With diplomacy all but abandoned, Israel and the Palestinians are teetering on another war


Anthony Billingsley, UNSWThe latest violence between Israeli and Palestinian forces should come as no surprise. The issue of Palestinian statehood has been off the international agenda since US President Barack Obama effectively washed his hands of the issue. The Trump administration then focused on Israel’s relations with other Arab states at the expense of the Palestinians.

However, the tensions underlying the current violence have been building for some time and have the potential to become particularly serious.

In East Jerusalem, Israeli settlers have been trying to seize control of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah, a historic part of the city. They have resorted to the Israeli Supreme Court, which usually supports the government and settler line in matters relating to the occupied Palestinian territories. The court’s judgement was expected this week, but was deferred.

Palestinians have also been complaining about draconian restrictions imposed on worshippers during Ramadan at the Haram al-Sharif, the area including the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock (which is known to Jews as the Temple Mount).

Moreover, the end of Ramadan coincided with Jerusalem Day, a celebration of Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and with al-Nakba on May 15, the Palestinian day of mourning to mark the Arabs’ loss in the 1948 war.

These factors have given the unrest added ferocity.




Read more:
Israel-Palestinian violence: why East Jerusalem has become a flashpoint in a decades-old conflict


Possible war with Gaza, or civil war

Following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, which were won by Hamas, violence between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza has been a regular occurrence.

There were major outbreaks in 2008 and 2014 when Israeli forces entered the area, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians.

There are worrying signs now that another Israeli incursion is being prepared — and another war will follow.

As the fighting has intensified, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has expressed concern war crimes are being committed. Israel has been accused of resorting to disproportionate force in Gaza, and both sides have been criticised for causing civilian deaths.

A particularly worrying aspect of these clashes is that intense fighting has also broken out between Israeli Palestinians and Jews in a number of Israeli cities and towns.

While Israeli Palestinians (who are citizens of Israel) have always been concerned about the fate of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, they have tended to be left alone, and inter-communal violence has been largely avoided.

But harmony between the two groups is fragile, and this outbreak could have serious implications. Israel’s president is warning of a civil war.

A burning car in the Israeli city of Lod.
Clashes between Jews and Israeli Arabs have spread across the country this week.
Heidi levine/AP

Why diplomacy has failed

A major problem is there is no means of bringing about a negotiated solution to the decades-long, seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Obama attempted to initiate negotiations by appointing former Senator George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. The administration’s focus was on Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, but it was unable to make any progress with either the Israelis or the Palestinians.

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, developed a plan that effectively bypassed the Palestinians and focused on Israel’s relations with Arab Gulf states. This was rejected by the Palestinians.

Trump's peace plan was dismissed by the Palestinians.
Trump’s peace plan was dismissed by the Palestinians as heavily favouring Israel.
Alex Brandon/AP

The international community has been equally ineffective in trying to reduce tensions in recent weeks. Russia has called for a reconvening of the Quartet, a body formed under former US President George W. Bush’s administration that brought together the US, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union to promote an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

China, meanwhile, has urged the UN Security Council to take action to de-escalate tensions — a move that was blocked by Israel’s ally, the US.

The one party that might have the capacity to bring about a ceasefire and promote negotiations is the US. However, beyond issuing the usual platitudes of concern, President Joe Biden has defended Israel’s response to Palestinian rocket attacks.

Biden is focused largely on domestic issues and does not need the distraction of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, a highly divisive issue in American politics. Moreover, Hamas is listed as a terrorist organisation in the US, making it difficult for Biden to apply greater pressure on Israel.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has done nothing to moderate tensions in recent weeks and his language on Gaza has become increasingly defiant. The conflict could be politically expedient for the beleaguered leader — it may help him regain the prime ministership after he was unable to form a government following recent elections.




Read more:
Israel elections: Netanyahu may hold on to power, but political paralysis will remain


Yair Lapid, the opposition leader who was asked by the president to try to form a government last week, has had to suspend coalition negotiations while the fighting continues. His main hope is frustration with Netanyahu will encourage his negotiating partners to continue their talks to try to oust him from power.

The Palestinian side is no better placed to enter negotiations. President Mahmoud Abbas ceased engagement with Israel as a result of what he described as Israel’s refusal to negotiate and the Trump peace plan, which was widely seen as anti-Palestinian.

Abbas had called for Palestinian legislative elections in late May and presidential elections in July, but both have been postponed indefinitely. Though he hasn’t said it outright, his concern (as well as those of Israel and the US) is his party’s rival, Hamas, would easily win.

