As the Taliban surges across Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is poised for a swift return


Afghan men bury a victim of deadly bombings near a girls’ school in May.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP

Greg Barton, Deakin UniversityThe imminent fall of Afghanistan is more than a national disaster. It is not just that the gains made in the past two decades, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, look certain to be reversed as the Taliban advances.

The Taliban’s victory is also al-Qaeda’s victory, and it has global implications.

Even before the US military completes the final steps of its troop withdrawal, the Taliban is surging. It is now reported to control 212 districts — more than half of Afghanistan’s 407 districts. This is triple the territory it controlled on May 1. The Taliban has seized 51 districts since the start of July alone.

The Taliban is currently contesting a further 119 districts, leaving the government with control over just 76, or little more than 20%.

And the government-held territory is surrounded. Almost the entire circular national highway is in the hands of the Taliban, meaning the cities under government control can only safely be reached by air.

Afghanistan has fallen

US President Joe Biden and political leaders in Kabul talk optimistically of a fightback to reverse the surge. But Afghan morale has collapsed along with the fabric of national security.

When the US military quietly snuck out of Bagram Airbase in the early hours of July 2, they did not just turn off the lights, they extinguished what hope that remained.




Read more:
For the Afghan peace talks to succeed, a ceasefire is the next — and perhaps toughest — step forward


The Afghan military is stuck in a Catch-22 situation. Without air support, it cannot maintain logistic supply lines and medivac support for its troops across Afghanistan’s mountainous expanses.

The Afghan air force has just 136 airplanes and helicopters ready for combat missions from a fleet of 167, a drop of 24 aircraft in the previous quarter. It relies on international contractors to keep its aircraft flying. And almost all of the 18,000 US-funded contractors left with the last of the troop flights out of Bagram, leaving most of the Afghan helicopters and C130 transports soon to be grounded.

At the same time, Afghanistan’s scarce reserves of US-trained pilots are at risk of assassination from Taliban death squads, with at least seven gunned down while off base in recent months.

Whether the Taliban swiftly moves to take Kabul now, or remains content with encircling the capital and other cities, it is clear: Afghanistan has fallen.

‘War against the US will be continuing on all fronts’

Biden was dealt a very weak hand by his predecessor. The “peace agreement” between the Taliban and the Trump administration (but not the government of Afghanistan) committed the US to draw down all remaining 13,000 troops by May 2021, along with NATO troops.

It also involved a prisoner swap, with more than 5,000 captured Taliban fighters guaranteed release.

In return, the Taliban “pledged” to prevent its longtime ally, al-Qaeda, from operating out of Afghanistan, and to refrain from attacking international forces before their withdrawal.

The Taliban did refrain from targeting foreign troops, but at the same time stepped up its attacks on Afghan forces and leading civil society figures, with a particular focus on assassinating women and girls, and members of the largely Shia Hazara community.

A man cries over the body of a victim of deadly bombing at the entrance to a girls’ school in the Afghan capital in May.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP

Critics of the “peace process” with the Taliban, including former US generals and security officials, have argued that, with no real checks and balances on the Taliban breaking off its lifelong relationship with al-Qaeda, the deal represented mere window dressing to dignify a US exit.

On February 21 2020, The New York Times published an eloquent opinion piece attributed to Sirajuddin Haqqani as the “deputy leader of the Taliban”. What the Times did not disclose is he is the son of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the founder of the infamous al-Qaeda-allied Haqqani Network. And that the US has designated Sirajuddin a terrorist and offered US$10 million for information on his whereabouts.

In the piece, Sirajuddin opined:

I am confident that, liberated from foreign domination and interference, we together will find a way to build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.

We are also aware of concerns about the potential of Afghanistan being used by disruptive groups to threaten regional and world security. But these concerns are inflated […]

But as attacks have continued unabated in Afghanistan, few believe the sincerity of Sirajuddin’s words. In fact, the piece was harshly criticised by numerous US officials, one of whom called it “blatant propaganda”.

Then in April of this year, Saleem Mehsud, a CNN reporter in Pakistan, conducted an interview through intermediaries with two al-Qaeda figures. It underscores the close relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban — both the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban (TTP):

The Americans are now defeated […] Now the organisation of Pakistani Taliban and their leadership not only moving forward in the light of Sharia but also making better decisions based on past experiences and recent successes have been made possible by the same unity and adherence to Sharia and Wisdom […]

Thanks to Afghans for the protection of comrades-in-arms, many such jihadi fronts have been successfully operating in different parts of the Islamic world for a long time […]

Ominously, the al-Qaeda spokesmen warned:

war against the US will be continuing on all other fronts unless they are expelled from the rest of the Islamic world.

A safe haven for terrorists again

Biden has justified withdrawing from Afghanistan by asserting the US military had accomplished its goal of ousting al-Qaeda from its safe haven in Afghanistan.

But Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defence from 2006–11, confessed in a recent New York Times op-ed:

There is little doubt the United States made strategic mistakes in Afghanistan. We vastly underestimated the challenge of changing an ancient culture and of nation building in a historically highly decentralised country. We never figured out what to do about the Taliban safe haven in Pakistan.

