Given the persistent and serious threat of terrorism, national discussions about the direction of Australia’s counter-terrorism strategy should be encouraged.
However, such discussions require robust follow-up – not merely announcements about “getting tough” on terrorism – if they are to improve responses to terrorism in practice.
As might be expected, the key messages from Thursday’s special Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting were about co-operation and a nationally consistent approach to counter-terrorism. The COAG discussion also focused on facial recognition software, pre-charge detention, and new criminal offences for terrorism.
Interoperability means different government agencies should co-operate effectively, and be willing to share information openly and efficiently. It’s a political buzzword that’s difficult to say and even harder to achieve in practice.
In the case of a terrorist attack, this means police and security agencies need to share intelligence, evidence and administrative data in real time, as events unfold. The coronial inquest into the Sydney siege revealed the operational problems created when police and security agencies fail to share information on an offender quickly and openly.
The benefits of improving information-sharing may be obvious, but the success of any changes to law or policy will depend heavily on buy-in from the agencies.
Complex privacy law requirements can make agencies reluctant to share personal information about an offender. This is exacerbated if they remain culturally resistant to sharing their information.
COAG revealed there will be greater sharing of biometric data and facial recognition technology across state boundaries.
Agencies in all jurisdictions will have access to facial recognition software that can match CCTV footage with passports and other identity documents.
The full capability of this technology is not yet clear. However, it is already raising concerns about increased scrutiny of Australian travellers and the possibility of criminals hacking biometric databases.
Pre-charge detention is the amount of time police can detain a person following their arrest and before they must be charged and brought before a court. During that time, the arrested person may be questioned and the police may collect additional evidence.
Currently, the maximum limit of pre-charge detention for terrorism offences differs across Australia. Under federal law, the maximum is eight days (including so-called “dead time”, which can be excluded for administrative purposes). In New South Wales, it’s 14 days, while in other states it’s seven days or less.
The federal government is proposing to raise the limit in all jurisdictions to 14 days.
Consistency in pre-charge detention for terrorism is welcome. There is no reason why NSW Police should be able to detain a terrorist offender for more than twice as long as police in other states. However, the government has not made a strong case to justify why the longest period of pre-charge detention should be applied across the board.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull offered the recent Sydney terror raids as an example of why the changes are needed. That case involved a more rushed police investigation following a tip-off from an overseas intelligence service, as well as complex physical evidence including explosives and chemicals.
Even in that complex case, it seems that nothing close to a 14-day limit was required. One man was released without charge after three days; two more were charged with terrorism offences within five days, and the fourth man was charged with a non-terrorism offence after eight days.
The appropriate upper limit on pre-charge detention is unclear, but the risks of lengthy pre-charge detention are evident. In 2007, Mohamed Haneef was detained for 12 days for an alleged connection to an attempted attack on Glasgow International Airport. He was released without charge and later received an undisclosed sum as compensation for the bungled investigation.
In response to the Haneef affair, the Rudd government placed a seven-day limit on the amount of dead time that could be claimed by police. This was done to prevent these kinds of mishaps from happening again.
Two new criminal offences have also been proposed: one for possessing terrorist instructional materials, and another to strengthen offences for “hoax” attacks.
It is not clear why an offence for possessing instructional materials is needed, as multiple similar offences have existed since 2002. Under the Commonwealth Criminal Code, it is a serious offence to collect or make documents likely to facilitate terrorism, to possess any “thing” connected with preparation for terrorism, or to train with a terrorist organisation.
Following the post-9/11 anthrax scares in the US, offences for “hoax” terror attacks were also introduced in Australia. These laws make it an offence to phone in a fake bomb threat or post a substance through the mail, where doing so would induce a false belief of terrorism.
And, by virtue of Australia’s broad statutory definition of terrorism, all terrorism offences apply to the “threat” of an attack.
These proposed changes have more to do with “getting tough” on terrorism than with filling gaps in the criminal law. After seeing Turnbull flanked by special forces soldiers and now tactical response police, one wonders whom he will pose with next.
The Australian government’s new strategy for protecting crowded places from terrorism draws heavily on other countries’ experiences of implementing similar strategies as part of a broader national counter-terrorism agenda.
The US and UK have had similar crowded places policies for a number of years due to persistently high threat levels. Places such as Abu Dhabi have adopted versions of such approaches and embedded security within large buildings and place-promotion programs.
Terrorists have significantly changed their modus operandi in the new millennium. Until 2001, vehicle-borne devices targeting major financial or political centres used to be the hallmarks of international urban terrorism. These have more recently been superseded by person-borne devices – especially suicide attacks – and subsequently Fedayeen-style mass shootings, targeting of crowds with fast-moving vehicles, as well as low-tech, difficult-to-defend knife attacks.
Consequently, traditional counter-terrorism approaches – the construction of defensive cordons to protect valuable and vulnerable assets – are seen as largely inadequate. Our defences have had to be rethought. Terror groups are adopting increasingly innovative methods and tactics aimed at soft targets and more generally crowded places, which cannot be altered without radically changing how citizens experience the city.
Like similar strategies elsewhere, the Australian government strongly emphasises partnerships between a range of stakeholders in providing protective security. Countering terrorism, the strategy notes, is “a responsibility shared by all Australian governments, the community and the private sector”.
A resilient crowded place has trusted relationships with government, other crowded places, and the public. It has access to accurate, contemporary threat information and has a means of translating this threat information into effective, proportionate protective security measures commensurate with the level of risk they face.
Learning from elsewhere – bollards are not enough
Given the nature of the areas being defended, authorities have had to consider issues that previous attempts have paid limited attention to. Security stakeholders in Australia should bear these issues in mind as their program is rolled out.
First, traditional security approaches may be of limited use against many types of possible attack and offer false comfort.
Many have advocated the use of crime-prevention ideas for dealing with the terrorist threat. These manipulate the built environment to reduce the attractiveness and physical access to target places while increasing the likelihood of being caught. In essence this means the mass use of security bollards and high-visibility policing.
While this might reassure many citizens, the emphasis on structures and deterrence models has limited use. Terrorists seeking martyrdom could simply move to other locations that are not as well defended.
