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.
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.
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 […]
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.
Have we flattened the curve of global terrorism? In our COVID-19-obsessed news cycle stories about terrorism and terrorist attacks have largely disappeared. We now, though, understand a little more about how pandemics work.
And ironically, long before the current pandemic, the language of epidemiology proved helpful in understanding by analogy the way in which terrorism works as a phenomenon that depends on social contact and exchange, and expands rapidly in an opportunistic fashion when defences are lowered.
Terrorism goes quiet – but we’ve seen this before
In this pandemic year, it appears one piece of good news is that the curve of international terrorist attacks has indeed been flattened. Having lost its physical caliphate, Islamic State also appears to have lost its capacity, if not its willingness, to launch attacks around the world well beyond conflict zones.
We have seen this happen before. The September 11 attacks in 2001 were followed by a wave of attacks around the world. Bali in October 2002, Riyadh, Casablanca, Jakarta and Istanbul in 2003, Madrid in March 2004, followed by Khobar in May, then London in July 2005 and Bali in October, not to mention numerous other attacks in the Middle East and West Asia.
Since 2005, with the exception of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January 2015, al-Qaeda has been prevented from launching any major attacks in western capitals.
The September 11 attacks precipitated enormous investment in police counterterrorism capacity around the world, particularly in intelligence. The result has been that al-Qaeda has struggled to put together large-scale coordinated attacks in Western capitals without being detected and stopped.
Then in 2013, Islamic State emerged. This brought a new wave of attacks from 2014 in cities around the world, outside of conflict zones in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria.
This wave of IS international terror attacks now appears to have reached an end. The hopeful rhetoric of the collapse of the IS caliphate leading to an end of the global campaign of terror attacks appears to have been borne out. Although, as the sophisticated and coordinated suicide bombings in Colombo in Easter 2019 reminded us, further attacks by previously unknown cells cannot ever be ruled out.
While it’s tempting to conclude that the ending of the current wave of international terrorist attacks by IS is due largely to the ending of the physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and a concomitant collapse of capacity, the reality is more complex. Just as the wave of al-Qaeda attacks in the first half of the 2000s was curtailed primarily by massive investments in counterterrorism, so too it appears to be the case with IS international terror plots in the second half of this decade.
The 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka illustrate dramatically what happens when there is a failure of intelligence, whether due to capacity or, as appears to be the case in Sri Lanka, a lack of political will. The rise of IS in 2013-14 should not have caught us by surprise, but it did, and in 2014 and 2015 we were scrambling to get up to speed with the intelligence challenge.
Epidemiology of terror
The parallels with the epidemiology of viruses are striking. Reasoning by analogy is imperfect, but it can be a powerful way of prompting reflection. The importance of this cannot be underestimated as intelligence failures in counterterrorism, like poor political responses to pandemics, are in large part failures of imagination.
We don’t see what we don’t want to see, and we set ourselves up to become victims of our own wishful thinking. So, with two waves of international terrorist attacks over the past two decades largely brought under control, what can we say about the underlying threat of global terrorism?
There are four key lessons we need to learn.
First, we are ultimately seeking to counter the viral spread of ideas and narratives embodied in social networks and spread person-to-person through relationships, whether in person or online. Effective policing and intelligence built on strong community relations can dramatically limit the likelihood of terrorist networks successfully executing large-scale attacks. Effective intelligence can also go a long way to diminishing the frequency and intensity of lone-actor attacks. But this sort of intelligence is even more dependent on strong community relations, built on trust that emboldens people to speak out.
Second, terrorist movements, being opportunistic and parasitic, achieve potency in inverse relation to the level of good governance. In other words, as good governance breaks down, terrorist movements find opportunity to embed themselves. In failing states, the capacity of the state to protect its citizens, and the trust between citizen and authorities, provides ample opportunities for terrorist groups to exploit grievances and needs. This is the reason around 75% of all deaths due to terrorist activity in recent years have occurred in just five nations: Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria (followed by Somalia, Libya, and Yemen).
The third lesson is directly linked to state failure, and is that military methods dramatically overpromise and under-deliver when it comes to countering terrorism. In fact, more than that, the use of military force tends to generate more problems than it solves. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than what has been so wrongly framed as the Global War on Terror.
