Lowy Institute

An RAAF C-130H Hercules deploys aid to civilians in northern Iraq. (Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.)

There's a lot to be concerned about in the way Australia is approaching the decision to intervene militarily in the civil war engulfing northern Iraq and Syria. There has been scant debate of the decision to go to war in parliament: traveling war-memorial exhibitions were more closely examined in Question Time last week than the war ADF personnel are now risking their lives in.

The rhetoric on both sides of the debate has gone straight to 11, with terms like 'genocide' and 'humanitarian catastrophe' being bandied about. Critics quick to rule out any intervention at all are making simplistic and mostly erroneous comparisons between this crisis and that of 2003. Sycophantic journalists, apparently briefed on background by the Prime Minister or his office, are detailing the military tools to be used before any public articulation of strategy has occurred. There is a real danger that by a process of incremental tactical adjustments, Australia ends up committing to a multi-year military campaign without articulating a strategy or building the political consensus necessary to support it when the going gets really tough.

I'll have more to say at a later date on the strategic options Australia might consider, and the threshold we need to cross before committing to joining the US military campaign against Islamic State. But right now, here are the top five fallacies I've seen so far in Australian thinking on the Iraq crisis.

Fallacy 1: There will be no boots on the ground

Since this crisis began our political leaders have pledged that there will be no boots on the ground. This is political code, communicating the implicit promise that there will be no Australian body bags returning from this war. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni notes, politicians use this phrase instead of frankly discussing the costs and risk calculations of going to war: 'we're not good at discussing this, at confronting head-on what the toll of our best intentions and tortured interventions can be. We turn to abstraction'. Such abstraction is dangerous, effectively masking the spurious political promise that a country can go to war and pay no cost. 

Promising no boots on the ground is a fallacy for two reasons. Firstly, even a military campaign designed around limited air strikes to contain ISIS will require some ground combat presence: to determine what and who is to be targeted, to foster intelligence networks, to assess battle damage, and to recover any downed pilots.

More importantly though, the destruction of Islamic State cannot be achieved from the air. As the NATO experience in Libya showed, air strikes can stop insurgent forces from massing and conducting conventional military operations. But air power alone cannot destroy an insurgent group or its leadership. If our intent is to stop ISIS from catalysing barbaric violence and destabilising the Middle East, then someone will eventually have to commit ground combat forces. If Australia, the US, and other partners are unwilling to shoulder this burden then it will fall to our proxies like the Kurdish peshmerga.

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Fallacy 2: This is solely a humanitarian mission

One of the Australian Government's clear talking points in the past fortnight is that Australia's military intervention in Iraq is necessary for humanitarian reasons. I can only assume the political strategy behind this is that it will distance the current operations from the Iraq conflict of the last decade. This political strategy is problematic. If Australia's pressing national interest in the region is to prevent the slaughter of civilians, then we should have intervened in Syria when civilians were gassed and children struck with barrel bombs. We should also be intervening in Burma, where more than 250,000 people have reportedly been displaced by conflict this year. And if our concern is truly humanitarian, then we had better prepare to accept a lot of refugees from northern Iraq into Australia.

The reality is that our mission is to destroy ISIS as an organisation. That means killing its fighters, dissecting its financing and recruiting operations, and negotiating political power sharing for the disaffected Sunni Muslims giving life to the organisation. None of that will be easy. But better for the Government to be upfront about what our national calculations on Iraq are, rather than seeking to change the narrative by sprinkling humanitarian dust over public statements. 

For Australia, this is also about playing an active part in an alliance that helps preserve our national interests and maintains the global order necessary for us to live our lives safely and prosperously. Though I am not yet convinced that contributing to this US campaign is the most effective way Australia can share its alliance responsibilities, it is good to see that the Government has been upfront about this aspect of our national interest.

Fallacy 3: This is just an extension of the 2003 invasion of Iraq

The current crisis in Iraq has given oxygen to all the ideological arguments of the last decade surrounding the US-led intervention. Political wars are being dusted off and refought in some quarters.