Second, issues of risk and timing are really important. Here the Australian guidance has done something that other guidance often fails to do. It has provided a self-assessment tool.
This tool enables owners and managers of public spaces to assess their own risk (or pay a security consultant to do so). This is broadly a positive development, although it does raise the issue of whether or not such non-trained stakeholders feel comfortable doing this or have adequate skills and experience to do it effectively. Appropriate training courses and public awareness campaigns will be vital.
Third, a clear implementation gap is emerging in many countries in the prioritisation of locations that are protected. It is incredibly difficult to cost accurately for designed-in security. Hence a business case for measures that are solely associated with terrorism can be hard to build.
Developers are, in most cases, not legally obliged to adopt counter-terrorism measures. More often than not they will do so immediately after an attack. The cost and who pays for it is a huge issue.
Equally, who is responsible for implementation can be politically sensitive. Is it the government? Is it the owners of the crowded place? Is it the planning and urban design community?
The fourth issue relates to aesthetics. Over recent decades, urban revitalisation has increasingly emphasised inclusivity, liveability and accessibility. These “quality of life” values sit uneasily beside concerns to “design out terrorism” as security becomes part of the design process.
In the aftermath of attacks, or amid fear of imminent attack, obtrusive security features – notably temporary concrete or steel blocks – are commonly “thrown” around key sites to stop vehicle attacks. These are not necessarily aesthetically pleasing.
In the last decade the initial swathe of security bollards and defensive barriers that littered the landscape of many cities after 9/11 has slowly given way to subtler landscape alteration, although in many cases bollard-type solutions still prevail. The predominant view is that security features should be as unobtrusive as possible. This has led to security features being increasingly camouflaged and subtlety embedded within the cityscape.
What can we live with?
How our public places are designed tells us a lot about the type of society we are and the one we wish to live in. In this sense, providing guidelines on protecting against terrorism in crowded places is a difficult task, especially in societies that value freedom of movement and expression but are seen as under threat of attack.
In Melbourne in June, concrete blocks were artistically decorated in the #bollart protest against what many saw as an unnecessary eyesore. The temporary security measures were put in place to prevent vehicle attacks following the Bourke Street incident and the London Bridge terror attack. In time, permanent steel barriers will replace the blocks.
More broadly, counter-terrorism measures deployed in crowded public places must seek to balance security effectiveness with social and political acceptability. We live in dangerous times, but how we react to the risk of terrorism will have impacts on our public realm for many years. In many ways the threat to cities comes as much from our policy responses as the actual act of terrorism. Both have the potential to harm the freedom of movement and expression that define a vibrant city.
Experience tells us that, once permitted, hyper-security tends to become permanent. If we want a humane and accessible public realm and a genuinely open society, we should not let the exceptional become the norm as we seek more adaptable and effective ways of coping, in a calm and measured way, with urban terrorism.
Despite its (relatively) low body count and primitive execution, Thursday’s terrorist attack in Barcelona shocked many local and international onlookers. The Islamic State (IS) group was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, in which a van was deliberately driven into pedestrians on Barcelona’s famed Las Ramblas strip. At least 13 people are dead, and around 100 have been left injured.
The location and targeting of the attack deviates from IS’s previous efforts. These have typically focused on punishing countries directly involved in military operations against it in Syria and Iraq.
But how reliable are its claims of responsibility? And why was Spain chosen, given its relatively inconsequential role in the fight against IS?
The validity of IS’s claims
Verifying the culpability of terror attacks can traditionally be a tricky affair. Given that organisations that engage in terrorism are doing so from a position of weakness, there is always an incentive to lie in order to bolster mystique and inflate the image of threat.
But in this regard, IS seems to differ from previous groups. It has typically been reliably truthful in what it claims to have been its actions.
One Australian example of this can be found in the 2014 Lindt Cafe siege. The perpetrator, Man Haron Monis, proclaimed he was acting under IS auspices. But despite this declaration, and the potential propaganda victory it could bring, IS resisted such advances and distanced itself from the incident.
This incident, along with many others, seems to indicate that while IS claims a butcher’s bill of heinous activities, it doesn’t tend to overtly lie about them.
Such a policy, while initially appearing counter-intuitive, maintains IS’s perception as a trustworthy source of information. This is particularly important in recruitment efforts, and makes it difficult for governments to challenge the IS’s claims in counter-propaganda.
For IS, maintaining a twisted sense of chivalrous virtue remains paramount.
Spain and the clash of civilisations
The Barcelona attack also reflects IS’s view of the world as a civilisational clash.
Described as a “reluctant partner” in the anti-IS coalition, Spain has resisted entreaties to join military efforts. Instead, it has opted for what it sees as a less risky role – providing logistical aid and training to local Iraqi forces, as well as preventing homegrown attempts to support IS abroad.
Spain’s limited role in the fight, particularly in contrast to other terror victims such as France and the US, might lead one to expect it to be relatively low on IS’s hit list.
But in terms of IS’s conflict narrative, Spain represents just another manifestation of a hostile Western civilisation in a state of war against the Islamic community. This leaves it more than open for reprisals.
At a spiritual level, Spain also holds a special place in IS’s mythology. Once a part of the Islamic empire, al-Ándalus, as it is known in Arabic, is seen by many IS ideologues as a natural territorial part of the end-state caliphate and currently under direct occupation by infidels.
Shock and bore
Terrorist reprisals like this attack are likely to intensify temporarily against Western targets throughout Europe and further abroad over the coming months and years, as the IS is systematically deconstructed on its home turf in Iraq and Syria.
IS remains heavily dependant on an image of defiant dynamism and a commitment to challenge the international status quo, which it claims subjugates the chosen community. As its ability to function as a “state” continues to decline, it will increasingly seek to maintain such a mystique through acts of spite against those that have prevented it from achieving its goal of a “caliphate”.
Despite a likely future increase in terrorist attacks, IS also risks a growing public disinterest and apathy toward its activities.
As one commentator has written, the banality and nontheatrical nature of IS’s approach to terrorism – particularly in contrast to al-Qaeda’s keen eye for spectacular symbology – has left many onlookers less than impressed and far from terrified.
