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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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%.
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 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?
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 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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 Taliban are a fanatical minority who seek to replace Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy with harsh Islamic law. They also have close ties to al-Qaida, offering refuge to other terrorist groups and supporting terrorist campaigns against neighboring Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
The country’s long-suffering people will be most affected by the pullout. Many of them rely on the U.S. military to keep the Taliban from moving out of the countryside – much of which they control, especially in the southeast – to take provincial capitals and the rest of the country.
I worked with Afghan National Army troops while working on a forward operating base for the U.S. Army’s Information Operations team in eastern Afghanistan. From that experience, I know they are brave and willing to make tremendous sacrifices – including of their lives – to defend their country. But they lack the essential training, equipment and other support that American troops provide.
When Afghan forces deploy on missions to repel insurgent offensives or retake villages, valleys or towns from the constantly probing and advancing enemy, they are transported by U.S. air crews in Black Hawk or Chinook helicopters. When they engage the Taliban in combat, U.S. Special Forces troops embedded with them fly hand-launched Raven drones that provide aerial views of the battlefield. Those U.S. troops also call in American artillery and air strikes, which are key to the Afghan National Army’s ability to succeed in battle against a determined foe.
These American “force multiplier” troops also provide their Afghan National Army allies with vital logistics support and, in a psychological sense, let their hard-fighting partners know that the American superpower has their back.
But the Army is not the only Afghan key factor the U.S. would weaken by pulling out.
The tribes are key
The strategic southeast of Afghanistan that is home to the Taliban is dominated largely by ethnic Pashtun tribes, which is very different from the postmodern melting-pot societies familiar to those in the U.S. and Europe. These 60 tribes, or clans, have for centuries maintained – and shifted – the country’s balance of military and political power. They are always calculating which of the rival factions or warring parties is in the strongest position and seeking to join that side.
When the Soviets withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 1989 after 10 years of war supporting the country’s communist government, tribes who had remained neutral joined the advancing mujahedeen Islamist rebels and eventually defeated the remaining government forces.
I was working in Afghanistan in 2007, the year that the George W. Bush administration kept U.S. forces in Afghanistan roughly constant around 20,000 – but sent a far larger force to Iraq. The shift in U.S. priority pulled vital resources like drones, Special Forces troops, artillery, vehicles with additional armor protection, and combat planes and helicopters out of Afghanistan.
As the Pentagon’s focus shifted to Iraq, the tribes saw the U.S. as only weakly committed to winning the Afghan conflict. Those that had allied with the previously powerful Americans and Afghan government defected to a resurgent Taliban in order to be on the winning side.
That commitment conveyed a message of strength to the tribes, who came back to the government’s side in key strategic areas and prevented the Taliban conquest of the southeast. As U.S. and NATO troops bolstered the Afghan National Army, vast swaths of territory in the Pashtun belt and its second largest city of Kandahar were wrested from the Taliban, who lost tens of thousands of fighters.
The effects of Pentagon disengagement
For the past several years, a tentative stalemate has prevailed. Many tribes are clearly watching for signs of weakness from either the Taliban or the Americans. They will interpret any retreat or sign of weak commitment from one side as a signal to join the other side.
The U.S. has gradually over the years reduced its troop numbers, which has hurt the country’s reputation among the tribes. But so far, American forces are still numerous enough to deploy alongside Afghan troops to call in supporting artillery and air strikes – demonstrating enough power to keep the tribes tentatively on the U.S. side.
The upcoming troop drawdown would end most, if not all, of that capacity, leaving the Afghan National Army without crucial reinforcements. The Taliban will likely claim a huge tactical victory on the battlefield, and an equally important victory in the battle of perceptions. The tribes will see U.S. weakness, and may shift their support to the Taliban out of a sense of self-preservation.
The remaining number of just 2,000 U.S. troops in Texas-sized Afghanistan would no longer be able to support the Afghan National Army – and will most likely be hard-pressed just to protect themselves.
