The recent attack on a bike path in lower Manhattan once again compels us to ask: Why do people pledge allegiance to the Islamic State?
Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the attack, isn’t a devout Muslim. He cursed and came late to prayers, according to acquaintances who talked to The New York Times. So why would he want to be a martyr?
As a professor of modern Middle Eastern history, I have spent the majority of my professional life studying the region, its culture, society and politics. In recent years, I have researched and written about IS and its terrorist activities. While other experts and I have long looked at how radicalization occurs, some new ideas are emerging.
Of lone wolves, flaming bananas and machismo
Like this recent attack in New York, many IS attacks around the globe are carried out by individuals the media have dubbed “lone wolves” – that is, freelancers who act without the direct knowledge of the IS leadership. To avoid glamorizing them, the RAND Corporation prefers the term “flaming bananas.”
There are two theories as to why these individuals pledge allegiance to the group. The first is that they get “radicalized.”
Radicalization refers to a step-by-step process whereby individuals become increasingly susceptible to jihadi ideas. First, they cut themselves off from social networks such as family, which provide them with support and a conventional value system. They then immerse themselves in a radical religious counterculture. They might do this on their own, or a jihadi recruiter might bring them into the fold. Either way, the result is the same.
Some observers claim IS propaganda plays a key role in recruitment. Rather than presenting a religious rationale for the group’s actions, IS propaganda tends to focus on the violence the group perpetrates. IS has even released a video game based on Grand Theft Auto 5 in which, rather than stealing cars and battling the police, the player destroys advancing personnel carriers and shoots enemy soldiers.
Perhaps, then, the radicalization model is wrong or not universally applicable. Perhaps there’s something other than religious zealotry at play.
Consider the widely reported story of two would-be jihadists who, before they left Birmingham, U.K., for Syria, ordered “Islam for Dummies” and “The Koran for Dummies” to fill the gaps in their knowledge.
Newspaper stories time and again puzzle over the problem of how it happens that individuals who go on to join IS were found in bars, even gay bars, or had Western girlfriends and smoked and drank almost up to the time they committed some act of violence for the group. The most common explanation is that their dissolute lifestyle was a cover.
After the driver of a truck ran down and killed 84 people in Nice, France, for example, the French interior minister was at a loss to explain how someone who drank during Ramadan – which had ended a week and a half before – could have radicalized so quickly.
A number of experts have argued that the radicalization model should be replaced by, or supplemented with, a different model.
Rather than joining a radically different religious counterculture, individuals are attracted to IS, these experts argue, because its actions reaffirm the cultural values of those who are marginalized, or those who exhibit what psychiatrists call “anti-social personality disorders.”
Could it be that IS volunteers are drawn to a value system that asserts an aggressive machismo, disparages steady work and sustains the impulse for immediate gratification? Could it be that they are attracted to a culture that promotes redemption through violence, loyalty, patriarchal values, thrill-seeking to the point of martyrdom and the diminution of women to objects of pleasure?
In this reading, IS more closely resembles the sort of street gang with which many of its Western and Westernized enlistees are familiar than its more austere competitor, al-Qaida.
After a man barreled down a New York City bike path on Oct. 31, killing eight, President Donald Trump reacted by calling for an end to the “green card lottery” program that allowed the attacker to enter the country.
The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, as it is officially known, has been in the sights of the president for a while. In August, Trump publicly backed a GOP bill that would end the program and replace it with a merit-based system.
As someone who researches the impact of immigration on workers, I believe their plans to change who can enter the country legally is a big mistake. We would be giving up a program that benefits American workers with very little chance of a gain in safety.
While Trump’s tweets about the lottery program are based on security concerns, the usual argument supporting curbs on immigration is that new arrivals hurt native-born American workers and the economy at large.
I’ll leave analyzing the security concerns to other experts; suffice it to say that the risk, according to experts, is very small. Green card holders have killed just 16 people – including yesterday – in terror attacks on U.S. soil since 1975.
As for the economic impact on U.S.-born workers, the key thing to bear in mind is that the more homogeneous and similar immigrants are to natives, the greater the odds they’ll in fact have a negative effect.
In contrast, immigrants who come from diverse backgrounds with a range of skills – such as the lottery winners and the so-called “Dreamers” – tend to produce greater economic benefits. That may be one reason at least some Republicans and most Americans are in favor of keeping the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program that protects the Dreamers from deportation, which Trump recently ended.