Despite ongoing negotiations, I do not believe the Taliban will settle for a partial victory or for participation in a coalition government. They want total control, and they still maintain ties to al Qaeda […]




Read more:
As the US plans its Afghan troop withdrawal, what was it all for?


Gates’s comments echo a UN monitoring team report released in June that claimed al-Qaeda is already present across Afghanistan, especially along the border with Pakistan, and is led by Osama Mahmood under al-Qaeda’s Jabhat-al-Nasr wing:

19 members of the group have been relocated to more remote areas by the Taliban to avoid potential exposure and targeting

al-Qaeda maintains contact with the Taliban but has minimised overt communications with Taliban leadership in an effort to ‘lay low’ and not jeopardise the Taliban’s diplomatic position vis-a-vis the Doha agreement [with the US].

Both al-Qaeda, which is estimated to have 400-600 fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Taliban are playing the long game. Their patience will have tragic implications for the Afghan people. But that is just the beginning of the problem.

Afghanistan was the birthplace of al-Qaeda in 1988. The group gave rise to terrorist networks around the world, including Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiyah, formed in Afghanistan in 1993, and Al Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006.

A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan — a return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — will be much larger and prove much more durable than the IS caliphate in Syria and Iraq could ever have been. This will be a powerful inspiration for jihadi terrorists everywhere.

And there will be little to prevent it becoming a safe haven for training and equipping terrorists from around the world.The Conversation

Greg Barton, Chair in Global Islamic Politics, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australian embassy in Afghanistan to close its doors as security situation worsens


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraAustralia will shut its residential embassy in Afghanistan before its troops leave the country, amid concerns of an expected worsening security situation.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a Tuesday statement the embassy building in the capital Kabul will be closed on Friday.

Diplomats will visit Afghanistan “regularly from a residential post elsewhere in the region.” The new arrangement “does not alter our commitment to Afghanistan or its people,” they said.

Morrison and Payne said it was “Australia’s expectation that this measure will be temporary and that we will resume a permanent presence in Kabul once circumstances permit”.

But it appears unlikely a Kabul embassy will resume.

No firm commitment has been given, nor any indication of a timetable for returning to an on-the-ground diplomatic presence in the country. There is also no expectation of the security situation in Afghanistan improving.

The government statement said,

The departure of the international forces and hence Australian forces from Afghanistan over the next few months brings with it an increasingly uncertain security environment where the government has been advised that security arrangements could not be provided to support our ongoing diplomatic presence.

The visiting diplomatic model was used between the opening of Australia’s relations with Afghanistan in 1969 until 2006 when Brett Hackett was named ambassador.

The statement said: “We will continue our 52-year bilateral diplomatic relationship with Afghanistan, building on our close friendship with the Afghan people which stretches back to the historic arrival of Afghans in South Australia in the 1830s.”

Payne visited Afghanistan earlier this month and had talks with President Ashraf Ghani. She said publicly at the time that “with the departure of the Australian Defence Force, the Australia-Afghanistan relationship is beginning a new chapter of our diplomatic relationship”.

But she made no mention in her statement at that time of closing the embassy.

The appointment of Paul Wojciechowski, Australia’s current ambassador to Afghanistan, was only announced in March.

The Australian troops will leave by September. The decision to pull the remaining 80 troops followed the US announcement that it was withdrawing its forces.

In the Coalition party room one MP expressed a desire to keep a diplomatic presence in Kabul.

But Morrison said the decision had been made by cabinet’s national security committee, and keeping the embassy would be “putting Australians at risk – or worse”.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China does not want war, at least not yet. It’s playing the long game


KYDPL KYODO/AP

John Blaxland, Australian National UniversityTalk of war has become louder in recent days, but the “drumbeat” has been heard for some time now as China’s military capabilities have grown. China does not want war, at least not yet. It’s playing the long game and its evident intentions have become more unnerving.

Scholars like Brendan Taylor have identified four flash points for a possible conflict with China, including Korea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan, but conventional war is not likely at this stage.

Where tensions are currently high

The armistice between North and South Korea has held for nearly 70 years. The pandemic has severely constrained North Korea’s economy and its testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles has ceased, for now. China has a stake in keeping Kim Jong-un’s regime in power in the North, but the prospects of reverting to a hot war have flowed and ebbed.

Just south of Korea, in the East China Sea, China has intensified its military activities around the Japanese-claimed but uninhabited Senkaku Islands. China appears to be wearing down Japan’s resolve to resist its claims over what it calls the Diaoyu Islands.

The United States has assured Japan the islands fall under their mutual defence security guarantee. But a confrontation with China could test US backing and possibly set the stage for escalated confrontation elsewhere.

Japanese plane flies over Senkaku Islands.
A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force surveillance plane flies over the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
Kyodo News/AP

Similarly, China’s industrial-scale island building in the South China Sea has resulted in extensive military hardware and infrastructure. This will enable the Chinese to consolidate their position militarily and assert control over the so-called nine-dash line — its vast claim over most of the sea.

The US Navy continues to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the sea to challenge China’s claims. With thousands of marked and unmarked Chinese vessels operating there, however, the risk of an accident triggering an escalation is real.

In 2016, an international tribunal rejected China’s claims to the waters in a case brought by the Philippines. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, China has ignored the tribunal’s ruling and continued to intrude on islands claimed by both the Philippines and Indonesia.

