the Timor Sea will be concluded.
Final details remain to be settled, but it seems a package of measures has been agreed. This includes the legal status of the Greater Sunrise gas field, the establishment of a “special regime” for Greater Sunrise, and mechanisms for resource development and revenue sharing.
It is anticipated that the conciliation will conclude by October. By this time the parties may have negotiated a treaty instrument to give effect to these arrangements. If not, treaty negotiations will still be able to take place independently of the conciliation. At this rate of progress, a treaty signing ceremony could take place by the end of the year.
This outcome represents a considerable political victory for Timor Leste. It has been able to force Australian into a third party conciliation, thereby circumventing Australia’s preference for negotiated maritime boundaries. It has also been able to force Australia to abandon its support for joint development in the Timor Sea in favour of a permanent maritime boundary.
While the direction of that boundary remains unknown, international law would support a median line midway between the Australian and Timor coasts, subject to some technical adjustments.
It would appear that Australia has also made concessions on Greater Sunrise. The extent of these remains confidential.
Whether the eastern lateral boundary of the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty has been modified in favour of Timor Leste is unknown. Whatever that outcome, legal mechanisms will be required to resolve the transfer of sovereign rights to Timor from the previous arrangements.
The outcome will be a major achievement for Timor Leste’s goal of settled boundaries, both land and maritime, with its major neighbours Australia and Indonesia. How Indonesia will react to these proposed arrangements remains unknown.
Australia’s most complex maritime boundaries are with Indonesia. These have been carefully negotiated since the early 1970s, but reflect evolving legal rights and entitlements, some of which are out of step with international law in 2017. The challenge that may loom is whether Indonesia will use the precedent of a new Australia-Timor Leste treaty to reopen previously settled maritime boundaries with Australia.
Conflict was almost baked into Asia’s post-1945 international order. Taiwan’s contested status following the communist victory in China’s civil war, and the division of the Korean Peninsula are only the most obvious and volatile of Asia’s military hotspots.
Yet one of the region’s most striking features was the way in which, from the 1970s, it was able to foster a remarkably stable international environment in spite of the visible flashpoints in almost all corners of the region. The growth and prosperity enjoyed by so many people would not have been possible had the countries of the region not worked out how to manage their often vast differences.
The high altitude military stand-off between India and China at the Doklam Plateau, near the tri-border of Bhutan, India and China, is an acute example of how these old problems have been reinvigorated by Asia’s geopolitical flux.
India and China share a border in excess of 3,000 kilometres in length, much of which is disputed by the two behemoths. This has long been a source of friction, including a short and nasty war in 1962 that India lost in humiliating fashion. Most of these have occurred in India’s north on the Chinese side of Jammu and Kashmir.
The Doklam stand-off is notable because it is in the north-east of the country. It started on June 16 when Chinese PLA engineers began work to extend a road that is within territory that is disputed between Bhutan and China, but in which Beijing has been operating freely since at least 2005. The work appeared to be an effort to extend the road closer to India’s border.
In response, Indian military forces crossed the border on June 18 into what it regards as Bhutan – a country with whom Delhi has an agreement to guide its foreign policy – and prevented the road from being constructed.
Beijing’s response to the deployment of Indian forces has been incandescent rage. This is in stark contrast to previous cross-border tensions and standoffs, when China has generally approached the matter with a degree of caution and calm, in public at any rate.
The fulmination is the result of China’s belief that the PLA is operating on sovereign Chinese territory and that India has intervened in its affairs for strategic advantage. This is a particularly neuralgic issue for the PRC.
Since then, both sides have mobilised their forces with at least 100 soldiers on either side eyeballing one another, while India has moved thousands more into close supporting positions.
The public rhetoric on either side is hardening. China has carried out military drills and declared that it is easier “to move a mountain than to shake the PLA”. Foreign Minister Wang Yi bluntly stated that the standoff was entirely India’s fault, and that the troops had to get out of China.
India in turn has accused China of reneging on its agreement not to change the status quo and has rallied international support by using the standoff as another example of China acting as a disruptive force.
