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.

An Australian ‘space command’ could be a force for good — or a cause for war


iss e orig.
NASA

Cassandra Steer, Australian National UniversityAs the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) celebrated 100 years with a spectacular and well-attended flyover in Canberra yesterday, many eyes were lifted to the skies. But RAAF’s ambitions go even higher, as its motto “through adversity, to the stars” hints. The Chief of Air Force, Air Marshall Mel Hupfeld, announced the intention to create a new “space command”.

Having a dedicated space command will bring Australia into line with Canada, India, France and Japan, all of which recently created similar organisations within their armed forces. Unlike the US Space Force, which is a separate branch of the military in addition to the army, navy and air force, Australia’s space command will oversee space activities across the Australian Defence Force.

Creating a space command is a smart move — but we must be careful to ensure it doesn’t add fuel to a cycle of military escalation in space that has already begun.




Read more:
The US plan for a Space Force risks escalating a ‘space arms race’


Space technology is vital but vulnerable

We depend on satellites for communications, navigation, banking and trade, weather and climate tracking, search and rescue, bushfire tracking, and more. A conflict in space would be catastrophic for us all.

There is a risk of “space war” because these technologies are also integral to military operations, both in peacetime and during conflict. If you want to take out your enemy’s eyes and ears, you target their satellites — but not with guns, bombs or lasers.

There are many ways in which so-called “counterspace technologies” might threaten those satellites. This might include cyber attacks, dazzling a satellite with low-powered lasers so that it can’t observe Earth, or jamming a signal so a satellite can’t send data to Earth.

Operating in space

The creation of US Space Force under the Trump administration in 2019 raised many eyebrows, and even led to a parody sitcom on Netflix. But while the comedy series had soldiers waging a war with China on the Moon using wrenches, US Space Force has a serious mandate, including the work that had been done for decades by its predecessor, US Space Command.

While the TV version ended in farce in Space Force, the real thing has a serious job.
Netflix

Much of that work involves tracking satellites and the estimated 128 million pieces of debris orbiting the Earth, to help avoid collisions that could be fatal to any number of services on which we rely. It also involves protecting US and allied space systems from counterspace threats.

The announcement that Australia will have its own space command is a welcome one in this sense. All three of our armed forces depend on space-based technologies, and centralised coordination is sensible.




Read more:
A guide to ensure everyone plays by the same military rules in space: the Woomera Manual


We also intend to increase our sovereign space capabilities, as outlined in the 2020 Strategic Defence Update, with A$7 billion dedicated to new space systems, mostly communications satellites. We need to be able to defend those satellites, and Defence needs to have centralised command and control of all government space operations. Australia also needs to be able to coordinate use of, access to, and protection of space with our allies.

Avoiding escalation

We should be extremely wary of designating space a “warfighting domain”. The US is the only country to adopt this nomenclature. It sends a deliberate signal to rivals that any point of conflict can now also be taken into space, or even begin in space.

The US Department of Defense asserts it is only responding to the actions of China and Russia, which have “weaponised space and turned it into a warfighting domain”. For China and Russia, of course, this statement and the creation of US Space Force justify ramping up their own space military programs. An escalating cycle with a potential for conflict in space is underway.

If Australia were to adopt the position that space is a warfighting domain, the most important country we would be sending a signal to would be China. We are far from having sufficient space capabilities to pick or win a fight with China in space. Adopting such a position could also be seen as a breach of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which states that space shall be used for “exclusively peaceful purposes”.

Competition is counterproductive

Following the lead of our other allies offers a better path. The NATO countries refused to describe space as a warfighting domain when they debated it at their space summit in 2019. They opted instead to designate space an “operational domain”.

The US Space Force is underpinned by a doctrine of “space superiority”, which is not something to which Australia can — or should — aspire. In fact, a study commissioned by the US Department of Defense itself concludes dominance in space is not crucial to US or allied defence.




Read more:
‘War in space’ would be a catastrophe. A return to rules-based cooperation is the only way to keep space peaceful


This aligns with the arguments made by a range of global experts in a recent publication I co-edited, War and Peace in Outer Space. Seeking to dominate space militarily will likely lead to a counterproductive escalating cycle of competition. If we want to protect our space-based assets and those of our allies, we need to reduce the risk of an arms race, rather than incite one.

Australia should focus on its ability to become an effective diplomatic space power. A new centralised space command can be at the centre of this effort.The Conversation

Cassandra Steer, Senior Lecturer, ANU College of Law; Mission Specialist, ANU Institute for Space, Australian National University

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

Ten years on from the Syrian uprising, what has prevented an end to the tragedy?


East Aleppo after Syrian forces, backed by Russia and Iran, recaptured the city in 2016.
http://www.shutterstock.com

Hanlie Booysen, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of WellingtonTen years ago this month, Syrians took to the streets to call for political reform and social dignity.

The success with which earlier protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt had toppled dictators Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, as well as NATO’s air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, seemed outwardly to present an opportunity for change in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.

Instead, the Syrian uprising turned into an insurgency and then a bloody civil war.