An Afghan soldier convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers is among six high-value prisoners who have been flown to Qatar ahead of peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government this weekend.
Hekmatullah has spent seven years in jail after killing the three soldiers he worked with in 2012 — Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Sapper James Martin and Private Robert Poate. He is one of the last remaining Taliban prisoners.
Both the Taliban and the United States have pressured the Afghan government to release all 5,000 Taliban prisoners it holds as part of their peace deal. In return, the Taliban pledged to release 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces.
The Afghan government was excluded from the original peace deal struck between the US and Taliban in February where the prisoner release was negotiated, but has since agreed to release the prisoners.
For a long time, the Afghan government vowed not to free 600 prisoners it considered too dangerous, including murderers and foreign fighters. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called them a “danger” to the world.
But last month, an assembly of Afghan elders, community leaders and politicians called a “loya jirga” approved the release of the last 400 Taliban captives and hundreds have been set free.
Foreign governments’ objections to prisoner release
The release of prisoners who killed Westerners has been among the most contentious parts of the deal.
The Australian government, and the families of the three murdered Australian soldiers, have strenuously objected to the release of Hekmatullah.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has raised the issue with US President Donald Trump in recent weeks, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds reiterated this position in a statement today:
The Australian government’s long-standing position is that Hekmatullah should serve a full custodial sentence for the crimes for which he was convicted by an Afghan court, and that he should not be released as part of a prisoner amnesty.
The US has not publicly objected to the release of three prisoners who murdered Americans in so-called insider attacks, although it is reportedly exploring the possibility of release under house arrest.
The importance of the rules of war
So far, the issue of freeing prisoners in Afghanistan has been largely treated as a political and security issue. There has been less attention given to the equally important question of law, justice and human rights.
It follows a regrettably common view that peace is necessary at any price, even if it means letting suspected or convicted war criminals go free, denying justice to their victims and violating international law by enabling killing with impunity.
It is no surprise that such a deal has been spruiked by Trump, who has pardoned US soldiers accused or convicted of war crimes, despite protests by US military commanders. Trump also this week imposed sanctions on senior officials of the International Criminal Court for investigating alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan.
The rules of war, or international humanitarian law (as it is otherwise known), take a much more balanced and reasonable approach. These rules are also binding on Afghanistan, the US and Taliban alike.
Hekmatullah’s killing of three Australian soldiers was not a fair fight in the heat of combat between opposing forces under the law of war. It was treacherous and illegal because Hekmatullah was wearing an Afghan army uniform when he killed the Australian soldiers while they were resting at a patrol base in August 2012.
Hekmatullah says he was inspired to kill the soldiers after watching a Taliban video purporting to show US soldiers burning a Quran. He was later aided by the Taliban in his escape.
Through these actions, Hekmatullah violated the basic rules set forth by the Statute of the International Criminal Court, specifically
making improper use … of the military insignia and uniform of the enemy … resulting in death or serious personal injury
The law of war also acknowledges the granting of amnesty to ordinary fighters is an appropriate means to promote peace and reconciliation to end a civil war. But it does not permit amnesty for those who violate its basic rules, including those suspected or convicted of war crimes.
All countries have a legal duty to “respect and ensure respect” for international humanitarian law. Releasing prisoners, thus, is not purely a political question for the Afghan government to decide. It is also bound by international law and must respect it.
Australia has a right to “ensure respect” for the law by both Afghanistan and the US. Releasing Hekmatullah would arguably be a violation of international law by Afghanistan, aided by the US.
Peace without justice can cause long-term problems
The US, Taliban and Afghan government all know this, but are choosing to sacrifice justice for the dream of peace. All sides are exhausted by the two-decade military stalemate and are understandably desperate for a way out.
But numerous conflicts in recent decades — from Latin American to Africa to the Balkans — show that peace without justice is almost always a delusion.
Any immediate gains are usually undermined by the mid- to long-term insecurity that results from giving impunity to killers. It contaminates the integrity and stability of political systems. It undermines the legal system and subordinates the rule of law and human rights to raw politics.