Recently, 220 Chinese vessels were anchored for months at a reef inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China’s actions appear premised on the dictum that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Like China’s seizure of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 that preceded its massive island construction further south, China could conceivably take the unwillingness of the US to challenge its latest moves as a cue for more assertive action over Taiwan.

This is, after all, the main prize Beijing seeks to secure President Xi Jinping’s legacy.

Why Taiwan’s security matters

Taiwan presents the US and its allies with a conundrum. It is a liberal open democracy and the world’s leading computer chip maker. It also sits in the middle of what military strategists refer to as the “first island chain” stretching from Japan in the north to the Philippines in the south. Its strategic significance is profound.

Having adopted a “One China” policy since 1979, the US security guarantee for Taiwan is conditional and tenuous. Reflecting growing unease over China’s actions, polls show strong US public support for defending Taiwan.

So far, ambiguity has served US interests well, providing some assurance to Taiwan while discouraging the PRC from invading.

This guarantee has been important for Japan, as well. With its pacifist constitution, and occasional concern over US commitment to its defence, Japan would be closely watching how the US approaches its Taiwan policy.




Read more:
Australia would be wise not to pound ‘war drums’ over Taiwan with so much at stake


China is so far avoiding open war

Meanwhile, China has metamorphosed both economically and militarily. An exponential growth in China’s military capabilities has been matched by a steep rise in the lethality, accuracy, range and quantity of its weapons systems. On top of this, Beijing has ratcheted up its warlike rhetoric and tactics.

Last month, Xi made a muscular speech to the Boao Forum Asia, calling for an acceptance of China not only as an emerging superpower but also as an equal in addressing global challenges.

China's navy has been significantly upgraded.
China has significantly upgraded its navy since Xi took power eight years ago.
Li Gang/Xinhua/AP

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. And China’s actions so far have avoided crossing the threshold into open warfare, refusing to present a “nail” to a US “hammer”. This is for good reason.

If war did break out, China would be vulnerable. For starters, it shares land borders with 14 countries, bringing the potential for heightened challenges, if not open attack on numerous fronts.




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Is it time for a ‘new way of war?’ What China’s army reforms mean for the rest of the world


Then there are the economic concerns. China has significant Japanese, US and European industrial investments, and is also overwhelmingly dependent on energy and goods passing through the Malacca Strait between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, the Indo-Pacific’s jugular vein.

This reliance on the Malacca Strait — referred to by one analyst as the “Malacca dilemma” — helps explain why China has invested so much capital in its Belt and Road Initiative and studiously avoided open conflict, at least until it is more self-reliant.

To avoid outright war, China evidently reckons it is better to operate a paramilitary force with white-painted ships and armed fishing vessels in the thousands to push its claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea and constrict Taiwan’s freedom of action.

It also recently passed a new law allowing its coast guard to act more like a military body and enforce maritime law — again in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China is also expanding its “grey zone” warfare against Taiwan, which includes cyber attacks, repeated incursions of its air space and territorial waters, and diplomatic isolation to undermine Taiwan’s resolve and ability to resist.




Read more:
Explainer: what is ‘hybrid warfare’ and what is meant by the ‘grey zone’?


Would America’s allies help defend Taiwan?

This persistent and escalating challenge by Chinese forces has demonstrated Taiwan’s inability to fully control its waters and air space. Beijing is continuing to build a fleet of amphibious capabilities to enable an invasion of Taiwan.

US pundits are also no longer confident the Americans would win in an outright war over Taiwan, with Washington’s top military officer in the region arguing one could happen within six years.

Taiwan lacks allies other than the United States, but Japan is mindful of the consequences of a US failure to defend Taiwan. Its ocean surveillance and coastal defence capabilities would be exposed if China took Taiwan. But Japan’s constitution precludes direct involvement in defending Taiwan.

Under its Anzus obligations, the US could call on Australia for military support to defend Taiwan. The mutual assistance provisions are not automatically invoked, but the implications of Canberra standing on the sidelines would be profound.

Warnings about rhetorical drumbeats of war remind us the US is no longer the world’s only superpower and suggest Australia should prepare for a more volatile world.

Rather than rely solely on the US, Australia should bolster its own defence capabilities. At the same time, it should collaborate more with regional partners across Southeast Asia and beyond, particularly Indonesia, Japan, India and South Korea, to deter further belligerence and mitigate the risk of tensions escalating into open war.The Conversation

John Blaxland, Professor, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: Dutton humiliates defence force chief Angus Campbell over citation


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraPeter Dutton has begun his tenure as defence minister by delivering a very public slap to his most senior military adviser, chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Campbell.

Dutton’s overriding of Campbell’s initial command decision to revoke a meritorious unit citation that had been awarded to some 3,000 special forces soldiers who served in Afghanistan is a humiliation to the general who is supposedly in command of the military.

The minister’s claim that he has full faith in Campbell does not alter this point.

On an issue that goes to the core of military professionalism, ethics and discipline, the government has not trusted Campbell’s judgment.

The opposition is no better – it has supported Dutton’s decision.

We don’t know how Campbell is taking it, but Dutton says he’s “pragmatic”. In such circumstances, some military leaders would be considering their position.

The salt has been rubbed in by Dutton seeking to highlight the override, with a leaked story in The Australian and media interviews.