In all of these cases the weapon of choice was a vehicle, driven at speed, into crowds innocently going about their daily business. Barcelona is just the latest in a series of targets of Islamic terrorism over the past year in which a vehicle has been used to mow down those in its path indiscriminately.
In all of these cases Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility.
These sorts of terrorist attacks – like the 2001 al-Qaeda plane attacks on targets in New York and Washington – have elevated threats to the civilian population in urban areas to a new level.
In the latest – on Barcelona’s famous tourist precinct near Plaça de Catalunya and Las Ramblas in the heart of the city – at least 16 people have died and scores more have been injured. The death toll is likely to rise.
IS, in a statement on one of its outlets, claimed responsibility for the attack, telling its supporters in Arabic:
Terror is filling the hearts of the Crusader in the land of Andalusia.
Another outlet warned that Spain was now grouped with the UK and France as terrorist targets.
The use of vehicles in relatively vulnerable locations where crowds gather, to inflict maximum harm on innocent people, will add significantly to unease across Europe. This anxiety will now reach new levels of intensity, with German elections due on September 24, and and a Catalan independence vote on October 1.
This latest attack will cast a shadow over events that will require people to gather in crowds either to participate in political campaigning, or to vote in the election itself.
More broadly, the use of vehicles as weapons against urban populations will add to security concerns in Western capitals – including in Australia.
What’s likely to come as a result are further security measures to combat the risk of vehicular attacks in crowded locations. But we know how difficult it is to prevent such attacks.
In Melbourne, Australia, for example, authorities have installed bollards around the city to guard against these sorts of acts. But ensuring people’s safety in free and open societies represents a huge challenge.
World leaders have condemned the Barcelona attack, but beyond pro-forma statements of support the reality is that the scourge of Islamic-inspired terrorism is here to stay for the time being.
These acts of violence, each one encouraging another, are part of a terrorist landscape. They will remain so especially at a moment when IS is under enormous pressure in its stronghold in Syria.
The expulsion of IS from Raqqa in eastern Syria will not lessen threats of terrorist violence in the West. Instead, it will probably heighten the risk.
What the Barcelona attack reminds us is that the West is embroiled in a long war against Islamic terrorism. Enhanced counter-terrorism strategies, making use of sophisticated technology, will lessen risks, but cannot entirely eliminate the threat in open societies.
This is the reality.
The government’s announcement of plans to strengthen the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) role in domestic counter-terrorism operations appears to be a quick and decisive reaction to the New South Wales coroner’s report on the Lindt Café siege in 2014.
The proposed changes may help to clarify some of the confusion surrounding the role of state police and the ADF in responding to terror attacks. However, to prove effective in practice, the changes will depend heavily on the willingness of state police to accept military advice and assistance.
Changes to call-out powers
The major change proposed is to relax the call-out powers for ADF assistance during a terrorist attack. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described the existing law as “cumbersome” – and it certainly sets a high bar for requesting military involvement.
Currently, the Commonwealth Defence Act provides that the ADF can be called out to respond to violence within state boundaries, but only where:
a state government requests such assistance; and
the state “is not, or is unlikely to be, able to protect itself”.
This is consistent with the Constitution, which allows the Commonwealth to protect states against internal violence “on the application of the executive government of the state”.
A formal request for ADF assistance was not made during the Sydney siege. Despite the many recognised problems with its response, the NSW police force did not believe its capacity to respond to a single armed offender was inadequate.
Details of the proposed changes have not yet been released. But it appears that state governments will be able to request “specialist” or “niche” assistance from the ADF. For example, they may request assistance with specific weaponry such as sniper rifles or other high-powered weapons.
This will provide more flexible arrangements for state governments to request ADF involvement. Rather than admitting that its overall capacity to respond to a terrorist incident is inadequate, a state government could request assistance on more specific grounds.
However, it appears the process will still require state governments to request assistance from the Commonwealth. Whether state police forces will concede that their ability to respond to terrorism is inadequate – even on more specific grounds – remains to be seen.
It also appears that requests for ADF involvement will depend on whether state police classify an incident as an act of terrorism. This in itself is open to interpretation, and may prove difficult to determine in practice.
Changes to military liaisons
Another proposed change is to embed military liaison officers within state counter-terrorism police units. This will help build a closer relationship between the ADF and state police forces – if they can work together well.
During the Sydney siege, ADF liaison officers attended the police forward command post. In his report, the NSW coroner noted that the role of these officers was poorly understood, and that NSW police could have drawn on their expertise to a greater extent.
Controversy remains over whether police failed to heed military advice that their bullets would fragment on hard-tiled surfaces.
Formalising military liaison positions will help clarify the ADF’s role in circumstances that fall short of a formal call-out. However, it seems the key problem to date has not been an absence of military advice, but a lack of willingness to accept it.
Changes to training
A third major change is for special forces soldiers to provide enhanced training to state counter-terrorism police. This is likely to be the most effective strategy for improving operational responses to terrorism.
The ADF has two tactical assault groups – East and West – based in Sydney and Perth respectively. Realistically, these specialist units could only respond to a terrorist attack in one of those cities, or in the event of an extended siege. Having specially trained state police is crucial if first responders are to deal adequately with the threat of terrorism.
Improved training procedures will enable state police to draw on the expertise of Australia’s special forces, while avoiding territorial issues as to who should have jurisdiction in the event of an attack. They also avoid difficult constitutional and democratic issues regarding the expanding role of the military in domestic crime control.
Enhanced counter-terrorism measures help to protect lives, but unfortunately also reduce trade, our study shows. The costs of increased security measures are also not shared equally. While some costs are passed onto consumers, exporters and importers often bear the higher costs.
Since 2000, there have been more than 72,000 terrorist acts causing nearly 170,000 deaths. In our study we analysed the impact of terrorism on trade in over 160 countries from 1976 to 2014.
The effects of terrorism in one country spill over across national borders to reduce the trade of other nations. On average, each terrorist incident reduces trade by about US$6.4 million for each trading partner. The effect is also long lived; a terrorist attack can reduce trade over the next five years.