Have we flattened the curve of global terrorism? In our COVID-19-obsessed news cycle stories about terrorism and terrorist attacks have largely disappeared. We now, though, understand a little more about how pandemics work.
And ironically, long before the current pandemic, the language of epidemiology proved helpful in understanding by analogy the way in which terrorism works as a phenomenon that depends on social contact and exchange, and expands rapidly in an opportunistic fashion when defences are lowered.
Terrorism goes quiet – but we’ve seen this before
In this pandemic year, it appears one piece of good news is that the curve of international terrorist attacks has indeed been flattened. Having lost its physical caliphate, Islamic State also appears to have lost its capacity, if not its willingness, to launch attacks around the world well beyond conflict zones.
Since 2005, with the exception of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January 2015, al-Qaeda has been prevented from launching any major attacks in western capitals.
The September 11 attacks precipitated enormous investment in police counterterrorism capacity around the world, particularly in intelligence. The result has been that al-Qaeda has struggled to put together large-scale coordinated attacks in Western capitals without being detected and stopped.
Then in 2013, Islamic State emerged. This brought a new wave of attacks from 2014 in cities around the world, outside of conflict zones in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria.
This wave of IS international terror attacks now appears to have reached an end. The hopeful rhetoric of the collapse of the IS caliphate leading to an end of the global campaign of terror attacks appears to have been borne out. Although, as the sophisticated and coordinated suicide bombings in Colombo in Easter 2019 reminded us, further attacks by previously unknown cells cannot ever be ruled out.
While it’s tempting to conclude that the ending of the current wave of international terrorist attacks by IS is due largely to the ending of the physical caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and a concomitant collapse of capacity, the reality is more complex. Just as the wave of al-Qaeda attacks in the first half of the 2000s was curtailed primarily by massive investments in counterterrorism, so too it appears to be the case with IS international terror plots in the second half of this decade.
The 2019 attacks in Sri Lanka illustrate dramatically what happens when there is a failure of intelligence, whether due to capacity or, as appears to be the case in Sri Lanka, a lack of political will. The rise of IS in 2013-14 should not have caught us by surprise, but it did, and in 2014 and 2015 we were scrambling to get up to speed with the intelligence challenge.
Epidemiology of terror
The parallels with the epidemiology of viruses are striking. Reasoning by analogy is imperfect, but it can be a powerful way of prompting reflection. The importance of this cannot be underestimated as intelligence failures in counterterrorism, like poor political responses to pandemics, are in large part failures of imagination.
We don’t see what we don’t want to see, and we set ourselves up to become victims of our own wishful thinking. So, with two waves of international terrorist attacks over the past two decades largely brought under control, what can we say about the underlying threat of global terrorism?
There are four key lessons we need to learn.
First, we are ultimately seeking to counter the viral spread of ideas and narratives embodied in social networks and spread person-to-person through relationships, whether in person or online. Effective policing and intelligence built on strong community relations can dramatically limit the likelihood of terrorist networks successfully executing large-scale attacks. Effective intelligence can also go a long way to diminishing the frequency and intensity of lone-actor attacks. But this sort of intelligence is even more dependent on strong community relations, built on trust that emboldens people to speak out.
Second, terrorist movements, being opportunistic and parasitic, achieve potency in inverse relation to the level of good governance. In other words, as good governance breaks down, terrorist movements find opportunity to embed themselves. In failing states, the capacity of the state to protect its citizens, and the trust between citizen and authorities, provides ample opportunities for terrorist groups to exploit grievances and needs. This is the reason around 75% of all deaths due to terrorist activity in recent years have occurred in just five nations: Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria (followed by Somalia, Libya, and Yemen).
The third lesson is directly linked to state failure, and is that military methods dramatically overpromise and under-deliver when it comes to countering terrorism. In fact, more than that, the use of military force tends to generate more problems than it solves. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than what has been so wrongly framed as the Global War on Terror.