But this is not 2003 redux. For proof, look no further than the fact that France is a member of the forming military coalition against Islamic State. George W Bush is no longer in the White House, Iraq is no longer a dictatorship, and there are no grand plan for regime change in Syria. The haunting 2003 ideological strains among the analysis of Iraq operations in 2014 are not always helpful. Simplistic comparisons between the military campaigns obscure detailed analysis of the motives of the Government in intervening, and the strategic options it should be considering. Let's deal with the issue of what Australia's strategy on ISIS should be, and then we can return to resolving all the lingering issues of the conflicts of the last decade.

Fallacy 4: Military action will increase the domestic threat of terrorism in Australia

I've heard this reasoning mentioned by a few commentators now, and it doesn't stand up for me. Firstly, behind it is a logic that Australia can just tuck its head down and the evil currents in the world will wash around us. That seems unlikely. We have important interests in good global order and the security of our allies and partners from terrorism, and responsibilities as a global citizen. If we think ISIS is a threat to the global order, we shouldn't duck the fight against it (though that doesn't automatically mean we should deploy military forces into Iraq). Secondly, the terms of the conflict between ISIS and Western countries like ours are already set and there is little we can do to change them or appease Islamic State leaders. ISIS is against the rule of law, and for the rule of bloody violence. We are not.

But there is also little evidence to date that ISIS fighters plan to return to Australia and carry out acts of terrorism. Yes, Syria and Iraq are providing a terrorist university in which extremists, Australians among them, are learning advanced military tactics and developing skills in urban fighting. But, as far as I am aware, in the three years since the conflict in Syria started not a single arrest has been made of an Australian who has returned to this country with the intent to conduct a terrorist attack. Australian military contributions are not likely to significantly increase the domestic terror threat. ISIS already knows we are an ally of the US.

Fallacy 5: This problem can be solved without a strategy for Syria

Air strikes in northern Iraq can contain ISIS and limit its advance into Iraqi Kurdistan. But to deny terrorists safe haven, to destroy Islamic State as a group, to stop civilian slaughter and restore relative order in Iraq, ISIS positions and strengths in Syria need to be targeted. That means a decision to intervene in Syria's civil war and alter the power balance between the Assad regime and the forces arrayed against him. That's something Obama and his allies have avoided for three years, despite a number of provocations. And the complexity of determining a strategy on Syria is why the US has not yet formed a comprehensive strategy to deal with this current crisis.

It will not be easy, but if a case for a US military campaign against ISIS is to be made next month it will have to include a strategy for Syria. Australian decision-makers should be thinking beyond just northern Iraq to determine our view of the best outcome in Syria, and what burden we might be willing to shoulder in order to achieve it.

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In this fast-paced world of media grabs, it is easy for selective quoting to misrepresent what leaders say. In his 28 August press conference for instance, when President Obama was asked whether he needed Congressional approval to go into Syria and attack Islamic State, he said 'I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet.' President Obama was excoriated for not having a Syria strategy years after the crisis began, when he was actually commenting on the military approach to IS in Syria.  Clumsy language perhaps, but he wasn't evincing a complete absence of US strategy towards Syria.

More disturbing was a comment a little further into his press conference. In talking about the future of President Bashar al Assad in light of the IS threat, Obama said 'I don't see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far, you know, shown any willingness to share power with them or in any kind of significant way deal with the longstanding grievances that they have there.'

With this simple sentence Obama virtually sidelined religious minorities in the region, appeared to indicate that Sunni Islam was the region's political as well as religious orthodoxy, and suggested that only 'they' could rule and guarantee stability at the same time. Rather than simply state that Assad's illegitimacy rested on his flouting of international norms and lack of popular consensus, Obama bought into the religious argument.