How security measures change trade
One way counter-terrorism reduces trade is through time delays. Some security and counter-terrorism measures cause longer delays at airports, ports and borders and thereby increase the time it takes to trade.
Food products are particularly vulnerable to shipping delays and the disruption of supply chains that arise from tighter border controls. Trading delays can be very costly. One study shows trade is reduced by more than 1% for each additional day it’s delayed.
Counter-terrorism measures also increase charges and transport costs. Transport costs in particular are critical for trade.
Terrorism has led to higher security surcharges at ports and airports and higher insurance premiums. Requirements for businesses to report suspicious transactions cause delays, also increasing trading costs.
After the September 11 attacks in the US, many nations applied stricter counter-terrorism measures to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism. These measures add to the cost of importing and exporting.
Some of the individual cost components may be relatively small. For example, anti-money-laundering compliance costs in Australia are pretty insignificant. Nonetheless, all these delays and charges add up.
As the OECD points out, doing nothing about terrorism is not an option. Preventive security measures are indispensable to secure trade, infrastructure and lives.
However, some counter-terrorism measures are effectively non-tariff barriers that do more to protect specific industries than to protect people. That is, some security measures have a similar effect to tariffs, in that they divert trade from lower cost overseas producers, to higher cost domestic producers.
And some measures are ineffective. For example, a key objective of counter-terrorism policies to control money-laundering is to choke off external funding for terrorists. However, some terrorist groups, most notably insurgents in Iraq and ISIS, are largely self-financed.
Our results also show that terrorism has a greater adverse effect on trade in sub-Saharan Africa in particular. This region is particularly vulnerable to terrorism due to governance problems such as corruption. Ironically, this region is especially in need of the benefits of trade to improve governance and institutions.
Our study also shows terrorism reduces trade by diverting government attention from trade liberalisation and reform. Promoting trade is an even more difficult task in an era of accelerated terrorism.
Trade itself can help counter terrorism
Trade spillover effects created by terrorism highlight the importance of co-ordinating counter-terrorism measures between countries. However, this also requires greater co-ordination between policies.
Trade can play an important role in curtailing terrorism by bringing nations closer and fuelling economic prosperity and development. Combined with other economic policies and strategies, greater co-ordination between security and trade policies can increase safeguards while lowering trade barriers. It can also offset the higher trade costs that result from extra security measures.
By reducing trade, counter-terrorism policies inadvertently drive a wedge between nations and make nations poorer. Making countries poorer in turn makes it harder to combat terrorism.
Chris Doucouliagos, Professor of Economics, Department of Economics, Deakin Business School and Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University and Cong S. Pham, Senior Lecturer in Economics, Deakin University
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is to be given a bigger role and greater powers in combating terrorism, under changes announced by the government on Monday.
The measures – including specialised training by special forces for law enforcement teams – will provide more Commonwealth support to state police forces, which are still acknowledged as the appropriate “first responders”.
The changes are designed to assist in preparing for incidents, enabling a more comprehensive ADF response if needed, and improving the flow of information between the ADF and police during an incident.
In their announcement, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Defence Minister Marise Payne said state and territory police forces remained the best first response immediately after an attack commenced. “But Defence can offer more support to states and territories to enhance their capabilities and increase their understanding of Defence’s unique capabilities to ensure a comprehensive response to potential terrorist attacks.”
Defence will offer to place officers within state law enforcement agencies to help with liaison and engagement. This will assist with “pre-positioning” defence personnel in response to a possible incident.
The Defence Act will be strengthened to remove some constraints governing the “call-out” of the ADF in terrorist situations. This includes removing the current limit on states and territories asking for defence force support and specialist military skills until their capability or capacity has been exceeded.
The government will also strengthen the act to make it easier for Defence personnel to support the police response, such as clarifying their power to “stop and seize” suspects to prevent them leaving the scene of an incident.
“These measures will improve the nation’s ability to respond to terrorism as well as improve the effectiveness of Defence’s contribution to domestic counter-terrorism arrangements,” Turnbull and Payne said. The changes would be made in partnership with state and territory governments, they said.
The government initiated the review of Defence’s support to the national counter-terrorism effort last year in response to the changing nature of the terrorist threat, as shown by attacks overseas. It is the first time the ADF’s domestic contribution has been reviewed since 2005.
The package addresses some of the coroner’s recommendations in the report on the 2014 Lindt cafe siege, in which two victims and the attacker, Man Haron Monis, died. That incident produced calls for a bigger role for the military.
Turnbull and Payne stressed that responses to the terrorism threat must be constantly updated.
The government is currently considering whether there should be a consolidation of the security agencies under a home-office-type ministry that would be headed by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. There are sharply divided views within government about going down such a route.
Later this week, a version of the review of the Australian intelligence community done by former officials Michael L’Estrange and Stephen Merchant will be released.
Retired United States general David Petraeus was a commander of international forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later he headed the CIA, before resigning amid a scandal involving his affair with his biographer.
At a Liberal Party gala dinner in Sydney on Friday, Petraeus was interviewed by Brendan Nicholson from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Petraeus argued there was more continuity than change in American foreign policy under the Trump presidency; warned the “generational” fight against Islamist terrorism would last far beyond its defeat on the military battleground; and declared China’s activities in the South China Sea should be dealt with firmly.
Below is an edited transcript of their discussion.
David Petraeus: I am here, frankly, because of the fondness, the affection, the admiration that I have for, first and foremost those who have worn your uniform – especially in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan where I was privileged to command diggers and developed extraordinary respect for them – but also for the time I have spent with your diplomats, with your development workers, with your intelligence officers.
There are lifetime friendships there that are founded on periods of real adversity. When I most needed help I knew that I could call, for example, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston and [get it] even more rapidly than I could get forces from my own country.
Although we have vast forces and they would respond after you submitted the request for forces and it went through the chain of command, the services fought over who would do it and it went to the secretary of defence the one day a week that he signed these things if he was there and then they gave him an order to deploy and then they had to prepare for deployment, Angus Houston had 60 Aussies in Baghdad within a week of my calling him.