Beginning in October 2001 in the immediate wake of the September 11 attacks, the war on terror began with a barrage of attacks on al-Qaeda positions in Afghanistan. It was spurred by understandable anger, but it led to two decades of tremendously expensive military campaigns they have completely failed to deliver the hoped-for end in terrorism to justify the massive toll of violence and loss of life.
The military campaign in Afghanistan began, and has continued for almost 19 years, without any strategic endpoints being defined and indeed with no real strategy vision at all. After almost two decades of continuous conflict, any American administration would understandably want to end the military campaign and withdraw.
This is America’s way of ending decades of stalemate in which it is has proven impossible to defeat the Taliban, which even now controls almost one half of Afghanistan. But even as the peace negotiations have been going on the violence has continued unabated. The only reason for withdrawing and allowing the Taliban to formally take a part in governing Afghanistan is fatigue.
Not just Afghanistan
If the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan were the main story, the situation would already be far more dire then we would care to accept. But the problem is not limited to Afghanistan and West Asia. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the “coalition of the willing” was justified largely on the grounds it was necessary to stop al-Qaeda from establishing a presence in Iraq. It achieved, of course, the exact opposite.
Al-Qaeda had little, if any, presence in Iraq prior to the invasion. But the ensuring collapse of not just the regime of Saddam Hussein but the dismantling of the Baath party and the Iraqi military, led largely by a Sunni minority in a Shia majority country, created perfect storm conditions for multiple Sunni insurgencies.
These in turn came to be dominated by the group that styled itself first as Al Qaeda in Iraq, then as the Islamic State in Iraq, and then as the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. This powerful insurgency was almost completely destroyed in the late 2000s when Sunni tribes were paid and equipped to fight the al-Qaeda insurgency.
The toxic sectarian politics of Iraq, followed by the withdrawal of US troops at the end of 2011, coinciding with the outbreak of civil war in Syria, saw the almost extinguished insurgency quickly rebuild. We only really began to pay attention when IS led a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq, seized Mosul, and declared a caliphate in June 2014.
Defeating this quasi-state took years of extraordinarily costly military engagement. But even as IS was deprived of the last of its safe havens on the ground, analysts were warning it continued to have tens of thousands of insurgent militants in Syria and northern Iraq and was successfully returning to its earlier mode of insurgency.
As the Iraqi security forces have been forced to pull back in the face of a steadily building COVID-19 pandemic, there are signs the IS insurgent forces have continued to seize the spaces left open to them. Even without the pandemic, the insurgency was always going to steadily build strength, but the events of 2020 have provided it with fresh opportunities.
The fourth and final lesson we need to come to terms with is that we are dealing with a viral movement of ideas embodied in social networks. We are not dealing with a singular unchanging enemy but rather an amorphous, agile, threat able to constantly evolve and adapt itself to circumstances.
Al-Qaeda and IS share a common set of ideas built around Salafi-jihadi violent extremism. But this is not the only violent extremism we have to worry about.
In America today, as has been the case for more than a decade, the prime terrorist threat comes from far-right violent extremism rather than from Salafi-jihadi extremism. The same is not true in Australia, although ASIO and our police forces have been warning us far-right extremism represents an emerging secondary threat.
But the potent violence of an Australian far-right terrorist in the attack in Christchurch in March 2019 serves to remind us this form of violent extremism, feeding on toxic identity politics and hate, represents a growing threat in our southern hemisphere.
In this year in which we have been, understandably, so preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, another pandemic has been continuing unabated. It is true we have successfully dealt with two waves of global terrorist attacks over the past two decades, but we have not dealt successfully the underlying source of infections.
In fact, we have contributed, through military campaigns, to weakening the body politic of host countries in which groups like al-Qaeda, IS and other violent extremist groups have a parasitic presence.
We now need to face the inconvenient truth that toxic identity politics and the tribal dynamics of hate have infected western democracies. Limiting the scope for terrorist attacks is difficult. Eliminating the viral spread of hateful extremism is much harder, but ultimately even more important.