Now, one could be kind and say Obama has to talk this way because Washington is trying desperately to build a coalition of apparently reluctant regional Sunni states to take military action against Sunni jihadists operating in a Shi'a Arab majority country. But part of the problem with the region is the way in which Sunni-majority states (and some Shi'a majority states, it must be said) see religious identity is a precondition for political leadership, thereby marginalising the rest.

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Obama's use of religious identity in discussing the region's politics also exposes him to accusations of double standards. What about Bahrain, for instance, where the Sunni minority actively discriminate against the Shi'a majority with no effort being made to work towards a substantive power-sharing arrangement? But the Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain, and if Obama's rather strange words are to be taken at face value, political discrimination is only practiced against Sunnis.

I'll write more in the future about the strange bedfellows that a regional and Western anti-IS coalition is going to throw up, and the double standards that are likely to abound when they take military action. But a president trying to put such a group together would do well to steer clear of any reference to religion. Religious identity is part of the problem in the region, and including it in his speeches and statements will just leave Obama open to the religious intolerance practiced by both Sunni and Shia.

Photo by Flickr user James Gordon.

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In Systems of Survival, Jane Jacobs describes the two moral codes that co-exist in modern life: the merchants and the guardians. Merchants trade, competing within the laws, and are open, industrious and pragmatic. Guardians are loyal traditionalists, hierarchical, expert; they command political, military, professional and civic power. Merchants seek profit while guardians value honour. The two castes co-exist warily, they need each other but effective law must separate and regulate them. It is easy to see that problems occur (especially corruption) when they mesh dysfunctionally.

In China, socialism was intended to be a guardian system, but collective ownership drew the guardians into business. Running state owned enterprises (SOEs) was vastly lucrative. Jiang Zemin welcomed private entrepreneurs into the Party. The merchants and the guardians merged.

This is the ideological dilemma President Xi Jinping is facing. His SOE reform program has until now been confusing, even contradictory. But clarity has emerged in recent days.

At first, reforms emphasised 'mixed ownership', bringing more private sector involvement into SOEs. This was always questionable. While indebted local governments are gung-ho about privatisation, the private sector suspects 'a ploy for SOEs to draw in money.' Others worry the entire system is rigged against private investors. SOEs often struggle to serve both the state and the market: monopolistic central SOEs have become complacent and remain largely closed (Sinopec's restructuring is a notable exception), while smaller SOEs burdened by welfare obligations are hammered by competition. Without a clear profit mandate, SOEs have pursued scale, leading to over-capacity. There are suspicions that managerial carpet-baggers have looted state assets over the years. And previous reforms failed because insular SOEs struggled to hire professional managers from outside.

Some thought the solution was to pay SOE managers more. A State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) official beamed as he described his new opportunities: 'SOE managers, now permitted to fire workers, could be measured on profits, in which they could share.' A major bank said that it was 'urgent' to introduce stock options, a move which would surely be followed enthusiastically by rivals.

Yet in recent days a very different message has descended from the leadership: pay and perks for SOE executives are to be cut by as much as 50%. While not paid extravagantly by international standards, these bosses enjoy royal benefits. Their comedown will be publicly popular, and Xi Jinping may likewise be harnessing his widely supported anti-corruption campaign to force through reforms in the SOE sector. The campaign invokes 'shock and awe' so managerial resistance may be muted.

What aim does the President have in mind? 

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I believe Xi is trying to mark a clear distinction between the administrative role of the state and the executive management of the companies it owns. His model is Singapore. At an operational level, independent professionals will be well paid in line with the market, while the government will appoint directors in a supervisory role. Like elsewhere, there will be a gap between executive and non-executive compensation. The Party-member directors will be paid less, perhaps much less, than the SOE executives they oversee. They will be paid as guardians, not as merchants. They will bear the honour of serving the people; those seeking riches should look elsewhere.

So much for the principle. The question is whether it can work in reality.