And it was that kind of relationship that we enjoyed and [with] many, many other individuals over the years.
You heard [tonight] from one of my wartime prime ministers, for whom I had enormous respect and still do, [former] prime minister Howard.
I should note that it was a prime minister of the other party, Julia Gillard, who made the first commitment of any national leader to extend the mandate of the international security force in Afghanistan and that really opened the floodgate to something that was enormously important, which is making sure the mandate literally did not run out and it was affirmed at the summit in Lisbon that year, and her leadership was also very, very important in that.
So, this is an extraordinary relationship between our two countries.
By the way, could I offer one quick anecdote? One of the times I was here, I remember [I] was hosted for lunch by your then minister of communications at his lovely place overlooking the water outside Sydney. And we had a great conversation and at a certain point I said, now minister – you ask these things when you’re trying to make conversation – so I said: where do you see yourself five or ten years from now?
This is a little less than two years ago and he said, well let me put it into military terms for you, and he looked and he got quite serious and he said, I may be approaching the up or out moment of my career.
He flew back to Canberra that night and was prime minister two or three days later.
Brendan Nicholson: You obviously gave him some good advice.
DP: Only in Australia.
BN: General Petraeus, as many of you would know, is an example of a class of very highly educated soldier scholars with a deep knowledge of history in an understanding of the role and responsibility of the military in a democratic society.
In 1987 while he was studying at Princeton University, he produced a thesis on the American military and the lessons of the Vietnam, a study of military influence and the use of force in the post-Vietnam era.
One of your conclusions was that the Vietnam experience … had led to a pattern of caution in the US military leadership when it came to advising the government of the day whether it should use armed force to deal with situations abroad.
The second concern you raised was a lack of focus on counterinsurgency training, which you went on to rectify.
But you’ve had four decades, an extremely crowded military career – much of that time in command in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If you had the chance, how would you mark that thesis now and would you have written it differently with all the experience you’ve had since?
DP: It’s a wonderful question. Another one of the conclusions was that in crisis decision-making … what tends to weigh on you most heavily are experiences you had personally and particularly those that were most visceral.
And I think I would actually use recent events to really affirm that further, because I think what’s happened in the United States and arguably in other, particularly democratic, countries in the world is that after a frustrating, tough, difficult experience like more recently Iraq or Afghanistan, there’s an understandable aversion to this and there’s a tendency to swing and [the] pendulum goes back and forth.
Arguably after 9/11, one could say we got perhaps a bit more, I don’t know if the term would be adventurous, but more willing to intervene and then it swung with the next administration I’d argue a bit too far the other way and it has come back somewhat to what I think is actually a reasonable balance.
I’ll tick off five lessons that I think we should have learnt from the past 15 years, particularly in the Middle East, but elsewhere as well.
The first is that ungoverned or even inadequately governed spaces in the Islamic world will be exploited by extremists. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when and how big will it be.
The second is that unfortunately Las Vegas rules do not apply in these areas: what happens there does not stay there.
Rather, they tend to spew violence, instability, extremism and a tsunami of refugees, not just into neighbouring countries, but in the case of Syria, a geopolitical Chernobyl meltdown of a country that has actually spewed them into Europe causing the biggest challenges domestically for our allies there.
The third is, by the way, you have to do something. You can’t do what we tried to do in Washington. I’m sure it would never be done in Canberra, but that is to admire a problem until it goes away. These problems aren’t going away. So you have to do something.
And the third is, that in doing something in most cases, not all, but in most cases the US is going to have to lead – and that is because [of] the way that we’ve learned how to do this now, where we are enabling others, they’re doing the fighting on the frontlines.
That’s hugely significant because of when I get to the fifth lesson – that these have to be sustainable.
The US has more of those enablers, more of the intelligent surveillance reconnaissance assets, the unmanned aerial vehicles and other systems, the precision strike, and the industrial strength ability to fuse intelligence. If you total up all of the drones in these platforms, of all the other possible allies and partners and multiply times six, you might get to what the US can bring to the fight and these are all integrated and connected with a global satellite communication system.
So, the US is going to have to do this but we’ve got to have a coalition. Coalitions do matter. I’ve long believed in the validity of what Churchill observed that the only thing worse than fighting with allies is fighting without them.
And allies like Australia – particularly important countries that punch way above their weight class and shoulder far more of the burdens of ensuring freedom, prosperity and this rules-based international order than others.
We also, by the way, need Muslim partners. This is more of a struggle within the Islamic world – within the Muslim civilisation. It’s an existential threat to them, so more of that than it is actually a clash between civilisations – to harken back to Sam Huntington and his book.
The fourth is that in responding you have to have a comprehensive approach. You cannot counter terrorist forces like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda with just counter terrorist force operations. You’re not going to just drone strike or Delta Force raid your way out of this problem. You’re going to have to have armed forces on the ground. You’re going to have all of the elements of the civil military campaign plan that we had, frankly, in Iraq, but we don’t want to be doing all of them and we’re able now to do that in places like Iraq and in Syria and some others.
The reason that we don’t want to do that is because again it has to be sustainable – lesson number five is we are engaged in a generational struggle. And I know the leaders in here recognise that and it’s really important that that be communicated to populations, but they understand that we can carry out this generational struggle in a manner that is sustainable and sustainability is measured in the expenditure of blood and treasure.
So, you have to have a sustainable, sustained commitment. That is not easy, but we’re showing how that can be done now in these places that I’ve listed and also in others. Now there will be some, like in the Philippines, let’s say, where Australia will either lead or play a very significant role; Mali, where the French took the lead. But you will still even there find very substantial contributions from the United States.
So, those five lessons I think provide the intellectual foundation on which you will build policies and again if you come back to this, I think we’ve shifted back and forth arguably too much because of the influence of these very visceral experiences.
Vietnam weighed on that generation of officers inordinately. And I think you can be overly cautious, actually, and miss an opportunity when you should have intervened and then you have to come in later when it’s a much worse situation. But that’s the challenge and that’s the challenge that a wartime prime minister like Prime Minister [Malcolm] Turnbull bears and has to grapple with.