ASIO sounded an alarm last month that far-right groups pose an elevated threat to Australian national security. Cells have met to salute the Nazi flag and train in combat. ASIO is now investigating twice as many far-right leads as last year.
However, to date, no far-right group has been banned in Australia. This sits in contrast to the UK, where National Action and other far-right groups are outlawed and members have been convicted of terror-related and other crimes.
Keneally asks whether our laws are fit for purpose. One year after the Christchurch massacre, it’s time to investigate whether enough is being done to address the far-right threat in this country.
How groups are listed on the terror register
The definition of terrorism underpins the way terror organisations are registered in both the UK and Australia. Australia designed its laws from a British template, so the definitions are very similar.
At its core, a “terrorist act” is defined as conduct with special characteristics – namely, the advancement of a “political, religious or ideological cause” and the coercion of government or the intimidation of the public.
There are two ways to counter far-right groups in Australia.
The first is through the proscription process, or the creation of a “list” or register of banned groups.
To list a group on the national register, Home Affairs reviews intelligence from ASIO and must be satisfied the group is directly or indirectly engaged in, preparing, planning, assisting, fostering or advocating terrorism. There is huge symbolism in proscription. It is the highest level of disendorsement, as it can allow the government to label a political movement as criminal.
There is good reason for the government to be selective – many hundreds of groups can meet the broad definition of terrorism. For instance, any rebel group in a war zone fits the bill, including allies we arm, train and partner with, such as certain groups in Syria.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton is therefore guided by discretionary factors, such as a group’s ties to Australia and its threat profile and nature of its ideology. Most groups on the terror list are large, well-resourced Islamist outfits such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda.
The second way to affix a terrorist label to a group is by satisfying a jury, at trial, that it meets the legal criteria of “terrorist organisation”. This process does not involve Home Affairs; the decision rests with the jury.
Smaller, home-grown cells have been tried in this way, such as the conviction of the Benbrika group (the “MCG plotters”) in 2006. The jury found they were members of a terrorist organisation despite their absence from the national terror register. As such, leaving a group off the list does not create a meaningful gap in the law.
This two-tiered approach allows flexibility. At times, a group might not have a name, or it might not be organised or have a public profile.
There might also be operational reasons for ministerial restraint for not listing a group, such as fear that public declarations could disrupt covert police investigations into its activities.
Why have far-right groups been banned in the UK?
So, what explains the difference between the UK and Australia when it comes to dealing with far-right groups?
Despite Keneally’s concern, there is no meaningful difference between proscription criteria in the two countries. The UK includes violence committed on racial grounds, but this is matched by our reference to ideological motive. The UK looks to those who “glorify” terrorism, but we include groups that “advocate” or “praise” similar conduct.
However, one way the two countries diverge may be in the scale of the threat.
National Action, a neo-Nazi group whose members have called for a “race war”, has a large following in the UK. Members cheered the murder of MP Jo Cox and have been jailed for plotting to kill other left-wing politicians.
The far-right in Australia may not yet have gained the same momentum.
Greater parliamentary powers over Home Affairs
Keneally is trying to figure out whether the failure to list far-right groups in Australia is due to the law, the lack of sufficient threat or the lack of political will.
But the law is fit for purpose, and ASIO has issued a serious public warning. What’s left hanging is politics.
Rather than review the criteria for proscription, Keneally should press for an enhanced role for parliament’s intelligence and security committee over Home Affairs.
Parliament’s intelligence and security committee can currently review (and veto) a decision by Dutton to add a group to the register of terror organisations. But the committee cannot intervene in cases Home Affairs deliberately rejects.
Perhaps an expanded parliamentary review function over the minister’s decision-making and the department’s method of prioritisation would give Keneally the answers she seeks.