Dutton’s argument that “the decision [Campbell] made in the first instance is perfectly reasonable. But my judgment is that we look at the circumstances now,” doesn’t pass (as the government might say) the pub test.

Of course the government overrule effectively came months ago, after the release of the Brereton report on allegations of misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, which said the citation should be revoked.

The war crimes inquiry said there was “credible information” of 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or prisoners of war “were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Group”. It recommended the ADF chief refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation, involving 19 individuals.

Faced with pressure from veterans and from some within the special forces, Scott Morrison was quick to indicate he opposed the proposal to revoke the citation, and Campbell began a tactical retreat.

Former defence minister Linda Reynolds smoothed the waters to give time for consideration. But it was always clear what was going to happen.

A less assertive minister, however, might have found a form of announcement to allow Campbell to have saved a little more face (assuming he wished to).

As he grasps the reins of a portfolio he has long coveted, Dutton is sending the message that (unlike his predecessor) he wants be an activist minister who is in the public eye.

In considering how the citation award has been handled, it is important to understand exactly what it is.

The Brereton inquiry made separate recommendations about the Meritorious Unit Citation which went to the Special Operations Task Group, and individual awards, and it explained the reasons for viewing them differently.

“Although many members of the Special Operations Task Group demonstrated great courage and commitment and although it had considerable achievements, what is now known must disentitle the unit as a whole to eligibility for recognition for sustained outstanding service.

“It has to be said that what this Report discloses is disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force’s professional standards and expectations. It is not meritorious.

“The inquiry has recommended the revocation of the award of the Meritorious Unit Citation, as an effective demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability of the Special Operations Group as a whole for those events.

“In contrast, the cancellation of an individual award such as a distinguished service award impacts on the status and reputation of the individual concerned, could not be undertaken on a broad-brush collective basis, and would require procedural fairness.”

Brereton is making a very reasonable distinction between collective and individual responsibility, and the need to send a broad signal about, and from, the collective.

In rejecting Campbell’s judgment, Dutton and the government have rebuffed the official inquiry, led by a distinguished and experienced judge – a bad look of the political taking precedence over the legal.

One has to wonder just how much will finally be delivered as a result of the Brereton investigation. The process to get prosecutions for alleged crimes is underway but by its nature it will be incredibly complex and difficult.

Which, one could argue, made it even more important to carry through the symbolic gesture of removing the citation.

Meanwhile on another front, Morrison on Monday announced a royal commission into past suicides in the defence forces and among veterans.

This wasn’t the government’s preference. Its plan was for an ongoing commissioner on the issue, but that did not satisfy many families and veterans, and the government couldn’t muster the parliamentary numbers.

Now both processes will be undertaken, the government says.

The outcome on these very different issues – the citation and the royal commission – reflect the political power of veterans.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Incomplete strategy and niche contributions — Australia leaves Afghanistan after 20 years


Department of Defence/AAP

John Blaxland, Australian National UniversityPrime Minister Scott Morrison has declared Australia will withdraw its remaining 80 troops from Afghanistan by September, marking the end of its longest involvement in a war.

This follows President Joe Biden announcing the United States will leave Afghanistan by September.

The path to this point has appeared inevitable for years. Ten years ago, journalist Karen Middleton highlighted the futility of the counterinsurgency campaign in her aptly-titled book, An Unwinnable War.

High hopes dashed

Back in 2001, it all seemed so different. Only weeks after the September 11 attacks, Australian special forces deployed to southern Afghanistan alongside US, Canadian, British and other NATO troops to defeat al-Qaeda, who was hosted by the then-Afghan government, known as the Taliban.

Prime Minister John Howard talks to troops in Afghanistan in 2007.
Prime Minister John Howard, seen here with troops in 2007, sent Australia to Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Department of Defence/AAP

After dusting off their boots and leaving in early 2002, Australian forces were drawn back in 2005 with a special forces task group. This was followed by an engineering reconstruction task force that over time morphed into a mentoring task force, intended to help the Afghan national security forces establish law and order.

But without a clear strategy for effective governance and widespread corruption, the Taliban returned with a vengeance. The mentoring created opportunities for so-called “green on blue” attacks, which contributed to the deaths of a number of Australians.

By 2014, 41 Australian soldiers had been killed. Many understandably wondered: was it worth it?

Australia’s niche approach

Australian politicians and policy makers were always risk-averse about the commitment. Eager to avoid casualties on the scale of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War (where 500 Australians were killed), successive governments opted to make niche contributions that relied on critical support and leadership from US and other allies.

But never wanting to manage everything itself left Australia vulnerable.

For example, Australia handed detainees to Afghan authorities who, soon enough released them. Some of these, it appears, ended up fighting against Australians again.

With special forces, in particular, undertaking rotation after rotation, operating without a compelling strategy and running into such characters repeatedly would have tested their resolve to operate ethically. In this context, it is not surprising their actions have generated enormous controversy addressed in the Brereton Report.




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Allegations of murder and ‘blooding’ in Brereton report now face many obstacles to prosecution


Building ADF skills and experience

Defenders of Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan reflect on how the operational experience has honed the force. It enabled the components of the Australian Defence Force to sharpen their skills, refine their procedures and improve their capabilities. This includes the acquisition of advanced American military technology seen as crucial for an (at least partly) self-reliant defence posture for Australia.