Neither disputes the basic facts – China was building a road towards India’s border, while India does not deny contesting PLA forces beyond its own borders – so what motivated their risk-taking?
Delhi’s reasoning is slightly easier to discern. India is at a military disadvantage in most of the border disputes with China. This area is one in which Delhi has the upper hand. It believes China was taking preparatory steps to negate that advantage.
India is also acutely aware that the tri-border area is very close to the Siliguri Corridor, the narrow strip of land that physically connects India to its eastern states that lie between Bangladesh, China and Burma. Defending the corridor is a first order priority for India.
China’s claims that it was merely road building in its own land are disingenuous. It knows that the territory is in dispute with Bhutan and is acutely aware of Indian sensitivities. This was not just a bit of civil engineering, nor was it a case of a rogue PLA unit operating without central clearance.
Many think that China’s move is punishing India for its tilt to Washington and its criticism of the Belt and Road Initiative. The timing was unmistakably intended to embarrass Modi.
It was not by accident that the incident was timed so that it would cast a shadow over the prime minister’s participation in the G20 summit and a meeting with Xi Jinping. It also signalled that, contrary to his strong-man persona, Modi is not able to control the country’s borders and core interests.
Some also see the effort as an attempt to wedge Bhutan. Beijing has been courting Thimpu in the way it has successfully cultivated other South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka. This appears to be a fairly Machiavellian means of pushing another of India’s close partners into the China column.
MIT’s Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s border disputes, has argued that while China probably did intend to push some strategic agenda, it probably miscalculated the strength of India’s response.
Both have positioned themselves in ways that will make backing down quickly very difficult. This crucial bilateral relationship is now at a low ebb, and as the standoff is likely to drag on for a long time, a frosty Sino-India relationship looks set to remain in place.
When we think of difficult great power relationships in Asia, US-China and Japan-China ties tend to predominate. But the crisis in the difficult terrain of the Doklam Plateau reminds us not only that India is an Asian great power, but that the tenor of its relations with China is of crucial strategic significance.
Equally, the tension is a sign of Asia’s new contested and complex geopolitics. This is a world in which American influence is marginal – not just because US Asia policy is on autopilot – and one in which old and long running animosities have been revived by the combustible blend of ambition and wealth.
How Doklam is resolved will tell us a good deal about the extent to which Asia’s great powers can accommodate one another’s interests and recreate the stability of the past. The prospects do not look good.
The first week of July is not normally one that brings great events in world politics. Around that time, the northern hemisphere normally shifts into summer holiday mode.
Recently, this has become less true. Coups in Egypt, Turkey, and a terror attack in France have bucked the trend. Asia’s early part of July 2017 has also defied the languorous tendencies of the seventh month.
Presenting it as a gift to the US on its national day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un proved his isolated country now has the ability to fling death and destruction across the Pacific. Contrary to US President Donald Trump’s declaration that it “won’t happen”, North Korea has successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile and is now within touching distance of a viable nuclear weapon capability.
China’s approach to the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong sought to underscore Beijing’s power and prestige. But it only succeeded in reminding us of the party state’s insecurities and increasingly militarised approach to its regional dealings.
The over-the-top martial parades, China’s first aircraft carrier sailing into the harbour city, and President Xi Jinping’s powerful warnings not to “use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland” made clear China’s intent to signal that it is firmly in charge of the upstart entrepot.
However, Xi did so in a manner which reminds us of the party-state’s military instincts and its thin skin.
In the Himalayas, China and India had another of their high-altitude standoffs as Chinese military engineers constructed roads and buildings in territory that is disputed, as well as in land that no one regards as anything other than Bhutan.
Tensions have escalated, with China’s ambassador in New Delhi reminding India of the “bitter lesson” of the 1962 border war.
And in the South China Sea, the US deployed B1 bombers to fly over the disputed features – much to China’s chagrin.
The Trump administration stayed its hand in trade and the South China Sea in the belief China could restrain North Korea. But North Korea’s test shows the White House either that Beijing wasn’t trying hard enough, or that it does not have necessary leverage over Pyongyang.