BN: From halfway around the world we watched with some astonishment for the best part of two years, while Americans fought this incredibly ferocious election campaign. There was dire warnings in Australia about the possible consequences, the possible return of a sense of isolationism in the United States and then the election of Mr Trump appeared to herald a more isolationist US policy.
With the benefits of several months of hindsight, do you believe that its allies in Europe and in this region can rely on America?
DP: I do. Look, I think what you have to do is jettison the campaign rhetoric or at the very least contrast it very considerably with what has actually taken place.
In some cases, it is taking a little while to get to a certain location like the presidential declaration of the Article 5 commitment in the NATO alliance that an attack on one is an attack on all. And ironically that opportunity to do that was not taken at the NATO Summit …
And then if you follow the money and follow the troops, don’t follow the tweets, follow what’s going on the ground, you’ll see the NATO forces are moving into the Baltic states and into eastern Poland.
There’s more resources from United States being provided to a European support initiative that will restore actually some of the capabilities that we took down after the Cold War now that there is a resurgence of an aggressive, adventurous Russia led by President [Vladimir] Putin.
If you look at China – most important relationship in the world – lots of accusations about China. A lot of trepidation. A phone call from the Taiwanese president was accepted without some sense of perhaps the historic nature of this and then a tweet followed that added a little bit of insult to injury.
Ultimately, there is a phone call between the president and President Xi [Jinping]. Then there’s the Mar-a-Lago summit. There’s the embrace of the One China policy and just this week, the first of four different groups that were charted by the Mar-a-Lago summit met.
This was between the secretaries of state and defence of the United States and their counterparts from China to start grappling with the really serious issues – the most prominent of which is North Korea and the desire to see China do more to squeeze, if you will, crimp down on this umbilical cord that basically keeps the lights on in Pyongyang.
You can work your way through a whole host of these different issues. The Iran nuclear deal that was going to be torn up on day one, we’re not walking away from. And it’s very pragmatic.
Unless there is really sufficient cause and a violation of that agreement, abrogating it would isolate us more than it would isolate Iran. We will counter malign Iranian influence more sufficiently and I applaud that. The America First does not turn out at all to have been America alone.
Frankly, I think the overall way to characterise American foreign policy that’s emerging is that there is more continuity than change and that even a lot of that continuity I see is improving. You see a commander-in-chief devolving authority down to the Pentagon or the battlefield commanders for decisions that I think should appropriately be made at those levels.
Now don’t get me wrong and by the way, again I remind you I’m non-partisan. I don’t vote. I don’t register. I don’t endorse. I don’t contribute. There was an op-ed that did appear in the Daily Arizonan that talked about saluting an American patriot – senator John McCain – two weeks before his election. But you know, you have to do these kinds of things for truly extraordinary people every now and then.
But so to show that, there are three areas that I do have concerns about and then one major issue that a lot of you have touched on.
Those would be climate … we’re again pledging to come out of the Paris Accord in 2020. Look, the US is going to meet its obligations anyway because of market forces, states, corporations and municipalities, but it does have enormous symbolic value and it is not something that I would have welcomed or advised.
Immigration policy – we’ve still got to work our way through that. You don’t see the wall going up yet between Mexico and I think there will be some wall.
I was asked actually when I had my audition, I guess you’d call it – my reality-TV show moment – with President-elect Trump to discuss the secretary of state job and he asked me, should we build a wall General?
And I said: sure we should build a wall, Mr President where we don’t already have a wall – you know, we’ve got hundreds of miles of wall – where it would actually do some good and in the context of a comprehensive approach that would include a variety of other elements that would actually improve security on our southern border, noting that the flow of people between Mexico and the United States has actually been from the United States to Mexico slightly, rather than the other way around in each of the last three years.
I did not note that perhaps therefore Mexico should demand that we pay for the wall. I thought that might be a bit untoward.
And then the other issue is trade and this is a very serious issue. This affects you very much. TPP, now it’s the TPP 11 – Trans-Pacific Partnership – because the 12th, the US has pulled out.
We’re going to have to see how that can go forward. We obviously have bilateral trade agreements with many of the countries … but this would be hugely significant for Vietnam and for some others. It would be enormous advantageous. Our labour movement should want to see labour treated better in some of these different countries, as would have been required.
And then the last issue is one that I think that is a still very much a legitimate issue for discussion and that is the occasional ambivalence of the United States to continue to lead the rules-based international order. I truly believe in it.
That was established in the wake of the worst 50 years of world history imaginable: two horrible world wars and the great economic depression. And it has stood the world in quite good stead since. The institutions, the financial structures, the norms, the principles, again, have really done well, but as your great foreign minister observed, [at] no time certainly since the end of the Cold War has there been as much strain, as many stresses, as many challenges to this.
And at such a time I do believe the United States has to continue to exercise its leadership and actually I think that it will.
I think first of all that you have a pragmatic president. He’s somebody who’s showed that he would do what was necessary to get elected and I think he will do what he needs to do to be successful and he will come to define that if he doesn’t already in part in that way.
Beyond that, I think the national security team that has been established is arguably the finest in recent memory: a terrific national security advisor [H. R. McMaster]. He and his deputy both had many tours together on battlefields, battlefields on the Potomac as well. [Defence Secretary] General Mattis, long-time combat comrade, buddy, boss, at one time he replaced me when I went down to Afghanistan; stayed close even after government.
The secretary of state I think is very good, superb. You just have to understand he’s an engineer. He takes things apart painstakingly. He wants to understand how they operate then he puts them back together and he doesn’t necessarily love the press. He’s not, you know, a retired four-star, you know. Never stand between an retired four-star and an open mic. You can do that with Rex Tillerson and not fear for your life.
Our US ambassador to the United Nations, former governor Haley, has proven to be superb. She’s the one who has in the early weeks been the one to go out and clarify what came out of the White House in a previous day, such as when the president said with Bibi Netanyahu there, you know, one state, two state for the Palestinian issue … and she came out the next day and announced that the US policy has been and continues to be support for the two-state solution.
So, again, I think this is a very good team and I think American foreign policy has been reassuringly impressive, actually, in the ways that it has evolved with those caveats that I mentioned.