Beginning in October 2001 in the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks, the war on terror began with a barrage of attacks on al-Qaeda positions in Afghanistan. It was spurred by understandable anger, but it led to two decades of tremendously expensive military campaigns they have completely failed to deliver the hoped-for end in terrorism to justify the massive toll of violence and loss of life.
The military campaign in Afghanistan began, and has continued for almost 19 years, without any strategic endpoints being defined and indeed with no real strategy vision at all. After almost two decades of continuous conflict, any American administration would understandably want to end the military campaign and withdraw.
Obama talked of doing this but was unable to do so. Trump campaigned on it as one of the few consistent features of his foreign policy thinking. Hence the current negotiations to dramatically reduce American troop numbers, and in the process trigger a reduction in allied coalition troops while releasing thousands of detained militants in response to poorly defined and completely un-guaranteed promises of a reduction in violence by the Taliban.
This is America’s way of ending decades of stalemate in which it is has proven impossible to defeat the Taliban, which even now controls almost one half of Afghanistan. But even as the peace negotiations have been going on the violence has continued unabated. The only reason for withdrawing and allowing the Taliban to formally take a part in governing Afghanistan is fatigue.
Not just Afghanistan
If the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan were the main story, the situation would already be far more dire then we would care to accept. But the problem is not limited to Afghanistan and West Asia. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the “coalition of the willing” was justified largely on the grounds it was necessary to stop al-Qaeda from establishing a presence in Iraq. It achieved, of course, the exact opposite.
Al-Qaeda had little, if any, presence in Iraq prior to the invasion. But the ensuring collapse of not just the regime of Saddam Hussein but the dismantling of the Baath party and the Iraqi military, led largely by a Sunni minority in a Shia majority country, created perfect storm conditions for multiple Sunni insurgencies.
These in turn came to be dominated by the group that styled itself first as Al Qaeda in Iraq, then as the Islamic State in Iraq, and then as the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. This powerful insurgency was almost completely destroyed in the late 2000s when Sunni tribes were paid and equipped to fight the al-Qaeda insurgency.
The toxic sectarian politics of Iraq, followed by the withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011, coinciding with the outbreak of civil war in Syria, saw the almost extinguished insurgency quickly rebuild. We only really began to pay attention when IS led a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq, seized Mosul, and declared a caliphate in June 2014.
Defeating this quasi-state took years of extraordinarily costly military engagement. But even as IS was deprived of the last of its safe havens on the ground, analysts were warning it continued to have tens of thousands of insurgent militants in Syria and northern Iraq and was successfully returning to its earlier mode of insurgency.
As the Iraqi security forces have been forced to pull back in the face of a steadily building COVID-19 pandemic, there are signs the IS insurgent forces have continued to seize the spaces left open to them. Even without the pandemic, the insurgency was always going to steadily build strength, but the events of 2020 have provided it with fresh opportunities.
The fourth and final lesson we need to come to terms with is that we are dealing with a viral movement of ideas embodied in social networks. We are not dealing with a singular unchanging enemy but rather an amorphous, agile, threat able to constantly evolve and adapt itself to circumstances.
Al-Qaeda and IS share a common set of ideas built around Salafi-jihadi violent extremism. But this is not the only violent extremism we have to worry about.
In America today, as has been the case for more than a decade, the prime terrorist threat comes from far-right violent extremism rather than from Salafi-jihadi extremism. The same is not true in Australia, although ASIO and our police forces have been warning us far-right extremism represents an emerging secondary threat.
But the potent violence of an Australian far-right terrorist in the attack in Christchurch in March 2019 serves to remind us this form of violent extremism, feeding on toxic identity politics and hate, represents a growing threat in our southern hemisphere.
Fighting the terrorist pandemic
In this year in which we have been, understandably, so preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, another pandemic has been continuing unabated. It is true we have successfully dealt with two waves of global terrorist attacks over the past two decades, but we have not dealt successfully the underlying source of infections.
In fact, we have contributed, through military campaigns, to weakening the body politic of host countries in which groups like al-Qaeda, IS and other violent extremist groups have a parasitic presence.
We now need to face the inconvenient truth that toxic identity politics and the tribal dynamics of hate have infected western democracies. Limiting the scope for terrorist attacks is difficult. Eliminating the viral spread of hateful extremism is much harder, but ultimately even more important.
Last week, India’s capital, New Delhi, experienced its worst communal violence targeting a religious minority in more than 30 years. The death toll currently stands at 43 and parts of northeast Delhi remain under lock-down.