So far this administration has surprised many with its ferocity. The tough tactics have been mirrored in Xi's martial language ('reform wielding a knife,' for example). Indeed the very force of change, ruthlessly executed by his 'fireman' Wang Qishan, has caused unease that due legal process is not being observed and that law enforcement is politically motivated. Even reform cheerleaders are wondering where this is all heading, with Caixin's Hu Shuli plaintively reminding us that 'effective rule of law must be the endgame of anti-corruption.' There are some steps towards judicial reform but it's not clear if Xi can truly 'verticalise' legal power and simultaneously empower local judges with more independence, which seems to be his plan.

What is clear is that economic reform is being handled with a political iron fist. The leadership appears to have reached an anti-liberal reform consensus. Or perhaps Xi is merely guarding his ideological flanks. Or maybe there is no consensus and this is a naked power grab.

In any case, the guardians of China's party-state are being asked to rally for a higher purpose. For Xi Jinping the reform program, and the anti-corruption campaign subsumed within it, has an overarching goal of making China more stable, equitable, just and governable. Xi's language evokes a struggle of life or death. Just as Jane Jacobs predicted, properly separating guardians from merchants has become Xi's system of survival.

Photo by Flickr image APEC 2013.

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By Jojiana Cokanasiga, an intern in the Lowy Institute's Melanesia Program. She is completing a Masters in Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development at the Australian National University. 

Lawyers, entrepreneurs, academics and civil servants are some of the female candidates standing in Fiji's upcoming elections. Fijians will vote on 17 September, the first elections since the 2006 military coup. Of the 249 approved candidates, 44 are women. This is certainly an improvement compared to the 2006 elections, when just 30 out of the 338 candidates were women.  

Several factors have contributed to the increase in women's representation this year. Firstly, women in Fiji are beginning to break social and cultural barriers with respect to education, even though unemployment rates for women are still higher than for men. Increasingly women are coming out as better educated, more career driven and more able to cope with the demands of culturally and socially constructed gender roles. The improvement in female participation can also be credited to Fiji's active women's rights movement. Fem Link Pacific, the Fiji Women Rights Movement, the National Council of Women and Soqosoqo vaka marama I-Taukei together convened the first ever Fiji Women's Forum in April 2012. This created a platform for increasing women's participation in politics and leadership. The final National Women's Forum Outcomes Statement called for a 50% women's quota in any new national legislature and/or a compulsory 50% candidates quota for political parties. Women's NGOs have certainly put in the hard yards in advocating and promoting gender equality in politics and leadership in this year's elections.  

While political parties are still a long way from fielding a balanced gender representation in their choice of candidates, it is worth noting that some parties are now ensuring gender balance in management roles by having women as party presidents.

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Women party presidents are Peoples Democratic Party's Lynda Tabua, Fiji First's Tiko Luveni, National Federation Party's Tupou Draunidalo and Fiji Labour Party's Lavenia Padarath.

Political leadership of parties is however still very much a male-dominated space, and when a government is formed after 17 September it will be the leader of the party that has a parliamentary majority (should that occur) that will take on the role of prime minister.

The Social Democratic Liberal Party (SODELPA) is the only political party that has a female leader, who also happens to be a paramount chief. Whether by strategy or coincidence, having Ro Teimumu Kepa as party leader of SODELPA is expected to garner much indigenous support. She not only carries the title of paramount chief but also has the capacity to influence chiefs of other confederacies. Recently, she has been able to field immense support from other chiefs, not only in her own province of Rewa but in other confederacies as well. In turn, it is expected that these chiefs should be able to influence their own people.

Ro Teimumu Kepa isn't new to politics. She contested the 2006 elections, winning her seat and becoming the Minister of Education in the Soqosoqo Duavata ni Lewenivanua (SDL)/Fiji Labour Party-led coalition government (SODELPA is the reincarnation of SDL). Given her political and traditional standing, there is some chance that Ro Teimumu Kepa may become Fiji's first female prime minister.

Women candidates contesting Fiji's elections boast a wealth of experience, outstanding academic qualifications and longstanding community service. There is also an increasing number of women lawyers advocating for women's issues and gender equality as well as contesting this year's election. Tupou Draunidalo of the National Federation Party and Lynda Tabuya of the People's Democratic Party have had long legal careers and have contributed immensely to Fiji's legal community. There is also a good number of businesswomen, teachers and civil servants contesting this year's elections.