A new approach
Currently, the U.S. receives a lot of immigrants without a college degree or with imperfect English. About half of immigrants fit either description.
Legislation proposed earlier this summer – the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act – would exclude most such workers and reduce the total number of green cards awarding permanent legal U.S. residence to just over 500,000 from more than one million today.
Importantly, it would also change who gets a leg up when applying for a green card. Currently, family of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents, including siblings and adult children, are able to apply. The new system would limit that to minor children and spouses.
Instead, the bill would create a point-based system like those used in countries such as the U.K. and Australia that use factors such as English ability, education and job offers to rank applicants. However, it would be stricter than point systems used in those countries, which admit immigrants through other programs as well.
In essence, the plan would make the pool of immigrants more homogeneous and dramatically smaller in number, mirroring the misguided origin-based restrictions from the 1920s.
What economists say
Those who wish to restrict immigration often cite what they naïvely call “supply-and-demand economics” to essentially argue that the economy is a fixed pie that gets divided among a country’s residents. Fewer immigrants means “more pie” for the U.S.-born, as the story goes.
I am an economist, and this is not what my colleagues and I say. The commonplace argument that more immigrants, by themselves, lower wages and take jobs from Americans – an argument which Attorney General Jeff Sessions used to defend ending the “Dreamers” program – has neither empirical nor theoretical support in economics. It is just a myth.
Instead, both theory and empirical research show that immigration, including people with few skills and little English, grows the pie and strengthens the American workforce.
Value in diversity
While all the recently proposed changes to our immigration system will make U.S. workers worse off, the English requirement is likely to be particularly harmful to U.S. workers, especially low-skilled ones.
Indeed, I have found the relative fluency of U.S.-born workers is what keeps them from being harmed from labor market competition from immigrants.
The reason for this is the following. Essentially, immigrants with imperfect English skills tend to specialize in jobs that are less “communication-intensive,” such as manual labor. Americans fluent in the language, on the other hand, tend to take on higher-paying, communication-intensive jobs that are out of reach of those without a strong grasp of English. In other words, these groups aren’t likely to compete for the same jobs, making them more complementary than adversarial.
In contrast, when new immigrants are more fluent in English, something the Trump-backed proposal would encourage, the types of occupations they are qualified for are almost identical to those of American workers. Thus, insisting on strong English skills as a condition of coming to America is likely to increase labor market competition and suppress wages.
Immigration that helps
Immigration that emphasizes diversity, rather than merely merit, tends to attract more people who specialize in occupations uncommon among U.S.-born workers. And, in fact, this is the key source of the well-known economic benefits of immigration.
Studies by economists Giovanni Peri and Chad Sparber, for example, show this tendency toward job specialization is a key reason the large volume of low-skill immigration does not drive down incomes of Americans. Other research by Peri and Gianmarco Ottaviano shows that simply encouraging immigration from diverse origins lifts wages.
Put differently, there is direct evidence that the sort of diversity that the green card lottery encourages makes all Americans better off. It would be a shame to give all of that up because of a tiny risk of terrorism.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on Sept. 15, 2017.
The links below are to articles reporting on persecution and ISIS news from Iraq and Syria (the most recent are at the top).
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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 predictable recapture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from Islamic State (IS) marks a new milestone in the tumultuous events of the Middle East. It has important ramifications for Iraq, IS and the West.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wasted no time claiming victory, entering the ruined city in staged jubilation. Wearing military uniform, al-Abadi was swift to capitalise on the victory, signalling his authority over the entire country. He hopes to keep Iraq united through strengthened political clout on his return to the politically polarised capital of Baghdad.
But the capture of Mosul may in fact accelerate the eventual break-up of Iraq into smaller states. The leader of the autonomous Kurdish regional government, Masud Barzani, has made clear his intentions to hold a referendum on independence by the end of 2017.
Until now, Barzani had to collaborate with the central Iraqi government to clear the IS menace from Mosul and northern Iraq. Now he will have to tread carefully to meet the growing Kurdish expectation of independence and manage al-Abadi’s anticipation of gratitude for the liberation of Mosul.
Barzani and Kurds can see a historic opportunity to create a Kurdish polity in northern Iraq. The gravity of this polity is eventually expected to pull neighbouring Kurdish regions in Syria, Iran and Turkey. The Kurdish dream is to combine these regions to create a larger Kurdish state.