Despite Labor’s objections to this characterisation, Islamic extremist and “far-right” groups have much in common – all are driven by elements of hate, misogyny, supremacy, destruction and brands of extreme social conservatism. All deserve sober consideration, whatever the label, and without political distraction.
Can prison rehabilitation programs work, and is it sensible to try and rehabilitate seriously radicalised individuals convicted on terrorism charges?
These are questions not just for the UK, in the wake of the second London Bridge attack over the weekend, but for the entire world.
There are no easy answers and no simple options. As the numbers of people detained and eventually released on terrorism charges mount up around the world, so too does the question of what to do with them. Politicians find it easy to speak in terms of “lock them up and throw away the key”. But our legal systems don’t allow this and the results, even if allowed, would almost certainly be worse.
Some answers, and some difficult questions, can be found in the lives of four participants in the events in London: Jack Merritt, Saskia Jones, Marc Conway and James Ford.
All four were participating in an event organised to reflect on the first five years of the University of Cambridge’s Learning Together program. Merritt was a young graduate who was helping coordinate the program. Jones was a volunteer in the program. Tragically, their idealism and desire to give back to society saw them lose their lives to a man whom they thought they had been able to help.
Jack lived his principles; he believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and he always took the side of the underdog.
In her tribute to her murdered daughter, Jones’s mother said:
Saskia had a great passion for providing invaluable support to victims of criminal injustice, which led her to the point of recently applying for the police graduate recruitment programme, wishing to specialise in victim support.
Jones, 23, and Merritt, 25, were both University of Cambridge graduates working at the Learning Together program. They lost their lives to a knife-wielding murderer who does not deserve to have his name remembered. Their 28-year-old assailant had been released from prison 12 months earlier, having served but eight years of a 16 year sentence.
In a catastrophic system-failure, his automatic release was processed without his case ever being reviewed by a parole board, despite the sentencing judge identifying him as a serious risk who should only ever be released after careful review. He had gamed the system, presenting himself as repentant and reformed.
In fact, he had never undergone a rehabilitation program in prison and only had cursory processing on his release. Systemic mistakes and the lack of resources to fund sufficient and appropriate rehabilitation programs meant he was one of many whose risk was never adequately assessed.
Conway had formerly served time at a London prison and is now working as a policy officer at the Prison Reform Trust. He witnessed the fatal attack and rushed directly towards the attacker, joining others who sought to pin him down.
Another man participating in the offender rehabilitation event was James Ford. He too saw the attack unfolding and immediately confronted the assailant.
In a deeply tragic irony, the two victims who lost their lives to a man who made a mockery of their idealism were assisted by two others who appear to have genuinely benefited from prison rehabilitation programs. But even here, the complexities and ambiguities of this sort of difficult endeavour were played out as clearly as any playwright could ever conceive of scripting.
Ford was a convicted murderer attending the Learning Together conference on day-release. He had brutally killed 21-year-old Amanda Campion, a young women who was particularly vulnerable because of her intellectual disability. In the eyes of Campion’s family, Ford is no hero.
However, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University David Wilson, who chairs the Friends of Grendon Prison program, says that Ford underwent extensive rehabilitation initiatives, including an intensive period of psychotherapy.
On this occasion, the convicted murderer did the right thing. Even though this doesn’t make him a hero, it does give some reason for hope. For Wilson, the murderous terrorist and the convicted murderer who rushed to contain him represent a tale of two prisoners:
I know through my work that people do change and they change as a consequence of innovative but challenging regimes such as the one at HMP Grendon.
In the wake of the attack, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the cases of 74 people released early after being jailed for terror offences will be reviewed. This is certainly sensible and necessary, but much more is required. Indefinite detention is not an option in the majority of cases, and the UK is dealing with hundreds of people convicted of terrorism offences either currently in prison or recently released.
The numbers in Australia are only a fraction of this but still run into the high dozens and are growing every year. For Australia’s near neighbours, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, the numbers, including projected returnees from the Middle East, run into the thousands.