Abbas’s decision has infuriated Palestinians and added to the tensions in the East Jerusalem and Gaza over recent weeks.

Hamas militants protesting against Abbas.
Hamas militants in Gaza protesting last month against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas decision to postpone Palestinian elections.
Adel Hana/AP

Abbas’s hand is further weakened by the lack of support from other Arab governments, such as the UAE and Egypt. The result is Abbas is an isolated, impotent figure with few friends and waning support among the people he is supposed to represent.

Where to from here?

The relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is filled with suspicion and hate built up over decades. Both sides believe their cause is just.

While Israel’s survival is not at issue here, its future could be seriously influenced by the way its leaders handle crises like this. The departure of Netanyahu could be a positive step, but will not be decisive. The two sides need the international community to help them end the fighting and find a way out of the impasse they find themselves in.

This crisis represents an early major challenge for the Biden administration, but one the new US president will likely be reluctant to take on.




Read more:
Protests by Palestinian citizens in Israel signal growing sense of a common struggle


The Conversation


Anthony Billingsley, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, UNSW

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

Israel-Palestinian violence: why East Jerusalem has become a flashpoint in a decades-old conflict


Mahmoud Illean/AP

Tristan Dunning, The University of Queensland and Martin Kear, University of SydneyWeeks of tensions between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in East Jerusalem have boiled over in recent days, unleashing some of the worst violence between Israel and the Palestinians in years.

Israeli airstrikes in Gaza have left 30 Palestinians dead, including ten children, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising not to ease up anytime soon. Palestinians militants, meanwhile, have launched hundreds of missiles into Israel, killing three people.

Ostensibly, the rocket launches by Hamas were a response to Israeli police storming the al-Aqsa mosque compound in East Jerusalem on Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power, one of the holiest nights of the year for Muslims. The incident injured hundreds over the weekend.

Hamas then issued an ultimatum demanding Israeli forces withdraw from the compound — the third holiest site in Islam, part of which comprises the Wailing Wall — by a specific deadline. When Israel refused, Hamas’s military wing followed through on its threat by firing rockets toward Jerusalem, forcing Israeli lawmakers to flee parliament.

An Israeli airstrike on Gaza.
Palestinian health officials say more than 200 people have been wounded in the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.
MOHAMMED SABER/EPA

Jerusalem divided

Beyond the mosque confrontation, though, there are broader historical and political factors at work.

Monday’s airstrikes fell on Jerusalem Day, when Israeli Jews celebrate the “reunification” of Jerusalem following the Six Day War of 1967. As the ongoing unrest demonstrates, the city is far from unified.

Adding to the tensions, thousands of Jewish ultra-nationalists had planned to march through Palestinian-dominated East Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day as a demonstration of Jewish sovereignty over the entire city.




Read more:
Palestinians will never be convinced a deal with Israel is worth making if annexation is packaged as peace


Israeli police changed the route at the last moment, partly due to the increasingly violent clashes between security forces and Palestinian demonstrators during Ramadan.

There were also concerns of unrest if the Israeli Supreme Court handed down its decision on whether four Palestinian families should be evicted from their homes in the Shiekh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, to be replaced by Jewish settlers. This is the culmination of a decades-long legal battle dismissed as “a real estate dispute” by Israeli officials.

This case is emblematic of the systematic appropriation of Palestinian homes and land in East Jerusalem since 1967. The seizure of Palestinian property is so common here, an Israeli settler was captured on video recently telling a Palestinian,

If I don’t steal your home, someone else will steal it.

The recent evictions in Shiekh Jarrah have been described by Hamas officials — and Palestinian supporters elsewhere — as a form of ethnic cleansing.

The Biden administration has also said it is “deeply concerned” about the potential evictions, while urging leaders across the spectrum to “denounce all violent acts”.

Decades of dispossession

Israeli settlement building and expansion, especially in and around East Jerusalem, is a deliberate strategy. This is not only being done to appropriate Palestinian land, but to alter the demographics of the area and prevent the establishment of a sovereign Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel exclusively claims Jerusalem – home of the ancient Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism – as its eternal undivided capital.

The dispossession of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank is not new. Indeed, the expulsion of Palestinians in the areas now largely recognised as the official borders of the self-defined Jewish state of Israel was required to establish a Jewish majority.

Palestinian protest against evictions.
Palestinians sing during a protest against evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
Maya Alleruzzo/AP

On May 14, 1948, Zionist leaders unilaterally declared the independence of the state of Israel, sparking the first Arab-Israeli War. During the war, over 400 Palestinian villages and towns were depopulated and obliterated to make way for modern Jewish towns and cities.