Either way, the Sino-American relationship, which had seemed in reasonably good condition following the “citrus summit” at Mar-a-Lago, is entering a much more difficult phase.
It is hard to recall a time at which Asia’s geopolitical circumstances have been this fraught – at least since the 1970s. The region, which had enjoyed one of the most settled strategic circumstances, is now in a period in which its great powers not only don’t trust each other but are beginning to contest one another’s interests militarily.
Over the past 40 years, American leadership has been vital to Asia’s stability. Its dominant military power provided public goods and kept regional rivalries in check. Economically, it provided much-needed capital, and its large home market was open for export opportunities.
But US leadership is visibly waning. The credibility of US power and influence is openly questioned while its economic openness is also in doubt. Rising powers realise this and are jostling for advantage.
In response, defence spending is on the rise, as countries take steps to secure their interests in an increasingly uncertain world. North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile test is only the most visible example of a region that is arming itself in the face of a shift in the balance of power.
Declining US leadership predates Trump’s election. But the sense of uncertainty has been badly exacerbated by the absence of a coherent Asia policy from his no-longer-new administration.
US policy in Asia is largely on autopilot, with the direction set by the Obama administration remaining in place. But this is due to inertia; it is not a considered strategy. If this continues, it will amplify the destabilising actions taken by those across the region who are unsettled by this uncertainty.
China’s position in the region is changing swiftly. Its gains in the South China Sea are unlikely to be reversed, and its infrastructure initiatives – both the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative – are being widely welcomed.
Equally, China has taken the opportunity of Trump’s unwillingness and inability to lead to present its rise as a positive force on a range of issues – most obviously on climate change and the global economy.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s globe-trotting efforts to build the country’s reputation has seen him complete more than 60 trips abroad since his election in 2014. While there is some way to go to turn his ambition for India’s international heft to match its demography and civilisational legacy, it is modernising its military capacity and expanding its international influence.
As the standoff with China shows, it will be no pushover. Crucially, India sees the current period of flux as one of historic opportunity.
The region’s lesser powers are also playing their part in this geopolitical drama. Like Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe sees opportunity in these circumstances. He is pushing for Japan to be able to do far more militarily – something that is contentious at home and abroad. And even with its very limited capacity, Japan is proving a thorn in Chinese ambition.
Many others, such as Australia, the Philippines and Korea, are positioning themselves in relation to a larger contest for influence in Asia.
For decades, Asia’s countries took comfort from a stable balance of power underwritten by US might and economic openness. This allowed rapid economic growth. But that wealth is now powering ambition that, when paired with America’s declining influence and sense of purpose, has created an increasingly unstable Asia.
Unfortunately, there will be many more months and weeks ahead like July 2017’s first week.
Australian soldiers have long relied on an East Timorese hospitality epitomised by its coffee.
The fond appreciation for the nation’s beans traces back to the second world war, where Dutch and Australian commandos – known collectively as Sparrow Force – engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese in what was then known as Portuguese Timor.
The commandos were only intermittently supplied with army rations. They relied heavily on the assistance of locals to meet their basic needs, as well as scouring the landscape for fruit, nuts, vegetables and wild or feral animals.
The soldiers’ enemy, the Imperial Japanese Army, were also following a principle of “local procurement”, which more often than not meant forced requisition and looting.
This conflict was contemplated by one Dan O’Connor, of no. 4 Australian Independent Company, over a mug of warm coffee. His musings reveal the central strategic role of food in the Battle of Timor:
As I sipped the hot coffee made from beans grown and roasted by the natives and flavoured in the mug with wild honey, my mind was running over the events of the last few months. […] Lately […] the Japs had become bolder and were moving out from the coast. They burned the villages and stole the food and the women. […] It was only a matter of time before we would have no food at all, […] no hope of survival.
The Japanese and Australians respectively razed villages and destroyed the crops and food stores of the Timor natives, as a means to gain a strategic advantage in the Battle of Timor.