BN: So, I’ve got ask you what sort of people are crossing the American border into Mexico?
DP: Mexicans going home.
Mexico has a manufacturing miracle underway. Monterrey is the hub of this. Anybody who hasn’t seen Monterrey, you should. This is Detroit on, you know, steroids and anything else you could possibly inject into it. They’ve done extraordinarily well. I think they’re already now the fourth-largest car exporter in the world and obviously, they have ground access to the largest economy in the world.
Now, I should note the problem with that border is that’s where Central American country refugees come through and Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have sent various substantial numbers because of the violence, the instability and the lack of rule of law in those countries at various points.
BN: General, some years ago the Berlin Wall came down. The Cold War ended. I think we all thought we were in for decades of peace and harmony and prosperity.
Relatively recently, some smart people have warned that we might be fighting Islamist terrorism for a century, which is a pretty daunting idea. Do you agree that the threat is likely to be that prolonged and what sort of impact is it going to have on our democracies?
DP: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I think this is at least a generational struggle and the impact therefore is that you are going to have to have a sustained commitment against it, but in a way that is sustainable.
I’d offer as an example: I’ve never doubted that Iraqi forces once reconstituted and supported by the US, Australians and the other coalition members would be able to defeat Islamic State.
I think, literally, within weeks if not days the final old city part of Mosul in which they barricaded themselves and [have been] fighting to the death will be cleared and essentially Islamic State by and large will have been cleared at least in its army form.
There would still be terrorist organisations that are carrying out bombings, but that will have been completed. We’ll put a stake through the heart of [Abū Bakr al-] Baghdadi [the leader of Islamic State] at some point in time and they’ll be defeated in Syria.
But there is still even after the ground caliphate is taken in those two countries, they’ll still be pockets of them in a number of others – North Africa, East Africa, now the southern Philippines, some other places out in the far east, Afghanistan.
They have an affinity for eastern Afghanistan where the 9/11 attacks were planned. Let’s not forget that the reason we went to Afghanistan and the reason we have stayed is because that’s where the 9/11 attacks were planned.
That’s where the initial training of the attackers was conducted and we don’t want to ever allow that to be a sanctuary for transnational extremists again so that they can do what al-Qaeda did.
So, this is going to be a long fight and the difficult area in particular is the so-called virtual caliphate. You could eliminate all of the ground vestiges of this and there’s still going to be on the internet this extremist propagation that recruits, that shares lessons on how to make explosives, on tactics, that proselytises, that tries to encourage. One [message] now is to conduct attacks in the United States.
There’s going to be a very small number of a very large population that will unfortunately be attracted by this and carry out what are termed lone-wolf attacks, but typically it turns out the lone wolf got inspiration from the internet or from some other form.
And so I think we do have to get used to this in a sense, while doing everything we can, obviously, to eliminate the risk of this, to mitigate the risk of when it does happen and so forth, but we are going to be seized with this problem for a very long time I fear.
And again, that implies a lot about how it is that we’re going to have to take this on and again it is always going to take a comprehensive approach. There’s no silver bullet that you can shoot that will make this go away.
BN: The citizens of both our countries would be deeply concerned if they felt that their personal information and transactions online – your banking information and everything else – wasn’t fully and effectively encrypted, but at the same time that would be in conflict, would it not, with the need for various agencies to have access to information right across the internet?
How do you deal with that conflict and are those two ideas heading for collision?
DP: They do collide and so my view has been that on the one hand – CIA, NSA and others – I mean, look, we get paid to steal secrets, to recruit sources, to chase bad guys. That’s what our governments pay us to do and you should expect us to do that.
And I think we ought to have the ability to crack anything, anywhere, anytime when the legal circumstances obtain. And I generally think we shouldn’t talk about it too, which is a little more difficult.
The second ,though, is that I don’t believe we should be able to compel Apple or other producers, manufacturers of devices to have a back door, for the simple reason that the criminals will find this very, very quickly.
It’s actually criminals that are finding the so-called zero-day defects and exploiting them before the firms themselves find them. There’s a whole industry of this now and you can go to the dark web and find this kind of stuff.
So, I do think this a bit in conflict. I should also note that the Snowden revelations were enormously damaging to the relationship that we had between the intelligence community and the internet service providers, the social media platforms, the CEOs and all the rest of it.
It used to be that you could go to them quietly and they would help us and we would help them occasionally, that broke down because these revelations cost tens of billions of dollars just for say Google alone. And we’ve got to rebuild that trust and confidence and that’s going to be very important in the way going forward.
There’s also a very significantly debate that has to be had I think, and I’ll be interested in the prime minister’s view on this, and that is on what [British] Prime Minister [Theresa] May has raised: enough is enough, how far will people be allowed to go in the internet? Where does free speech end and incitement to extremist violence begin? And I think that you will see a pendulum moving on this.
The key, of course, is to get it to move far enough, but not too far because then it will, you know, come back the other way. But I think there is going to be a very significant debate on this in the UK in the wake of the attacks that they’ve suffered, which have been linked back to activity on the internet.
And I think that will be instructive for all of us, and you and we and the UK all share not just a common language, but common values, common heritage and a shared future. And I think that debate is going to be one to watch and I assume that there is going to be something like that here in Australia as well.
BN: Australia is in this sort of paradoxical situation that affects many countries in the region of finding itself in a region that is the subject of some aggression from the main trading partner of most of the countries in that region.
What do you think of China’s activities in creating artificial islands, militarising them, the muscular use of its fishing fleet?
DP: Yep, which have the most sophisticated communications we have ever seen on any fishing fleet.
BN: Well, how do we deal with this? And how important are things like freedom-of-navigation exercises?
DP: Hugely important and I think we have to be firm. You know, let’s get the big idea right – better be firm.
And I would acknowledge that I think there have been times in recent years where the rhetoric at the Shangri-La Dialogue … several years ago when I heard for example, [then] secretary of defence Ash Carter, and his inaugural speech there literally pound the podium and say we will sail anywhere and fly anywhere – and it took us eight months to sail through the South China Sea. That’s not firmness.
Teddy Roosevelt did, I think, have it right on this. You know, speak softly and carry a big stick.