As per usual after incidents of violence against minorities in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded with days of silence. Finally commenting on Twitter, he said, “peace and harmony are central to our ethos” and appealed for “peace and brotherhood at all times”.
But under Modi, India’s ethos is Hindu, and peace and brotherhood requires religious minorities to know their place. It is this sort of Hindu nationalism that led to the attacks on Muslims, their homes, schools and their places of worship.
The Gujarat model goes national
Modi was elected in 2014 on the promise he would bring his “Gujarat model” of high growth rates driven by private-sector-led manufacturing to national prominence.
But the Gujarat model also involved the promotion of a vicious right-wing populist politics, which sought to create and elevate a Hindu majority out of a socially and economically diverse population to act as a voting bloc for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This strategy relied on the creation of a common enemy in Muslims and secular liberals. It involved the strategic use of violence to polarise communities in areas where the BJP faced the most electoral competition.
Critics warned that although Modi had seemingly adopted a technocratic focus on governance and development during the election campaign, his right-wing populist politics of division bubbled just below the surface and would be unleashed if the BJP came to power.
As polarisation has intensified over the past six years, the critics were proven right.
Muslims and Dalits have been the targets of lynchings by Hindu activists in the name of protecting cows, a long-standing Hindu nationalist preoccupation.
Yogi Adityanath, a militant Hindu monk, was also appointed as chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.
Since being reelected in May with an even bigger majority, the Modi government has claimed a mandate to fulfil long-standing Hindu nationalist demands to further marginalise minorities in India.
The Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens
The Citizenship Amendment Act was one of these demands. The act violates the non-discriminatory spirit of India’s constitution by allowing persecuted Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan – but not persecuted Muslims – a fast-tracked route to citizenship.
Modi’s government has also promised a National Register of Citizens that will require Indians to provide documentary evidence of their citizenship.
A version of this exercise was conducted in the state of Assam, with disastrous effects. About 1.9 million Assamese were declared non-citizens and will now have to go through a long appeals process in special courts that function poorly.
The joint CAA-NRC agenda of the Modi government has stirred millions of Indians into peaceful protests around the country, showcasing a spirit of collective resistance not witnessed since India’s independence movement in the 1940s.
The most powerful protests have been led by Muslim women – a first in Indian history – in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area. The protesters have occupied a public space here for two and a half months, braving the bitter cold of northern Indian winters.
Shaheen Bagh has also inspired over a hundred other women-led permanent protests around India.
Rhetoric leads to violence
Last week’s violence in New Delhi is a consequence of the ruling regime’s campaign against the protests. This campaign intensified during the BJP’s election campaign when the party mobilised public support against the protesters by accusing them of fomenting violence and disrupting public order.
Travelling to Delhi to energise voters, Adityanath, the militant Hindu monk in Uttar Pradesh, said the protesters should be fed “bullets”. Anurag Thakur, a BJP member of parliament and minister of state, chanted “shoot the traitors” at an election rally, referring to protesters.
This was followed by two incidents of shootings at students and protesters by individuals who identified as Modi supporters.
Despite being roundly defeated in the Delhi election, BJP leaders have continued their campaign of polarisation in preparation for future elections.
Last week’s violence was sparked when BJP leaders and supporters mobilised to break up protests against the CAA and NRC in Delhi. It was no accident the violence was concentrated in fiercely contested electorates where BJP leaders had urged voters to show their anger against the Shaheen Bagh women by voting for the party.
The perpetrator of the hate speech that sparked the violence, BJP leader Kapil Mishra, continues to make provocative statements against opponents. The police, who are accused of being indifferent and complicit in the violence, have yet to charge him with an offence.
Nothing to see here
While parts of Delhi burned, Modi was entertaining US President Donald Trump, who praised India’s tolerance. Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham was also visiting India with a large trade mission and touted India’s rule of law and tolerance as its strengths. Both declared the violence to be a matter for India.
The tide is beginning to turn, however. Potential Democratic presidential nominees Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both criticised the Modi regime. (The BJP president, BL Santhosh, responded by threatening to interfere in the 2020 US presidential election.)
The Greens’ Mehreen Faruqi, meanwhile, has moved a motion in the Australian Senate that is critical of the Indian government.
Mounting international criticism is unlikely to alter the BJP’s policies or approach, which are rooted in its Hindu nationalist raison d’etre.