Professor Ian Acheson, who has advised the government on how to handle extremist prisoners, told the BBC it was not “a question of an arms race on sentencing toughness”, but about what is done when offenders are in custody.
Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were not naïve idealists. They had studied the problem closely and believed rehabilitation programs could make a difference. Their tragic deaths speak to the challenges involved. To give up and do nothing is not merely cynical, but self-defeating. Without adequate resourcing and reforms the problem everywhere will only become much worse.
Eleven years after the U.S. invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, triggering a war between Islamic State militants and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government, Iraq has finally achieved some measure of stability.
But the Iraqi government isn’t taking any chances that this terrorist organization, commonly known as “IS,” could regroup.
Over 19,000 Iraqis suspected of collaborating with IS have been detained in Iraq since the beginning of 2013, according to Human Rights Watch. Most of them are Sunni Muslims, according to reporting by Ben Taub of the New Yorker. Sunnis are members of the sect of Islam from which IS predominantly recruits.
Suspected terrorists are often tortured into offering confessions that justify death sentences at trial. According to Amnesty International, common forms of torture include “beatings on the head and body with metal rods and cables, suspension in stress positions by the arms or legs, electric shocks, and threats of rape of female relatives.”
The government’s crackdown on Sunnis – even those with no evidence of ties with Islamic militants – sends a troubling signal about Iraq’s prospects for peace.
Our research into conflict zones shows that when post-war governments use violence against citizens, it greatly increases the risk of renewed civil war.
Repression following civil wars
The period after an armed conflict is fragile.
Citizens traumatized by violence wish fervently for peace. Defeated armed factions may have their sights set on revenge.
The post-war government’s priority, meanwhile, is to consolidate its control over the country. Sometimes, leaders use violent repression to ensure their grip on power.
It is a risky strategy.
We studied 63 countries where civil war occurred between 1976 and 2005, including El Salvador, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The results, which were published in the academic journal Conflict, Security and Development in January, show a 95 percent increase of another civil war in places where governments engaged in the kind of torture, political imprisonment, killings and disappearances that Iraq’s government is now undertaking.
Civil war is most likely to break out in former conflict zones if civilians believe they will be targeted by the state regardless of whether or not they actually support an insurgency.
Often, our results show, people respond to indiscriminate clampdowns by arming themselves. That is easy to do in conflict zones, which are home to many former rebels with extensive battlefield training and access to weapons, including both active militant groups and the remnants of vanquished insurgencies.
During former Iraqi President Hussein’s rule, Sunni Muslims controlled the country, and his government actively repressed Shia citizens. Since Hussein’s ouster, however, Iraq’s government has been run by Shia Muslims.
At the time, our study of renewed fighting in conflict zones had just begun. The preliminary findings made us concerned that al-Maliki’s use of violence to assert control over Iraq could restart the civil war by pushing angry Sunnis into the arms of militant groups.
Unfortunately, we were right.
Starting in 2014, the Islamic State began moving swiftly from Syria – where it was based – to conquer major cities across neighboring western Iraq.
Iraqi Sunnis, who were excluded from politics after Hussein’s overthrow and fearful of government repression, did little to stop the incursion. Islamic militants increased their recruitment among Iraqi Sunnis by promising a return to Sunni dominance in Iraq.
Many Sunnis took up arms against their own government not because they supported IS’s goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East but because they hated al-Maliki’s administration.
By June 2014, the Islamic State had captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, just 250 miles north of Baghdad. It took three years of fighting and the combined force of Iraqi, U.S. and Kurdish troops, as well as Iranian-backed militias, to rid the country of this terrorist organization.
In September 2017, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Abadi claimed victory over IS in Iraq. The international community turned its focus toward Syria, where Islamic militants were continuing their war on citizens and the government.
What’s next for Iraq
Still, the Islamic State remains a persistent and legitimate threat to both Syria and Iraq, with some 30,000 active fighters in the region. Its commanders have reportedly buried large stockpiles of munitions in Iraq in preparation for renewed war.