The Timorese also traded with the Australian soldiers, who paid for their food in coins prized mostly for their “ornamental value”. There are stories of “natives” emerging unbidden from the forest bearing bananas, of eating with local Portuguese priests and of Timorese “maidens” clothed only in grass skirts bearing water for the soldiers.
However, the Timorese were sometimes reluctant to sell their food, which was interpreted as unfriendliness in one history of the company.
Then there are accounts of mischievous behaviour towards the Australians by the Timorese. A young boy, for example, who pretended to enjoy eating native “berries” encouraged an Australian soldier to try them:
I tried one, God [it blew] the top of my head off. It was those real hot chillies. He stood there giggling like anything.
Food and drink are often the catalyst for intercultural encounters in wartime. As scholar Katarzyna J. Cwiertka has argued, the cultural meanings of food can be amplified in war:
…it can become a weapon, an embodiment of the enemy, but also a token of hope, a soothing relief.
It is for this reason that the debt of gratitude to the Timorese is remembered so strongly in the Australian Army.
As O’Connor recalled, the soldiers formed strong bonds with their native “helpers”, dubbed “criados”:
Without them life would not have been possible. Each soldier had one as his personal servant, friend and general assistant. […] The criados provided food, washed clothes, carried equipment and did every other task required of them. They did it in a happy, cheerful way. They were magnificent.
One Australian soldier, Bill Beattie, expressed deep shame at Australia’s abandonment of the East Timorese following the Indonesian invasion and Portugal’s effective withdrawal in 1975 – a sentiment shared by other returned servicemen and women, even today.
Among those who strongly identify with the Independent Company soldiers is a group of peacekeepers from the 6th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, including Shannon French. He fondly recalls the cups of coffee proffered to his battalion while on a peace-keeping mission in East Timor in 2000, after the independence referendum:
The Timorese villages had been plundered and burnt to the ground. The locals had nothing, but they would come out to greet us with plastic cups. We would stop and they’d give us hot sugary coffee.
It was on a subsequent mission in 2012 that French and fellow soldiers Tom Mahon, Cameron Wheelehen and Tom Potter, decided to help the East Timorese sell their coffee in Australia. In the chaos after the Indonesian invasion, coffee crops in the region of Aileu were allowed to grow wild through the forest. Here, the Robusta and Arabica coffee crops interbred, thus creating the unique Hibrido de Timor blend.
French recalls slashing through the forest while on peacekeeping duties, oblivious to the damage he was doing to the coffee plants – to the peacekeepers, they were indistinguishable from forest undergrowth.
The four later formed the Wild Timor Coffee company. Their mission to source “organic, ethical and direct” traded coffee from the Timor region is an initiative co-founder Mahon called “a debt of honour thing”.
Two cafes have since been opened in Melbourne’s inner north; their walls adorned with pictures of WWII soldiers in Portuguese Timor, and their shelves filled with Timorese cakes made by Ana Saldanha, who fled East Timor in 1975. Their efforts have funded health clinics and education initiatives back in Aileu.
But the extent to which East Timor’s people are served by the cultivation of cash crops such as coffee – which has a notoriously low global price – remains to be seen.
What is clear, though, is that the hospitality of the East Timorese in times of conflict created intercultural bonds with the Australian military that have endured through more than half a turbulent century.
The government of Timor-Leste has officially notified Australia of its wish to terminate the 2006 Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS). The treaty sets out the division of revenue from the Greater Sunrise oil and gas fields, an estimated A$40
billion deposit in the Timor Sea.
The maritime border between Timor-Leste and Australia has been a source of contention over recent years. But the decision to terminate the treaty and begin negotiations anew could have serious ramifications for Timor-Leste’s economic development, given its dependence on the Timor Sea resources.
The CMATS treaty
The CMATS treaty was designed to enable the joint exploitation of the Greater Sunrise field. The treaty circumvented the competing border claims by placing a 50-year moratorium on negotiating maritime boundaries betweeen Australia and Timor-Leste.