Having a capable and sharp-edged defence force is a worthy goal. The question still remains whether the price was justified.




Read more:
As the US plans its Afghan troop withdrawal, what was it all for?


The lack of involvement in international strategy formulation left Australia vulnerable to incoherent policy-making and planning by US political and military leaders. This may not affect Australia directly. But America’s US$2 trillion dollar expenditure on the campaign points to a spectacular failure of political and military leadership.

Back in 2001, the so-called “unipolar moment” — with the US as an unchallenged superpower — seemed enduring. Two decades later, a three-pronged series of challenges relating to great power contestation, looming environmental catastrophe and a spectrum of governance challenges (including terrorism, people and drug smuggling, and corruption) suggests the Afghan project distracted many countries — including Australia — from addressing other more pressing global issues.

There were other options

This does not mean the complete withdrawal was the only possibility. There could have been a compromise arrangement to protect the rights of women and institutions of Afghan civil society. This would have required buy-in from neighbouring states including the “stans”, India, Russia, China and Iran, let alone the invested European powers.

But Biden’s declaration of withdrawal has emboldened the Taliban and makes any such outcome now virtually impossible to secure. Indeed, with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State resurgent, we may come to deeply regret not persisting with maintaining a modest foothold there, akin to the level of support provided by NATO that has endured in the Balkans for decades since the war broke out there in the 1990s.

Most of our work now lost

As we look back, Australia did work to improve the lives and livelihoods of the people of Afghanistan, particularly in Uruzgan province, where Australian forces were stationed from 2005—2013.

However, most of that work has now been lost and many of Australia’s interlocutors there killed, intimidated into submission or chased away. Some, thankfully, have made it to Australia as refugees.

We owe it, particularly to those who worked with Australia, to offer them a better future, including by inviting them here and welcoming them, much as we, belatedly, took in refugees fleeing from Vietnam after that war ended.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the price is still being paid for an incomplete strategy, with ongoing trauma for our veterans and their families and lives being lost.The Conversation

John Blaxland, Professor, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As the US plans its Afghan troop withdrawal, what was it all for?


David Goldman/AP

Jared Mondschein, University of SydneyUnlike most US presidents, Joe Biden did not come to the White House with many fixed ideological positions. He did, however, come with fixed values. Chief among them is understanding how US policies impact working American families.

In his nearly half century of experience in and around Washington, Biden was known to ask any staffers using academic or elitist language to

pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me […] If she understands, we can keep talking.

The debate about the nearly 20-year US presence in Afghanistan has challenged three prior US presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Yet Biden, as the first US president in 40 years to have had a child who served in combat, sees things differently.

There undoubtedly remains a strategic argument — albeit shared by increasingly fewer Americans — for maintaining a US presence in Afghanistan. Namely, that it would continue to prevent terrorists from once again making safe haven there.

But Biden’s announcement that he would withdraw the remaining US troops by September essentially meant he saw no way of making the parent of another soldier killed in Afghanistan understand such an argument. As he said,

Our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan have become increasingly unclear.

Biden said it is ‘time for America’s troops to come home’.
Andrew Harnik / POOL/EPA

Shifting US support for the war

Today, most Americans agree with him.

When the longest war in American history began, 83% of Americans were in favour of it. But by 2019, 41% of Americans simply had no opinion on whether the US had accomplished its goals in Afghanistan.

Perhaps clearer than the US rationale for maintaining troops in Afghanistan is the fact Americans are dramatically less concerned about terrorism than they were 20 years ago.

A woman embracing her husband after his return from a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014.
David Goldman/AP

One month after the September 11, 2001, attacks, 71% of Americans said they were worried about a terror attack.

But by July 2020, terrorism ranked last in a list of ten issues that Americans deemed to be a “very big problem in the country today.” Climate change, violent crime, unemployment, government ethics, and racial injustice were all deemed more important.

And in February of this year, Americans were asked what of 20 options should be given “top priority” as a long-range foreign policy goal. The top-ranked priority, with 75% in support, was “protecting the jobs of American workers”.

The very last one? “Promoting democracy in other nations”, at just 20%.




Read more:
US postpones Afghanistan troop withdrawal in hopes of sustaining peace process: 5 essential reads


What was it all for?

The rationale for maintaining US troops in Afghanistan was not only unclear to most Americans, it also became unclear to a growing number of US veterans. In late 2019, 44% of veterans said they supported US troop reductions from Afghanistan — compared to just 33% of the general public.

As Biden reminded the world in his announcement, the US invaded Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda and prevent future terror attacks on the US. He posited the death of Osama bin Laden and the degradation of al-Qaeda were evidence of success on that front.

But both of those were accomplished a decade ago — leading Biden to wonder what had been accomplished since then, and what could be accomplished in the future.

More than 2,400 American service members were killed in Afghanistan and more than 20,000 were wounded.
Massoud Hossaini/AP

More than a decade ago, the Obama administration fiercely debated the merits of decreasing the US troop presence in Afghanistan. Around that time, a US Marine colonel who did multiple deployments to the region reflected to me about the many Marines he lost there and the parents he consoled. He asked a simple question:

What exactly am I supposed to tell these mothers that their sons died for?