We should just state it, we should just do it and frankly there were opportunities when those islands were first being constructed where we could have said, OK fine, you know, and we’ll help the Philippines build there and we’ll help Vietnam here and if Malaysia wants to get into the act. Every single country that has a maritime border with China has a dispute with it.
And the Nine-Dash Line is an outrageous assertion that is completely without foundation in international law, as we found when the Philippines took their case to the World Court if you will and the case was decided in their favour.
But you know as Thucydides or someone or the Melian Dialogue said, the strong do what they will and the weak submit. I think the weak don’t have to submit, we have to collectively be firm in response.
I do think that Australia has done quite an admirable job in acknowledging this curious duality where their number-one trading partner is also, arguably the number one security cause for concern and the number-one security partner is the United States, which again has China as its now number-one trading partner, but also our number-one strategic competitor.
This relationship between the US and China is absolutely crucial. There’s a wonderful new book out again by the professor up at the Belfer Center at Harvard, Graham Allison. It’s titled Destined for War – there’s no question mark.
You know, it’s about can China and the United States avoid the so-called Thucydides Trap, and it’s called that because Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War – Sparta is the established power, Athens is a rising power and Thucydides writes they inevitably went to war.
And so, of course, we don’t want that in this case. He then reviews a number of cases that go back about five centuries – 75% of the time there was war in that situation – and we need to obviously avoid that this time.
So, I think is where the strategic dialogue with China is crucially important and this is where again I think you see heartening development in the relationship between the president of the United States and the president of China, and now these relationships at the levels below and I think that’s very important.
By the way, I’m the one that believes we should have a strategic dialogue with Russia as well. Yes, we have many conflicting interests. Yes, they have been extraordinarily over-aggressive against Georgia, in Crimea, south-eastern Ukraine, flights that come very near to our aircraft, a variety of other actions. But in Syria, the ultimate resolution is going to require Russia to be at that table.
By the way, I think the ultimate resolution is not going to be what is sought through diplomacy, which is a democratically elected multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian government in Damascus for all of Syria.
I think it’s going to be something that basically just tries to stop the bloodshed with a series of local ceasefires around the periphery of a rump Syria. Some will be guaranteed by Turkey, some by the United States, some by Jordan and the US, and so forth. But Russia is going to have to at least tacitly, if not formally accept that.
BN: Do you think countries like Australia should carry out freedom-of-navigation operations within the 12-mile perceived boundaries round those artificial islands?
DP: Look, I do, but these are tough calls for national leaders. The fact is that the islands have been constructed.
I talked to Ash Carter about this. I said don’t use the term “reclamation”. They’re not reclaiming anything. They’re building islands. These are on rocks that were below the level of the sea at high tide, which gives you no justification for anything if you actually had a claim to use them in the first place, which they don’t.
And so, yeah, absolutely, I think that should be the case and again quietly done. We don’t have to have brass bands and fanfare, but it should be done and I think countries of the world should indeed do that, and I again if it can be done as a coalition I think it obviously says much more.
BN: Again on a subject you touched on: the recapture of Mosul and the capture of Raqqa, which appears to be likely, will clearly, significantly reduce the power of the Islamic State terror group in terms of major military operations, but what comes next?
DP: I’ve actually written about this, that the battle that matters most is the battle after the battle.
There’s been no doubt again that we would enable our Iraqi counterparts to defeat the Islamic State on the ground. The question is: after that can the Iraqis achieve governance that is sufficiently representative of all the different groups? And by the way Nineveh Province, of which Mosul’s the capital, is where I spent the first year of the war after the fight to Baghdad and it is the most complex human terrain of all of Iraq.
Can you get adequate representation of all, reasonable responsiveness to all those groups within means and most importantly guarantee minority rights, not just majority rule? That’s a tall order and it will not be easy. But if you don’t get that right, there will be once again fertile fields for the planting of the seeds of extremism and the rise of ISIS 3.0.
BN: You worked closely with Kurdish fighters in your time in Iraq. Now those Kurdish groups are playing a major role in the campaigns to recapture significant parts of Iraq.
They’ve recaptured significant parts of Iraq all by themselves with help from the United States and allies, but also they’re playing a major role in Syria. Is that likely to lead to the creation of a Kurdish state?
DP: No, and that’s a great point. One of the strategic revelations of what’s happened is recognition that the Syrian Kurds do not want to be part of a greater Kurdistan – that is, part of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government.
In fact, the Iraqi Kurdish regional government has significant political disputes ongoing right now. They will have a referendum on independence. Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish regional government, has pledged this.
But I literally don’t think they can afford to be independent. We calculated at one point – the CIA – that they needed to export about 800,000 barrels of oil at US$105 per barrel. They are only producing 800,000 barrels on a really good day and exporting a subset of that now in the forties per barrel. So, they still need some of what they get from Baghdad.
Keep in mind that Iraq for all of the centrifugal forces pulling it apart has a huge centripetal force and that is the central government’s distribution of the oil revenue. That is absolutely crucial and that is keeping that country together.
The Sunni Arabs, for all of the differences they have with Shia-led government in Baghdad have no alternative, but to getting that. So maybe you get a new deal with Baghdad, gets greater devolution of power to the provinces, the Sunni provinces, as they have and some of the others. But I think they stay part of Iraq and I think that the Kurds will stay part of Iraq for some time longer as well.
I think, ultimately, they probably do have a right to an independent state and an independent people, but again they’re going to have to get a good deal. This has to be an amicable divorce with Iraq and a good deal with Turkey before they can risk that.
BN: You were able, I think, in Iraq to negotiate with diverse and opposing tribal factions. Do you believe that after all the violence and bloodshed that we’ve seen in Iraq and Syria that that sort of rehabilitation is possible again?
DP: I do. And look, by the way, when I was negotiating that I had a great position. I was the sheikh of the strongest tribe in Iraq. Having 165,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, and then tens of thousands of additional coalition forces and others, was hugely helpful.
But I do actually think the prime minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, knows that there has to be inclusive governance and I think that he is determined to that and I see break-off factions within the Shia, who I think will enable that as well.