The Sunrise International Unitisation Agreement, finalised in March 2003, agreed that 20.1% of Greater Sunrise was located in the Joint Petroleum Development Area (JDPA) established under the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty and 79.9% within Australia’s jurisdiction.
If the maritime border was drawn halfway between Australia and Timor-Leste, the oil and gas fields would fall completely within Timor-Leste. Under CMATS, however, Timor-Leste negotiated a 50:50 revenue-sharing arrangement.
Scrapping the CMATS
Timor-Leste has long considered this treaty invalid. In recent years, the governments of Timor-Leste and Australia have been unable to agree on how the Greater Sunrise gas should be processed.
In 2013, Timor-Leste initiated proceedings against Australia at an arbitral court (in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague) under the Timor Sea Treaty to invalidate CMATS. It did so on the grounds that Australia’s alleged spying on Timor-Leste’s negotiators in 2004 contravened the Treaty of Vienna requirement that treaties be negotiated in “good faith”.
When the CMATS treaty was negotiated, these disagreements were put aside in order to reach an agreement. However, this just delayed the seemingly irreconcilable dispute about developing the field.
Timor-Leste’s government has developed a narrative that maritime boundaries are necessary for completing its sovereignty. This narrative has linked the independence movement to the sea disputes in order to bolster public support against Australia. Consequently, the moratorium on forming permanent boundaries had increasingly become a problem in relations between Australia and Timor-Leste.
The careful wording of the joint statement makes it clear that the Australian government “recognises” Timor-Leste’s right to initiate the termination of the treaty. This does not suggest that Australia has substantially shifted its long-standing policies on the Timor Sea. However, the joint statement does indicate that the Australian government recognises that maintaining the CMATS treaty had become untenable.
Terminating CMATS reflects a continuation of Timor-Leste’s high-stakes approach to Timor Sea diplomacy.
Negotiations on establishing a permanent maritime boundary will continue under the UN Compulsory Conciliation. This process is designed to help states resolve bilateral maritime disputes by providing recommendations from a panel of experts.
The Australian government has repeatedly emphasised the non-binding nature of these recommendations. While Australia has an obligation to negotiate in good faith, this does not mean it can be forced into agreeing to a maritime boundary. Negotiated boundaries still appear to be some way off.
Timor-Leste will be pushing for permanent maritime boundaries that will give Timor-Leste most, if not all, of Greater Sunrise in order to support its ambitious oil industrialisation plans.
Terminating the CMATS treaty ultimately means that the governments of Timor-Leste and Australia are back to square one in negotiations over Greater Sunrise.
There are a number of potential consequences for Timor-Leste.
First, the revenues that flowed from the Joint Petroleum Development Area under the Timor Sea Treaty have provided approximately 90% of Timor-Leste’s state budget. The Bayu-Undan oil field is expected to be depleted by 2022 or 2023.
Without a source of revenue, Timor-Leste’s economy would be at serious risk of collapse: the A$16 billion petroleum fund could be depleted by 2025. The risk for Timor-Leste is that Australia will prolong boundary negotiations, putting more strain on its finances. Timor-Leste’s vulnerability increases as the window for resolving the dispute before oil revenues run out narrows.
Second, the Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf claims of Timor-Leste and Australia overlap with those of Indonesia. While the spectre of Indonesia’s future involvement in the dispute is largely ignored in the media, it would be naïve to believe that Indonesia would not become a third claimant if the opportunity arose.
Since announcing its arrival as a global force in June 2014 with the declaration of a caliphate on territory captured in Iraq and Syria, the jihadist group Islamic State has shocked the world with its brutality.
Its seemingly sudden prominence has led to much speculation about the group’s origins: how do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? In the final article of our series examining this question, Greg Barton shows the role recent Western intervention in the Middle East played in the group’s inexorable rise.
Despite precious little certainty in the “what ifs” of history, it’s clear the rise of Islamic State (IS) wouldn’t have been possible without the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq. Without these Western interventions, al-Qaeda would never have gained the foothold it did, and IS would not have emerged to take charge of northern Iraq.