Ultimately, the withdrawal of US troops has led veterans and non-veterans alike to ask another question that others have asked in the past: What was it all for?




Read more:
For the Afghan peace talks to succeed, a ceasefire is the next — and perhaps toughest — step forward


It remains unclear if the more than 2,400 US troop and personnel deaths, US$2 trillion and 20 years achieved anything truly lasting on the ground in Afghanistan.

Yet, perhaps the greatest legacy from the US war in Afghanistan should not be something the US gained, but instead what it lost — unbridled confidence in and dependence on US hard power.

Such humility and restraint may be exactly what is needed for the challenge the Biden administration wants to focus on most, and is perhaps most relevant to the American working family: rebuilding at home.The Conversation

Jared Mondschein, Senior Advisor, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australian troops to leave Afghanistan by September


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraAustralia will pull its remaining 80 troops from Afghanistan by September, marking the end of its longest involvement in a war.

This is in line with the announcement by United States President Joe Biden of America’s withdrawal.

An emotional Prime Minister Scott Morrison read out the names of the 41 Australians who died since the conflict began after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

Biden said this week it was time to end the “forever war”. The US currently has about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan while about 2,200 Americans have been killed in a conflict that ended inconclusively.

Over the past two years, Australia has reduced its military personnel from about 1,500.

Asked at a news conference in Perth whether going into Afghanistan was worth it, Morrison said, “freedom is always worth it”.

In a statement he, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, “this decision represents a significant milestone in Australia’s military history”.

They said more than 39,000 Australian Defence Force personnel had been deployed on Operations SLIPPER and HIGHROAD.

“But safeguarding Afghanistan’s security has come at a cost,” they said, referring to the 41 deaths and the larger number who were wounded, “some physically and others mentally.”

They said a “complex task of making peace” lay ahead.

“Australia continues to support the peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. We encourage both parties to commit to the peace process and call on the Taliban to cease the violence.”

While Australia’s military contribution would reduce, “we will continue to support the stability and development of Afghanistan through our bilateral partnership, and in concert with other nations.

“This includes our diplomatic presence, development cooperation program, and continued people-to-people links, including through our training and scholarship programs.

“Australia remains committed to helping Afghanistan preserve the gains of the last 20 years, particularly for women and girls.”

The announcement of the withdrawal comes as fresh controversy engulfs Ben Roberts-Smith, who won a VC in Afghanistan but has been accused of war crimes.

Nine this week alleged he buried material in his backyard, including pictures of soldiers behaving badly in a makeshift bar at the Australian Tarin Kowt base and classified information.

Roberts-Smith has denied the allegations against him.

At his news conference, Morrison dismissed a question about the allegations of Australians committing war crimes, saying, “There will be time to talk about those things. Today is not that time”.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Double trouble: floods and COVID-19 have merged to pose great danger for Timor-Leste


Antonio Dasiparu/EPA

Mark Quigley, The University of Melbourne; Andrew King, The University of Melbourne; Brendan Duffy, The University of Melbourne; Claire Vincent, The University of Melbourne; Ian Rutherfurd, The University of Melbourne; Januka Attanayake, The University of Melbourne, and Lisa Palmer, The University of MelbourneTimor-Leste is reeling after heavy rain caused severe floods and landslides over the Easter weekend, killing at least 42 people. Rates of COVID-19 in Timor-Leste are also on the rise. Together, these hazards threaten to interact with deadly consequences.

Our research has assessed the likelihood of natural hazards coinciding with, and influencing, the COVID-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, we found temporary relaxations of COVID-19 restrictions during natural disasters are likely to cause large spikes in infection rates.

In Timor-Leste’s capital Dili, the floods and the pandemic have combined to form a dangerous dynamic. Flood damage prompted authorities to temporarily lift COVID-19 restrictions. Evacuees are gathered in group shelters where social distancing may be challenging. Flooding cut power to some COVID treatment centres and put extra pressure on Timor-Leste’s health system.

The situation offers lessons for other populated, flood-prone cites battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Natural hazards will, of course, persist throughout the pandemic. Better understanding the complex interactions between double disasters will help societies and systems become more resilient.

A boy undergoes a COVID test
A boy undergoes a COVID test in Timor-Leste, where the pandemic response has been complicated by flooding.
Antonio Dasiparu/EPA

Dili: a recipe for disaster

On April 3 and 4, more than 400mm of rain was recorded in Dili. Floodwater and debris washed into populated areas. Recent reports indicate at least 42 people died and 13,554 were displaced. Nearby Indonesian islands were also hit and at least 130 deaths were reported.

Several natural and human factors combine to make Timor Leste vulnerable to flooding.

The country’s mountainous topography (see image below) encourages rainfall and creates steep stream systems that rapidly transfer floodwater into adjacent populated areas. Weak rocks and steep catchments are highly susceptible to landslides.




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Flowing water interacts with the mountains, causing sediment to accumulate in the shape of a fan or cone. This directs flood waters and sediment into central Dili. Also, rampant deforestation and development has increased soil erosion and stream discharge during heavy rain.

Rapid and largely uncoordinated population growth, particularly in Dili, has concentrated vulnerable populations into flood plains and low-elevation coastal areas highly exposed to flooding.