The People's Democratic Party, Fiji First Party and the National Federation Party remain the parties fielding the most number of women candidates, each with nine women out of the 49, 50 and 46 candidates respectively. In 2006, 8 out of the 27 female candidates contesting elections made it to parliament. This figure is expected to increase given not only the number but also the calibre of women contesting this year's elections.

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  • What is the role of unmanned aerial vehicles in humanitarian assistance? Interesting new policy paper from United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
  • What is the state of the world's rivers? International Rivers have released a great interactive database.
  • A leaked UN report on climate change says the effects will be 'severe, pervasive, and irreversible'. James West at Grist has highlighted five terrifying facts from the report.
  • Want an overview of the literature on foreign aid? Chris Blattman recommends this paper by Nancy Qian.
  • As Samoa hosts the UN Small Island Developing States conference this week (#SIDS2014), it is worth remembering that 2014 is the International Year of Small Island Developing States. Some good resources and interesting videos from the UN available here. And if you want a quick snapshot of Pacific island small states, the World Bank has a useful data hub.
  • ICYMI — Violence against women in PNG: How men are getting away with murder. A new Lowy Institute Analysis by journalist Jo Chandler presents a devastating picture of just how remote the possibility of justice is for many PNG women.
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Both the draft nuclear doctrine released in 1999 and the official nuclear doctrine released later in 2003 state India's commitment to a minimalist nuclear posture.

This nuclear minimalism was best advocated in the policy of credible minimum deterrence (CMD). Two assumptions inform the concept of CMD. First, that deterrence can be projected at low numbers, and second, that a ready arsenal – delivery vehicles mated with warheads at continuous alert – is unnecessary. The commitment to low numbers of warheads meant that CMD could help avoid unnecessary 'vertical proliferation'. Such a posture was therefore considered propitious for nuclear stability.

But will CMD remain valid as India shifts its nuclear arsenal to the sea? The coming of the Arihant, India's first nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), constitutes a formidable challenge to India's posture of credible minimum deterrence and therefore, also to strategic stability in the region.

The present configuration of INS Arihant allows it to carry 16 nuclear-tipped missiles. By the end of this decade, India plans to deploy five to six such SSBNs. Clearly, the warheads required to arm these submarines would alone be close to the current estimates of the total number of nuclear weapons (between 90-110) in India's arsenal. This increase in numbers would not be alarming if India was to shift its entire nuclear arsenal underwater as France and Britain have done. In fact, in 2000, in a well argued and equally well received book on India's nuclear strategy, Raja Menon – an influential strategic analyst and a retired rear admiral – suggested precisely this course.

Various factors militate against such a prospect, however.

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For one thing, the current generation of India's sea-launched ballistic missiles lack the range for an underwater deterrent to be credible. The K-15 or Sagarika, the only missile ready to be deployed on Arihant, has an effective range of only 700km. Though this may be sufficient for projecting second-strike capability against Pakistan, it is clearly inadequate for retaliating against China. With such a short range, Indian SSBNs would have to enter dangerous waters in East Asia to release their payloads. India, therefore, will continue to rely on aircraft and missiles for nuclear delivery. The rivalry among India's army, navy and air force will also frustrate any shift to an underwater-only nuclear arsenal. All three services want a part of the nuclear arsenal, both for budgets and prestige. This is similar to the US experience during the initial years of the Cold War.

Furthermore, the number of Indian nuclear warheads would spike if the Defence Research and Development Organisation's (DRDO) ambitious plan of introducing multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV) into India's nuclear delivery systems bear fruit. The DRDO claims that, in the near future, Indian missiles could be capable of carrying 4 to 12 nuclear warheads atop a single missile. Multiple warheads clearly imply a multiplying arsenal. 