Whether or not the Arab Spring, and the consequent civil war in Syria, would still have occurred is much less clear.
But even if war hadn’t broken out in Syria, it’s unlikely an al-Qaeda spin-off such as IS would have become such a decisive actor without launching an insurgency in Iraq. For an opportunistic infection to take hold so comprehensively, as IS clearly has, requires a severely weakened body politic and a profoundly compromised immune system.
Such were the conditions in Goodluck Jonathan’s Nigeria from 2010 to 2015 and in conflict-riven Somalia after the fall of the Barre regime in 1991. And it was so in Afghanistan for the four decades after conflict broke out in 1978 and in Pakistan after General Zia-ul-Haq declared martial law in 1977.
Sadly, but even more clearly, such are the circumstances in Iraq and Syria today. And that’s the reason around 80% of all deaths due to terrorist attacks in recent years have occurred in five of the six countries discussed here, where such conditions still prevail.
An unique opportunity
The myth of modern international terrorist movements, and particularly of al-Qaeda and its outgrowths such as IS (which really is a third-generation al-Qaeda movement), is that they’re inherently potent and have a natural power of attraction.
The reality is that while modern terrorist groups can and do operate all around the globe to the point where no country can consider itself completely safe, they can only build a base when local issues attract on-the-ground support.
Consider al-Qaeda, which is in the business of global struggle. It wants to unite a transnational ummah to take on far-off enemies. But it has only ever really enjoyed substantial success when it has happened across conducive local circumstances.
The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s provided an opportunity uniquely suited to the rise of al-Qaeda and associated movements. It provided plausible justification for a defensive jihad – a just war – that garnered broad international support and allowed the group to coalesce in 1989 out of the Arab fighters who had rallied to support the Afghans in their fight against the Soviets.
Further opportunities emerged in the Northern Caucasus, where local ethno-national grievances were eventually transformed into the basis for a more global struggle.
The declaration of independence by Chechnya in 1991 led to all-out war with the Soviet military between 1994 and 1996, when tens of thousands were killed. After a short, uneasy peace, a decade-long second civil war started in 1999 following the invasion of neighbouring Dagestan by the International Islamic Brigade.
The second civil war began with an intense campaign to seize control of the Chechen capital, Grozny. But it became dominated by years of fighting jihadi and other insurgents in the Caucus mountains and dealing with related terrorist attacks in Russia.
In Nigeria and Somalia, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab now share many of the key attributes of al-Qaeda, with whom they have forged nascent links. But they too emerged primarily because of the failure of governance and the persistence of deep-seated local grievances.
Even in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda struggled to transform itself into a convincing champion of local interests in the 1990s. After becoming increasingly isolated following the September 11 attacks on the US, it failed to gain support from the Afghan Taliban for its global struggle.
But something new happened in Iraq beginning in 2003. The Jordanian street thug Musab al-Zarqawi correctly intuited that the impending Western invasion and occupation of Iraq would provide the perfect conditions for the emergence of insurgencies.
Al-Zarqawi positioned himself in Iraq ahead of the invasion and deftly rode a wave of anger and despair to initiate and grow an insurgency that in time came to dominate the broken nation.
Initially, al-Zarqawi was only one of many insurgent leaders intent on destabilising Iraq. But, in October 2004, after years of uneasy relations with the al-Qaeda leader during two tours in Afghanistan, he finally yielded to Osama bin Laden’s request that he swear on oath of loyalty (bayat) to him. And so al-Zarqawi’s notorious network of insurgents became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
From the ashes
Iraq’s de-Ba’athification process of May 2003 to June 2004, during which senior technocrats and military officers linked to the Ba’ath party (the vehicle of the Saddam Hussein regime) were removed from office, set the stage for many to join counter-occupation insurgent groups – including AQI.
Without the sacking of a large portion of Iraq’s military and security leaders, its technocrats and productive middle-class professionals, it’s not clear whether this group would have come to dominate so comprehensively. These alienated Sunni professionals gave AQI, as well as IS, much of its core military and strategic competency.