Other factors increasing the flood risk in Dili include:

  • concrete structures that don’t allow water to sink into the ground
  • multi-pylon concrete bridges that trap flood debris
  • urban drainage channels choked with sediment and urban waste.

More broadly in the region, three climate features combined to create ideal conditions for the recent high rainfall and tropical storms: the West Pacific Monsoon, the Madden Julian Oscillation and a La Niña

The top image shows modelled rainfall from April 1 to 5 across Timor-Leste. Inset images show the total daily rain (top left) and maximum hourly rain over a 24-hour period (bottom right) recorded at Dili. The bottom image shows the topography of northern Timor-Leste, where high-elevation catchments exit into low-elevation populations centres of Dili and Laclo.

The COVID combination

Dili is frequently hit by large floods – most recently in March 2020. But this time, the disaster coincided with an escalation in Timor Leste’s COVID-19 infection rate.

In late March this year, the number of new daily cases in Timor-Leste was rising quickly. On April 10, there were 70 new daily cases, bringing the total confirmed cases to more than 1,000.

Even without these twin disasters, many in Timor-Leste already lacked access to medical services and lived below the poverty line. COVID-19 restrictions exacerbated food shortages and poverty.




Read more:
The best hope for fairly distributing COVID-19 vaccines globally is at risk of failing. Here’s how to save it


Then the floods hit. They left thousands homeless with severely restricted access to food and clean water. Roads and bridges collapsed. Crops were destroyed and firewood collection – essential for cooking – has been difficult in some areas.

The floods disrupted a COVID-19 lockdown in Dili, and forced people into crammed refuge centres. Flooding of a national medical storage facility damaged supplies. The national laboratory also flooded and a COVID-19 isolation facility was temporarily evacuated.

During floods, the risks of waterborne and vector-borne disease outbreaks increases. Should this occur, Timor-Leste’s fragile health system would be under even greater pressure.

The first batch of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Timor Leste on April 5 and the vaccination program has managed to operate despite the flood-related challenges.

A road collapsed after floods
Floods in Timor-Leste caused roads to collapse.
Antonio Dasiparu/EPA

A global problem

Many global cities are vulnerable to multiple interacting hazards like those now faced by Timor-Leste. Our analysis suggests 16 of the world’s 20 most populous cities, comprising 5% of the world’s population, have similar geology, population density and/or land use to Dili and could face similar multiple disasters. These cities include Jakarta, Tokyo and Manila.

In emergency situations, the need for disaster response and recovery may justify temporarily lifting COVID-19 restrictions. But pandemic measures must be reinstated as soon as possible. Our modelling, pictured below, suggests when COVID restrictions are lifted in response to a disaster, infection rates ascend rapidly.

Blue line shows confirmed daily COVID-19 infections, which have increased since mid-March. The red and green lines are modelled forecasts for daily infection rates assuming relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions for two weeks (green) and three weeks (red). Testing delays may produce a time-lag between our forecast scenarios and the real-world data.

What can be done?

Potential solutions are more likely to be effective when they involve multiple groups working together. This includes international and local experts, diverse support agencies and affected communities.

Our research identifies ways to improve disaster preparedness and response in a COVID-19 world. They include:

  • developing scenarios and forecasts to deal with the interaction of multiple hazards, including COVID-19
  • using centrally operating disaster coordination platforms to assist and empower local disaster responders
  • evacuation centres that allow for social distancing
  • storing supplies of personal protective gear and medical equipment in areas less exposed to natural hazards
  • mobile teams of humanitarian workers, volunteers and medical staff that can respond to natural disasters in COVID-affected regions.
Dili residents clean up after flooding
Widespread change is needed to protect vulnerable Dili residents from future disasters.
Antonio Dasiparu/EPA

Finally, measures must be taken to reduce the risks posed by future disasters. This must be done in culturally informed ways and includes:

  • improving land and water management
  • land-use planning that considers disaster risk
  • urban clean-up after events such as floods.

Such actions are crucial in developing nations such as Timor-Leste, where urban development can amplify natural hazards with tragic results.

Oktoviano Tilman de Jesus, Demetrio Amaral Carvalho and Josh Trindade contributed invaluable expertise to this work.


This article is part of Conversation series on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. Read the rest of the stories here.The Conversation

Mark Quigley, Associate Professor of Earthquake Science, The University of Melbourne; Andrew King, ARC DECRA fellow, The University of Melbourne; Brendan Duffy, Fellow in Structural Geology and Tectonics, The University of Melbourne; Claire Vincent, Lecturer in Atmospheric Science, The University of Melbourne; Ian Rutherfurd, Professor in Geography, The University of Melbourne; Januka Attanayake, Research Fellow, The University of Melbourne, and Lisa Palmer, Associate Professor, School of Geography, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a troop drawdown in Afghanistan signals American weakness and could send Afghan allies into the Taliban’s arms



Afghan security forces gather near the site of an attack in Jalalabad in August 2020.
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Brian Glyn Williams, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

President Donald Trump’s recent call to withdraw just over half of the 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan has been condemned as an act that “would hurt our allies and delight, delight, the people who wish us harm” by members of his own party and key military leaders. The Nov. 17 announcement of troop reduction is part of a ceasefire agreement with the Taliban, but may not help deliver a lasting peace to the Afghan people.