This Saturday marks al-Nakba, or the “Catastrophe”, for Palestinians. It is the day of mourning for the loss of historical Palestine and the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.




Read more:
Israel’s proposed annexation of the West Bank could bring a ‘diplomatic tsunami’


This process has continued throughout East Jerusalem and the West Bank since their occupation in 1967. There are now more than 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with the UN, nearly a third of whom live in refugee camps.

The plight of Palestinian refugees remains a particularly contentious issue for the two sides. A UN General Assembly resolution in 1948 asserted the right of refugees to return to the areas captured by Israel in 1948-49.

And in 1967, a UN Security Council resolution demanded Israeli forces withdraw from territories captured during the Six Day War.

International law and internal brawls

The Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and its ongoing settler activities in the West Bank contravene international humanitarian law. They are also not recognised by the vast majority of the international community, with the notable exception of the US under the Trump administration.

Yet, Palestinian dispossession continues today with over 600,000 Israeli settlers now living across the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The continued Israeli occupation of these territories, coupled with the appropriation of Palestinian land, are among the primary causes of conflict between the two sides.

But there are also domestic political factors at play. Hamas is a resistance organisation, which is also responsible for administering the Gaza Strip. Its legitimacy largely rests on its resistance credentials, which means the movement routinely feels obligated to demonstrate its capacity to confront perceived Israeli aggression.

This is in stark contrast to the inaction of the Hamas’ rival party, Fatah, and its leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has remained largely silent in recent weeks despite the loss of Palestinian lives.




Read more:
Israel elections: Netanyahu may hold on to power, but political paralysis will remain


Israel’s political system is also in crisis, with no party able to form a stable government after four inconclusive elections in the past two years (and now a fifth potentially in the offing).

With the government in flux, pro-settler parties – namely Naftali Bennett’s New Right Party – have become the kingmakers in the Knesset. Any aspiring government will likely need their backing to form a majority, which requires the support of pro-settler policies.

With all of this in mind, we can expect more violence, regardless of who eventually wins power in Israel. Unless the international community — in particular, the Biden administration — intervenes to find a meaningful solution to the conflict.The Conversation

Tristan Dunning, Sessional Lecturer, The University of Queensland and Martin Kear, Sessional Lecturer Dept Govt & Int Rel., University of Sydney

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

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


KYDPL KYODO/AP

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

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

Where tensions are currently high

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Taiwan’s security matters

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

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

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

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




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


China is so far avoiding open war

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

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

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

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

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




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


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

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

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

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

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




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


Would America’s allies help defend Taiwan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Taiwan’s military has been on alert amid large numbers of Chinese war plane incursions in its air space.
Chiang Ying-ying/AP

Tony Walker, La Trobe UniversityAustralians woke up to the freelancing advice this week that “drums of war” were beating louder in their neighbourhood, according to the country’s top security official.

It is hardly news that regional anxiety is rising as the countries of the Indo-Pacific scramble to accommodate China’s surging power and influence.

However, an essay by Michael Pezzullo, Home Affairs secretary that spoke publicly of a possible war with an unnamed adversary, ventured into territory not previously traversed by government officials.

It appears not to have had the imprimatur of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Morrison did not repudiate Pezzullo’s remarks, nor did he endorse them. He said Australia’s goal was to “pursue peace and stability” and a “world order that favours freedom”.

This is what Pezzullo, whose responsibilities include the domestic spy agency the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, said in a message to his staff without directly mentioning the dragon in the room — China.

In a world of perpetual tension and dread, the drums of war beat sometimes faintly and distantly, and at other times more loudly and ever closer […] until we are faced with the only prudent, if sorrowful course — to send off, yet again, our warriors to fight the nation’s wars.

These words, untethered from any immediate threat, might have been put aside, but their timing has helped focus attention on the security challenges facing Australia at a moment of considerable strategic uncertainty.

The change of administration in Washington, along with a continuing deterioration in relations between Canberra and Beijing, has further unsettled Australia’s national security calculations in an age of regional uncertainty.

The simple question in all of this is whether conflict with China has become more likely, even inevitable? And whether hawkish elements in the Australian national security establishment, like Pezzullo, are overstating the risks?




Read more:
Timeline of a broken relationship: how China and Australia went from chilly to barely speaking


Is war over Taiwan likely?

The core of this discussion relates predominantly to Taiwan, amid the many other issues bedeviling relations between China and the West.