By December of 2011, 133 countries in the United Nations General Assembly (including Aotearoa New Zealand) were strongly condemning the Syrian authorities’ “grave and systematic human rights violations” in its response to the uprising.

Alas, this was to no avail. In the past decade, 7 million Syrians (from a pre-conflict population of 22 million) have been internally displaced, and 5.6 million have fled to neighbouring countries.

More than 500,000 have been killed, including 55,000 children. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, thousands of civilians have been subject to torture, sexual violence or death in detention, or have disappeared.

The dire circumstances of more than 64,000 mostly women and children being held in the Al-Hol and Al-Roj detention camps in north-eastern Syria have become the most recent statistic in the Syrian tragedy.

How did this ongoing disaster happen? While the Syrian conflict is complex, it is possible to identify three things that facilitated the militarisation of the uprising and al-Assad’s political survival.

Aerial view of rows of tents at refugee camp
Aerial view of the Atma refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border, 2021.
GettyImages

First resort to violence

Like their counterparts in neighbouring countries, Syrians faced a pervasive mukhabarat (security establishment), poverty and the absence of basic freedoms.

Their desire for change found early expression when a group of schoolboys painted a slogan, first seen in Tunisia and then in Tahrir square in Cairo, onto a wall in the southern Syrian city of Daraa: الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام (as-shab yurid isqat an-nizam), translated as “the people want the fall of the regime”.




Read more:
Arab Spring: after a decade of conflict, the same old problems remain


But the al-Assad government did not fall. It violently cracked down on the protest movement. In Daraa, the schoolboys were detained and tortured. When the mukhabarat dismissed the tribal elders who intervened on their behalf, it sparked demonstrations in the city.

The demonstrators were met with live ammunition and later tanks. Whole neighbourhoods and villages were put under siege. This excessive use of violence against demonstrators in Daraa and elsewhere militarised the Syrian uprising and undermined the protest movement.

Bashar as-Assad and Vladimir Putin seated and talking
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad meets his key ally, Russian president Vladimir Putin, in Damascus, 2020.
GettyImages

Failure of the UN Security Council

The UN Security Council, initially slow to react, became no more than a witness to the violence in Syria.

Seven months after the protests in Daraa began, a resolution tabled by France, the UK, Germany and Portugal condemned Syria’s human rights violations, and raised the potential use of force under Article 41 (Chapter VII) of the UN Charter.

Russia and China vetoed the resolution, and non-permanent members India, Brazil, South Africa and Lebanon abstained. No punitive action occurred.

Opposition to the draft resolution was motivated by what had happened in Libya. On March 17 2011, UN Security Council Resolution 1973 had authorised “necessary measures” under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to protect Libyan civilians against Gaddafi’s military.




Read more:
‘Every day is war’ – a decade of slow suffering and destruction in Syria


The UN-sanctioned, NATO-led military campaign began two days later, but did not cease after the feared attack against civilians in Benghazi was foiled. It continued for seven months until Gaddafi was captured and killed.

Russia’s veto of the first Syrian UN Security Council resolution was based on a suspicion that regime change, as had occurred in Libya, was also planned for Syria.

But Russia has gone on to veto a further 15 resolutions, rendering the security council largely impotent in the face of a war that has seen thousands of Syrian civilians killed, maimed, detained, tortured and forcibly displaced.

The pretext of terrorism

In late 2016, Syrian forces, backed by Russia and Iran, recaptured eastern Aleppo. The battle for the city had been a prolonged, bloody and strategically important standoff between government forces and anti-government armed groups that had taken a terrible toll on civilians.

For ten years, al-Assad’s permanent representative to the security council had used the threat of terrorism to justify sieges on whole cities and neighbourhoods, the use of barrel bombs on civilians, and attacks on medical personnel and facilities.




Read more:
Ten years after the Arab Spring, Libya has another chance for peace


However, in the first six months of the Syrian uprising, al-Assad decreed an amnesty for “political prisoners”. At least four radical Islamists who later joined or formed militias were among those pardoned.

When Aleppo fell, Aotearoa New Zealand was serving as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Then-Prime Minister John Key told the security council that although terrorism was a major consequence of the Syrian war, “it did not cause it”.

Later, as Aotearoa New Zealand’s term came to an end in December 2016, its permanent representative stated:

I choose to believe the Secretary-General and the people working for him when they say the issue is not terrorism, but it is barbarism.

Without denying the legacy of UN-designated terrorist groups Islamic State (ISIS) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (former Jabhat al-Nusra) in the Syria conflict, Aotearoa New Zealand was right to reject the Syrian state’s justification for its actions.

One minor irony in all this is that the same Syrian permanent representative to the UN was also, in his capacity as rapporteur for the UN Decolonisation Committee, charged with monitoring Aotearoa New Zealand’s administration of Tokelau.

However, this authoritarian absurdity pales in comparison to an ongoing tragedy in Syria. What Key said to the UN in 2016 remains true: a political solution is the only way out of this conflict.The Conversation

Hanlie Booysen, Research fellow, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

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