At the same time, al-Abadi will increase pressure on Barzani to remain loyal to a unitary Iraq. While the prime minister will spend most of his time in the safety of the Baghdad green zone, Barzani will collaborate with US forces and heavily armed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to oust IS from its capital, Raqqa. He will also play a key role in further clearing operations in eastern Syria in the second half of 2017 and possibly into 2018.
With the fall of Mosul, the impending capture of Raqqa, and the confirmed death of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, IS’s days as a caliphate are numbered. Although some argue that IS will transform into a virtual caliphate, without a sovereign state a caliphate is meaningless and Islamically invalid.
This reality has a dramatic impact on the recruiting power of IS. It was able to attract followers with its claim to have resurrected the caliphate abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1924.
IS gained an almost miraculous aura after capturing Mosul with 800 fighters. In their eyes, this was proof that God was on their side. A few weeks after the capture of Mosul, al-Baghdadi declared his caliphate in the city’s historic mosque in June 2014.
For as much as Mosul had symbolic value for an IS caliphate, its loss signals an irreversible trajectory of collapse. Although IS is taking huge blows, there is no reason to believe it will disappear, much like the frustrating persistence of Taliban in Afghanistan since the collapse of its government in 2001.
Nobody should expect mass desertions from IS ranks. Its membership is likely to remain loyal and fight to the end. What remains of IS leadership holds to the theological line that the pledge of allegiance or bay’ah is binding before God, and if they abandon ranks they will die in a state of disbelief.
While this may help retain surviving militants, IS recruiting power around the world will dramatically reduce, as the greatest attraction for recruits was the promise of a utopian Islamic state.
Nevertheless IS, or whatever the group will be called in the future, will adapt and look for new missions to motivate its members and attract recruits.
One possible trajectory is a merger with al-Qaeda. This is a real possibility, as IS emerged from al-Qaeda branches in Iraq and Syria. Without a real caliphate, the line of distinction between IS and al-Qaeda blurs to insignificance, even though their leaderships were in open hostility and competed for the soul of the violent radical movement.
The ideology and the narrative of IS and al-Qaeda are the same: Western powers and their local collaborators are responsible for the occupation of Muslim territories and the ensuing suffering of Muslim populations; violent military response is the response these enemies understand and the only solution that works.
This ideology is conveniently covered by the same veneer of religious arguments to utilise the persuasive power of Islam in gaining and rallying gullible supporters to their ranks.
The more likely trajectory for IS is to ignore the spectacular failure of its state and cling to the alluring promise of a caliphate. Persisting with its brand of radicalism, IS could exist as a violent insurgent movement positioned in Deir ez-Zor, a Syrian town near the border with Iraq.
For the time being, the US administration seems determined not to leave IS any haven, Deir ez-Zor or elsewhere.
As IS regroups, it is likely to unleash violence on two fronts. The first is in the West. IS will attempt to use its sleeper cells and deploy social media to motivate a new generation of gullible minds to carry out terror attacks in North America, Europe and perhaps Australia.
The second front is where IS is based – Iraq and Syria. The conditions that gave rise to IS in the first place, such as military conflict, political instability, sectarian polarisation, ethnic divisions and corruption, continue to exist in both countries. The situation will not change overnight.
Through a drawn-out insurgency and waves of violence, IS will attempt to destabilise the Iraqi and Syrian governments in the hope of resurrecting its Islamic state. Ironically, the greatest victims will be Islam, Muslims and peace in Muslim lands.
US-backed forces in Iraq and in Syria are in the process of rooting Islamic State (IS) fighters out of their strongholds in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
In the case of Mosul in Iraq, the removal of diehard IS remnants might be completed any day now. In Raqqa, the IS headquarters in eastern Syria, US-backed rebel forces are in the town’s suburbs.
How long it will take for Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of Arab and Kurdish militias supported by US artillery and airstrikes, to rid Raqqa of IS and at what cost is anyone’s guess. But it seems clear we are entering the final battle for what has served as the so-called caliphate’s headquarters.
However, what should be understood is the Syrian conflict is far from any sort of long-term resolution. It may be on the verge of becoming more complex and thus more dangerous.
The world is now observing a potentially highly volatile stage in the post-IS fight for Syria, with interested parties manoeuvring for what might be described as the “next game” – certainly not the “endgame”. Latest developments are bringing the US and its allies in Syria into closer proximity to – and possible direct conflict with – the Iranian-backed Bashar al-Assad regime, and Iran itself.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders and Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias are on the ground in Syria fighting alongside Assad forces to regain territory and re-establish Damascus’s sovereignty over the entire country.