The Taliban are a fanatical minority who seek to replace Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy with harsh Islamic law. They also have close ties to al-Qaida, offering refuge to other terrorist groups and supporting terrorist campaigns against neighboring Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

The country’s long-suffering people will be most affected by the pullout. Many of them rely on the U.S. military to keep the Taliban from moving out of the countryside – much of which they control, especially in the southeast – to take provincial capitals and the rest of the country.

According to a major Washington think tank, the withdrawal of U.S. troops could “potentially cripple” the Afghan National Army, which has seen 45,000 troops killed from 2015 to 2019. But based on my work among the Afghan tribes – whose leaders are powerful figures who provide crucial supports for the current government – an American drawdown is also likely to proclaim U.S. weakness to Afghanistan’s tribal leaders. Those important allies may switch sides to the Taliban en masse if they feel the U.S. is abandoning their country.

Afghan National Army soldiers march
New Afghan National Army soldiers march at their graduation ceremony in Kabul on Nov. 29, 2020.
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

An embattled ally

I worked with Afghan National Army troops while working on a forward operating base for the U.S. Army’s Information Operations team in eastern Afghanistan. From that experience, I know they are brave and willing to make tremendous sacrifices – including of their lives – to defend their country. But they lack the essential training, equipment and other support that American troops provide.

When Afghan forces deploy on missions to repel insurgent offensives or retake villages, valleys or towns from the constantly probing and advancing enemy, they are transported by U.S. air crews in Black Hawk or Chinook helicopters. When they engage the Taliban in combat, U.S. Special Forces troops embedded with them fly hand-launched Raven drones that provide aerial views of the battlefield. Those U.S. troops also call in American artillery and air strikes, which are key to the Afghan National Army’s ability to succeed in battle against a determined foe.

These American “force multiplier” troops also provide their Afghan National Army allies with vital logistics support and, in a psychological sense, let their hard-fighting partners know that the American superpower has their back.

But the Army is not the only Afghan key factor the U.S. would weaken by pulling out.

Afghan fighters in 1980
Afghan tribal fighters, like these from 1980, have always been key to the country’s balance of power.
AP Photo

The tribes are key

The strategic southeast of Afghanistan that is home to the Taliban is dominated largely by ethnic Pashtun tribes, which is very different from the postmodern melting-pot societies familiar to those in the U.S. and Europe. These 60 tribes, or clans, have for centuries maintained – and shifted – the country’s balance of military and political power. They are always calculating which of the rival factions or warring parties is in the strongest position and seeking to join that side.

When the Soviets withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 1989 after 10 years of war supporting the country’s communist government, tribes who had remained neutral joined the advancing mujahedeen Islamist rebels and eventually defeated the remaining government forces.

I was working in Afghanistan in 2007, the year that the George W. Bush administration kept U.S. forces in Afghanistan roughly constant around 20,000 – but sent a far larger force to Iraq. The shift in U.S. priority pulled vital resources like drones, Special Forces troops, artillery, vehicles with additional armor protection, and combat planes and helicopters out of Afghanistan.

As the Pentagon’s focus shifted to Iraq, the tribes saw the U.S. as only weakly committed to winning the Afghan conflict. Those that had allied with the previously powerful Americans and Afghan government defected to a resurgent Taliban in order to be on the winning side.

The resulting Taliban advance on the Pashtun tribal area saw the insurgents take much of the country’s second-largest city, destroy U.S.-built girls’ schools and take the lives of Afghans who had worked with Americans. The Talibans’ offensive was averted only by President Obama’s 2009-2012 troop surge, which vastly increased the number of U.S. troops in the country, to a peak of 100,000.

That commitment conveyed a message of strength to the tribes, who came back to the government’s side in key strategic areas and prevented the Taliban conquest of the southeast. As U.S. and NATO troops bolstered the Afghan National Army, vast swaths of territory in the Pashtun belt and its second largest city of Kandahar were wrested from the Taliban, who lost tens of thousands of fighters.

Afghan troops continue to battle a Taliban-led insurgency
Afghan troops continue to battle a Taliban-led insurgency.
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

The effects of Pentagon disengagement

For the past several years, a tentative stalemate has prevailed. Many tribes are clearly watching for signs of weakness from either the Taliban or the Americans. They will interpret any retreat or sign of weak commitment from one side as a signal to join the other side.

The U.S. has gradually over the years reduced its troop numbers, which has hurt the country’s reputation among the tribes. But so far, American forces are still numerous enough to deploy alongside Afghan troops to call in supporting artillery and air strikes – demonstrating enough power to keep the tribes tentatively on the U.S. side.

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The upcoming troop drawdown would end most, if not all, of that capacity, leaving the Afghan National Army without crucial reinforcements. The Taliban will likely claim a huge tactical victory on the battlefield, and an equally important victory in the battle of perceptions. The tribes will see U.S. weakness, and may shift their support to the Taliban out of a sense of self-preservation.

The remaining number of just 2,000 U.S. troops in Texas-sized Afghanistan would no longer be able to support the Afghan National Army – and will most likely be hard-pressed just to protect themselves.The Conversation

Brian Glyn Williams, Professor of Islamic History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.