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.