This is a fight to the death.
From Iran’s perspective, Syria – ruled by a heterodox Shiite sect – represents a vital piece in its Middle East designs. This is not least because it provides a corridor to its Hezbollah Shiite co-religionists in Lebanon. This is why it continues to invest heavily in propping up the Assad regime. A Syrian setback would be crippling for its regional ambitions.
Risks of the US and Iran rubbing up against each other in Syria and precipitating a wider conflagration are incalculable in circumstances in which America’s Middle East policy is in flux, if not in chaos. Not helping is the impression that elements of the Trump administration are spoiling for a fight with Iran without comprehending wider consequences.
And then there’s Russia. It may not have forces on the ground, but its warplanes in Assad’s service are part of a toxic brew that threatens a wider Middle East conflict. Risks grow by the day.
What is clear – as Iraqi forces retake a shattered Mosul and Syrian anti-Assad regime rebels push further into Raqqa – is that contesting forces in Syria are battling over the country’s shattered post-IS corpse. Where this will end is impossible to predict, but as a rule of thumb in the Middle East these sorts of situations do not end well.
Tensions – and risks – were underscored earlier this month when the US shot down a Syrian Russian-supplied jet in airspace to the south of Raqqa. The US has also brought down several Iranian drones in hotly costed territory around the Euphrates.
What is transpiring as an IS “caliphate” shrinks east towards the Iraq border from Raqqa is the emergence of a vacuum that various players are striving to fill, including principally the Assad regime, having regained control of the west of Syria.
Where this will go next is not clear, not least because the US has not indicated the extent to which it plans to continue to involve itself on the ground beyond rooting out IS from its Raqqa redoubt. Will it step aside when and if Raqqa falls, enabling Syrian government forces, backed by Iran and Russia and with the participation of Lebanese and Iraqi militias, to regain control of lost territory? Or will it remain a factor?
Journalist Jonathan Spyer, who has spent years reporting on the Syrian conflict and its implications for the wider Middle East, is at a loss to interpret US policy in Syria beyond its confrontation with IS. As he writes in Foreign Policy:
The crucial missing factor here is a clearly stated US policy. Trump can either acquiesce to the new realities that Russia seeks to impose in the air, and that Iran seeks to impose on the ground, or he can move to defy and reverse these, opening up the risk of a potential confrontation. There isn’t really a third choice.
Spyer quotes the Iranian Fars News Agency as saying ominously:
The imbroglio in eastern Syria has only begun. Stormy days are ahead of us.
That might be regarded as an understatement. What is clear is that the US cannot expand its presence in eastern Syria without engaging the Iranian-backed Syrian regime. As Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East observes:
The United States cannot tiptoe around Iran and the Syrian regime while capturing strategic territory and resources.
While Russia does not seek a confrontation, it appears unable (or unwilling) to restrain its allies. The United States does not seem to have decided whether fighting IS only to empower Iran and Assad would be worthwhile, or whether there is a feasible way, at an acceptable cost, to beat the Islamic State without strengthening US adversaries … It’s perfectly clear now that choosing which wars to fight or ignore in Syria is not possible – and it probably never was.
From an Australian perspective, Syria presents a concerning spectacle. Canberra suspended missions by the Royal Australian Airforce over Syria (not Iraq) after the US shooting down of the Syrian warplane out of concern over a suspension of “deconfliction” arrangements with Russia. It is not clear whether those missions have resumed.
More broadly, deeper US involvement in the Syrian conflict would potentially pose challenges for an Australian government – if indeed a request was made for on-the-ground assistance.
At this stage there is no sign of that occurring. But Australia should be prepared for an unravelling of circumstances in Syria and be ready for any eventualities. Needless to say, it should hasten slowly.
In all of this, it doesn’t take much imagination to consider what would be nightmare scenario in which the US and Iran found themselves at war. As Nader Hashem, director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Denver and an expert of sectarian conflict in the region, has observed:
I suspect the biggest problem is a clash between American and Iranian forces somewhere in Syria where there will be a major loss of life, and then a slow, steady decline toward war with Iran, where Iran chooses to retaliate in the Persian Gulf with American shipping or some sort of escalation along those lines. That would have huge consequences for the nuclear agreement and the broader stabilisation of the region.
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.