But international support will bolster resistance within India against a regime striving for political domination through violent polarisation.
The US has signed an historic agreement with the Taliban that sets Washington and its NATO allies on a path to withdraw their military forces from Afghanistan after more than 18 years of unceasing conflict.
It is now hoped the deal will lead to a more complicated process of negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government – starting as early as next week – to work toward a complete ceasefire and new political roadmap for the country.
This is critically important because until now, the government has been absent from the peace process at the insistence of the Taliban.
The opening of this window to end one of the world’s most debilitating and protracted conflicts has been welcomed by many US allies, including Australia.
However, many seasoned observers, including prominent American politicians and former diplomats and military leaders, are concerned the agreement concedes too much to the Taliban without requiring it to make any substantive commitments to ensure a genuine peace process.
The deal has completely sidelined the Afghan government and civil society and does not provide any explicit references, much less guarantees, for the protection of human rights in Afghanistan, especially for women and minority groups who were suppressed and persecuted by the Taliban.
Indeed, cracks have already begun to emerge in the deal. On Monday, the Taliban refused to take part in the intra-Afghan talks until the government released 5,000 Taliban prisoners, which President Ashraf Ghani has refused to do.
As a result, many Afghans are worried that rather than being the start of a comprehensive peace process for the country, the deal is merely a cheap withdrawal troop agreement intended to serve US President Donald Trump’s political interests during an election year.
Will the Taliban sever ties with terror groups?
The agreement is to be implemented in two separate processes. The first commits the Taliban to take measures to prevent al-Qaeda and other terror groups from using Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to threaten the US and its allies.
In return, the US and NATO have agreed to a complete withdrawal of all forces from the country within 14 months. It is scheduled to begin with the departure of over 5,000 troops and the closure of five military bases within 135 days of the signing of the agreement.
In the short term, the Taliban will likely tactically reduce its relations with certain elements of the local al-Qaeda network to demonstrate its commitments under the deal. But its relationship with these international terror groups is far more complicated and nuanced than the agreement recognises.
Research has shown the Taliban sees foreign militant groups as valuable allies due to their shared ideologies and longstanding material support for one another. This is provided these groups don’t directly challenge their power in the country.
This explains why the Taliban’s ties with al-Qaeda are so enduring, despite the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan aimed at dismantling the terror group. In particular, the Haqqani Network, a semi-autonomous component of the Taliban movement, has a long history of working closely with al-Qaeda and other groups.
On the other hand, the Taliban has fiercely resisted groups such as the Islamic State when it has threatened to seize Taliban territory.
As a result, the Taliban is likely to intensify its attacks on already weakened Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, rather than going after more dispersed elements of al-Qaeda under the agreement with the US.
But verifying the group has followed through on its commitment to completely sever ties with al-Qaeda and other terror groups may prove to be extremely difficult in the long run. Especially after the withdrawal of the US military and intelligence assets from the region.
Many challenges lie ahead in peace talks
For negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government to succeed, both sides will need to find a compromise on the future of the country’s political system. This would require the Taliban to abandon its goal of restoring its ultra-conservative Islamic Emirate, which it sought to establish from 1996-2001.
The Taliban will also need to make robust guarantees for basic civil and political rights and to shut down its safe havens for militants across the border in Pakistan.
The Taliban has so far steadfastly refused to directly negotiate with officials of the Afghan government, which it describes as an illegitimate imposition of western powers.
The divisions that have intensified within the government since September’s presidential election will only serve to strengthen the Taliban’s position. And the implementation of the first stage of the US military withdrawal is likely to further weaken the government and embolden the Taliban.
Consequently, it is highly doubtful a complete and durable political settlement will be achieved within the 14 months of the complete foreign troop withdrawals.
Yet, despite the failings of the government, the public has not shifted its support to the Taliban. Last year, a national survey by the Asia Foundation found 85% of Afghans had no sympathy for the Taliban.
Taliban negotiators have said they are not seeking to monopolise power and are willing to recognise the rights of women and freedom of expression according to Islam. But given the group’s draconian interpretation of Islam, it is far from certain it is ready to recognise the vibrant role Afghan women now play in the public sector and civil society.
The rights of ethnic and religious minorities also remain a concern. The Hazaras, for one, have been relentlessly persecuted by the Taliban since the 1990s.