These include human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang, the abrogation of the “one country, two systems” agreements over Hong Kong, China’s abrasive, mercantilist economic practices, its suspected cyber intrusions, and its aggressive base construction in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

All of these issues cause tensions with its neighbours and the wider international community.

However, it is China’s recent threats against Taiwan that have emerged as the most vexed issue. They present a risk, however remote, of a military confrontation between superpowers.

Barring a miscalculation by either side in a tense environment, the likelihood of open conflict is low, given the potential costs involved on either side.

On the other hand, unless Washington and Beijing achieve new understandings that lower the temperature in and around the Taiwan Strait, Taiwanese security will continue to weigh heavily on America and its alliance partners in the Asia-Pacific.

As an ANZUS Treaty ally of the United States — and with its own regional security preoccupations — Australia cannot avoid contemplating the possibility of a meltdown in the Taiwan Strait.

This includes the perennial question of whether Australia would involve itself militarily against China if asked to do so by its treaty ally. Such an outcome hardly bears contemplating.




Read more:
With China’s swift rise as naval power, Australia needs to rethink how it defends itself


Will the US make clear its intentions on Taiwan?

In its initial interactions with China on the Taiwan issue, the new Biden administration is treading carefully. This is in contrast to its predecessor, whose foreign posturing tended to follow the fluctuating whims of Donald Trump.

Among the options for Biden’s State Department is one that would transition America’s approach to Taiwan from one of strategic ambiguity to clarity.

This means rather than taking a non-explicit approach — leaving open the option of a military response should China seek to reunify Taiwan by force — the US would make an explicit declaration that it would would, in fact, respond militarily.

This approach is gaining support in Congress, where sentiment has hardened against China’s behaviour on various fronts.

Former Senator Chris Dodd in Taiwan this month.
Former Senator Chris Dodd led a US delegation to Taiwan this month to reaffirm Washington’s commitment to the self-governing island.
Taiwan Presidential Office/AP

It would be premature to declare a watershed has been reached on the Taiwan issue in which the US would make clear its intentions. But the debate appears to be heading in that direction.

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, penned an influential essay in the September 2020 edition of Foreign Affairs in which he declared a policy of strategic ambiguity had “run its course”.

The time has come for the United States to introduce a policy of strategic clarity: one that makes explicit that the United Sates would respond to any Chinese use of force against Taiwan. Such a policy would lower the chances of Chinese miscalculation, which is the likeliest catalyst for war in the Taiwan Strait.

Haass has a point.

In another essay published this month by three veteran security analysts, however, the authors issue a warning that “hyping the threat China poses to Taiwan does China’s work for it”.

As troubling as the trend-lines of Chinese behaviour are, it would be a mistake to infer that they represent an unalterable catastrophe. China’s top priority now and in the foreseeable future is to deter Taiwan independence rather than compel unification.

Why China favours a less risky approach

Beijing’s crude policy of conducting war games in Taiwan’s vicinity, including intrusions into its airspace, might suggest China is preparing retake the island. But the question is at what cost to its international standing, economic interests, and internal stability?

What is much more likely, Haass argues, is China will continue to exert pressure on Taiwan by various means in the hope that “once ripe the melon will drop from its stem”.

It shouldn’t be overlooked that in its latest five-year plan, China reaffirmed a policy guideline of pursuing “peaceful development of cross-strait relations”.




Read more:
Despite strong words, the US has few options left to reverse China’s gains in the South China Sea


Finally, in all of this, there is the cold hard calculation of the military balance in the Taiwan Strait.

In its latest annual report to Congress, the US Department of Defence acknowledged China had “achieved parity with — or even exceeded – the United States” in three areas: shipbuilding, land-based ballistic and cruise missiles, and air defence.

In other words, the military balance in the Taiwan Strait is continuing to shift in China’s favour. This reality makes loose talk of Australian “warriors” responding to the trumpet call of war even less palatable.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Vice-chancellor’s fellow, La Trobe University

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

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


Department of Defence/AAP

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

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

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

High hopes dashed

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

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

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

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

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

Australia’s niche approach

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

But never wanting to manage everything itself left Australia vulnerable.

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

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




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


Building ADF skills and experience

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

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




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


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

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

There were other options

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

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

Most of our work now lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


David Goldman/AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan have become increasingly unclear.

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

Shifting US support for the war

Today, most Americans agree with him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


What was it all for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


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

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

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

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

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

Australian troops to leave Afghanistan by September


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roberts-Smith has denied the allegations against him.

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

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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