But even with the windfall opportunity presented to al-Zarqawi by the wilful frustration of Sunni interests by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government from 2006 to 2014, which deprived them of any immediate hope for the future and confidence in protecting their families and communities, AQI was almost totally destroyed after the Sunni awakening began in 2006.
The Sunni awakening forces, or “Sons of Iraq”, began with tribal leaders in Anbar province forming an alliance with the US military. For almost three years, tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen were paid directly to fight AQI, but the Maliki government refused to incorporate them into the regular Iraqi Security Force. And, after October 2008 – when management of these forces was handed over by the US military – he refused to support them.
The death of al-Zarqawi in June 2006 contributed to the profound weakening of the strongest of all post-invasion insurgent groups. AQI’s force strength was reduced to several hundred fighters and it lost the capacity to dominate the insurgency.
Then, in 2010 and 2011, circumstances combined to blow oxygen onto the smouldering coals.
In 2010, the greatly underestimated Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a local Iraqi cleric with serious religious scholarly credentials, took charge of AQI and began working to a sophisticated long-term plan.
Elements of the strategy went by the name “breaking the walls”. In the 12 months to July 2013, this entailed the movement literally breaking down the prison walls in compounds around Baghdad that held hundreds of hardcore al-Qaeda fighters.
Islamic State, as the group now called itself, also benefited from the inflow of former Iraqi intelligence officers and senior military leaders. This had begun with de-Ba’athification in 2003 and continued after the collapse of the Sunni awakening and the increasingly overt sectarianism of the Maliki government.
Together, they developed tactics based on vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and the strategic use of suicide bombers. These were deployed not in the passionate but often undirected fashion of al-Qaeda but much more like smart bombs in the hands of a modern army.
And the US military withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011, well telegraphed ahead of time, provided an excellent opportunity for the struggling insurgency to rebuild. As did the outbreak of civil war in Syria.
A helping hand
Al-Baghdadi initially dispatched his trusted Syrian lieutenant, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, to form a separate organisation in Syria: the al-Nusra front.
Jabhat al-Nusra quickly established itself in northern Syria. But when al-Julani refused to fold his organisation in under his command, al-Baghdadi rebranded AQI (or Islamic State in Iraq) Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL).
Then, a series of events turned IS from an insurgency employing terrorist methods to becoming a nascent rogue state. These included the occupation of Raqqa on the Syrian Euphrates in December 2013; the taking of Ramadi a month later; consolidation of IS control throughout Iraq’s western Anbar province; and, finally, a sudden surge down the river Tigris in June 2014 that took Mosul and most of the towns and cities along the river north of Baghdad within less than a week.
IS’s declaration of the caliphate on June 29, 2014, was a watershed moment that is only now being properly understood.
In its ground operations, including the governing of aggrieved Sunni communities, IS moved well beyond being simply a terrorist movement. It came to function as a nascent rogue state ruling over around 5 million people in the northern cities of the Euphrates and the Tigris, and defending its territory through conventional military means.
At the same time, it skilfully exploited the internet and social media in ways the old al-Qaeda could not do – and that its second-generation offshoot, al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), had only partially achieved.
This allowed IS to draw in tens of thousands of foreign fighters. Most came from the Middle East and Northern Africa, but as many as 5000 came from Europe, with thousands more from the Caucusus and from Asia.
Unlike the case in Afghanistan in the 1980s, these foreign fighters have played a key role in providing sufficient strength to take and hold territory while also building a global network of support.
But without the perfect-storm conditions of post-invasion insurgency, this most potent expression of al-Qaedaism yet would never have risen to dominate both the region and the world in the way that it does.
Even in its wildest dreams, al-Qaeda could never have imagined that Western miscalculations post-9/11 could have led to such foolhardy engagements – not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq.
Were it not for these miscalculations, 9/11 might well have precipitated the decline of al-Qaeda. Instead, with our help, it spawned a global jihadi movement with a territorial base far more powerful than al-Qaeda ever had.