Finally, the Taliban’s sanctuaries and power bases in Pakistan will undoubtedly remain a sticking point in any peace talks on the future of Afghanistan. A durable peace is unlikely to materialise when an insurgent group can wage wars from across the border with impunity and backed by elements of a powerful neighbouring state.
Despite these challenges, the fact a peaceful resolution to the war is on the agenda of regional and global powers is a positive development. A genuine peace is likely to be the outcome of trials and errors, a long process that requires patience and sustained international commitment.
The small number of Australians being held in prison camps in northern Syria has been an ongoing, albeit low-level, challenge for the Australian government. There are believed to be eight Australian fighters for the Islamic State in captivity, along with around 60 Australian women and children.
Despite its reluctance, the Australian government may eventually feel obliged to bring many or all these people home.
So far, the Australian public seems to have accepted the government’s line that it’s too dangerous to extract them from Syria. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison succinctly put it:
I’m not going to put any Australians in harm’s way.
An increasingly untenable position
The government believes there are valid security concerns in bringing these people back to Australia. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has claimed some of the women are “hardcore” and “have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.
Identifying these people, gathering evidence about their crimes and managing domestic fears would be a big challenge.
However, the government’s position on extracting them from Syria has become less tenable after the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in October. This followed US President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of the American military buffer in the region.
The invasion added uncertainty to an already fraught situation. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, who were central to the defeat of the Islamic State, were compelled to reinforce their forces on the border with Turkey.
Many of their forces have been engaged in controlling prison camps in northern Syria, where about 12,000 men and boys suspected of Islamic State ties, including 2,000 to 4,000 foreigners from almost 50 countries, are held. Some camps also hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.
The invasion focused attention on the state of the camps, which are overcrowded, unsanitary and experiencing considerable unrest. There have been some escapes from the camps, and many fear they are close to collapse.
The situation increases the possibility that young people in the camps will be radicalised.
Last week, the US government, which has repatriated some of its nationals, offered to help allies, including Australia, rescue their citizens from northern Syria. On the same day, Turkey called on Australia to repatriate its IS fighters and their families in Turkish custody.
Groups like Save the Children and Human Rights Watch have also called for the repatriation of women and children in the prison camps.
In Canberra, shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally has also argued Australia has a moral obligation to repatriate the women and children who were taken to Syria against their will.
Barriers to bringing detainees back
While Australia has not joined the Dutch in outright rejecting the US offer, the Morrison government has shown no enthusiasm for the idea.
Its position has been further undermined by the actions of other nations with citizens in the camps. Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, for example, have already repatriated hundreds of prisoners.
And Britain is considering options for repatriating its citizens. A government document reported on last month said,
While difficult, the practical challenges in arranging and implementing an extraction (of IS suspects) are likely to have solutions.
Australia, by contrast, has continued to focus on the difficulties of extracting its citizens from the area, rather than tackling the legal challenges associated with bringing them home. Our legislative framework is still not sufficiently robust to deal with returnees.
The government has had many years to figure this out. In 2014, the UN passed a resolution obliging all countries to adopt measures to deal with the issue of foreign fighters.
There are ways to try those suspected of crimes committed in another country. The principle of universal jurisdiction, for example, would allow Australia to interrogate and prosecute those currently held in Syria.
Lower-level suspects who are desperate to escape from Syria could also be required to accept certain conditions, such as restrictions on movement and contacts and participation in re-education programmes. The Australian women in the camp have already indicated they are open to this.
But instead of looking at these options, Australia has endeavoured to keep out returning fighters and their families. Laws have been passed to strip some of their citizenship, running counter to several international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And the temporary exclusion orders bill passed in July gives Dutton the power to bar Australian citizens from returning home for up to two years if they are suspected of supporting a terror organisation.
There are few other options
Some governments have suggested that IS captives in Syria should be transferred to Iraq, where trials of suspected IS members have already been held. The problem with this idea is that Iraq’s justice system is deeply flawed and has imposed the death penalty after some highly dubious trials.
For example, France sent some suspects there only for them to be summarily sentenced to be hanged.
Equally unacceptable would be to allow the Australian prisoners to fall into the hands of the Syrian regime.
In coming months, as conditions in the camps deteriorate and Syrian government forces expand their control of the area, we can expect mounting pressure on governments like Australia’s to repatriate their citizens.
In the long run, these are Australian citizens who should be entitled to the benefits that come from that, including due process of law. It is hard to see how the government can continue to deny their rights.