Then there is the question of India's nuclear readiness. The conventional wisdom is that India's nuclear weapons are in a state of 'recessed deterrence' – disassembled, de-mated and de-alerted. In case of a nuclear emergency, operationalising the nuclear arsenal would require coordination among multiple agencies such as the DRDO, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the armed forces. All these agencies control different subsystem of the nuclear arsenal: AEC controls the nuclear core; DRDO controls the non-fissile triggers and the armed forces control the delivery vehicles. Such diffusion automatically suggests a disassembled arsenal.

However, as Vipin Narang has argued recently, the idea that 'India keeps its nuclear weapons is a disassembled state...is largely now just a myth'. DRDO has publicly articulated its position of 'canisterising' or 'encapsulating' all nuclear delivery systems, which requires that a 'warhead is likely to be pre-mated to the delivery vehicle and kept hermetically sealed for storage and transport'. The rationale emanates from the need for a credible second strike capability. As the DRDO chief explains, 'In the second strike capability, the most important thing is how fast we can react.  We are working on cannisterised systems that can launch from anywhere at anytime'.

Though last-minute checks and balances would still be in place, this is not a picture of a 'disassembled' nuclear force. This is particularly true of nuclear-armed submarines. Since such submarines may have no links with the mainland during a patrol, warheads cannot be possibly detached from the delivery vehicles. In the case of land-based and air-based delivery platforms, coordination among multiple agencies is still possible, but an underwater deterrent requires a ready arsenal. 

So Arihant and its progenies will not only increase the size of India's nuclear arsenal but also its readiness, making the idea of a CMD practically meaningless. This could have a spiral effect on Pakistan, which would increase its own weapons production and battle readiness. We are already witnessing this, with increasing numbers in her nuclear arsenal and intentions to develop tactical nuclear weapons. It may also lead to new proliferation challenges for India if Pakistan avails of China's services to acquire its own nuclear triad.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Rosewater is the story of Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari, who was arrested and tortured in Tehran on claims of espionage during the 2009 presidential election campaign.

A piece of subtext: one of the things Bahari's interrogator used against him during his 118 days of detention was the fact that Bahari had once appeared on US news-comedy program The Daily Show. This film is directed by Daily Show host Jon Stewart.

 

(H/t The Browser.)

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Bringing together all the longer Interpreter articles you were too busy to read this week.

This week the Lowy Institute launched a powerful paper on violence against women in Papua New Guinea. The paper's author, Jo Chandler, also wrote an accompanying Interpreter post:

Over the past six years I've made numerous trips to PNG, usually intensive excursions but too quick (as media paradigms tend to dictate) and likely too ambitious, ranging across health and education and into politics, resources development and corruption. Violence was rarely the story I went looking for, but it was inevitably the one I found.

The first instinct of a journalist trying to communicate a crisis is to quantify it — to bundle it up in statistics. But the data on violence in PNG is scarce, and it is inevitably scrubbed clean of identity and humanity. The reality, by contrast, is raw, overwhelming, unfathomable, complex.

Still on PNG, Jenny Hayward-Jones and Tess Newton Cain commented on Port Moresby's growing clout in Pacific island institutions:

Fiji's historical role as a regional leader is well recognised. However, PNG looks to be signaling that regardless of the outcome of Fiji's 17 September elections, Suva should not expect that there will be a return to 'business as usual'. Diplomatic tensions between Fiji and PNG are evidenced in disputes over the Fiji National Provident Fund backing out of an investment in PNG, Fiji's rejection of PNG's High Commissioner as dean of the diplomatic corps in Suva, the absence of PNG's Prime Minister and Foreign Minister from some MSG meetings and Fiji's own Pacific Islands Development Forum, the absence of Fiji's Prime Minister from the MSG leaders' meeting in Port Moresby, and disagreements over the Melanesian candidate for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat's Secretary-General role.

Papua New Guinea is perhaps more ready now than at any time in its past to step up to a regional leadership role.  Bolstered by the election of Meg Taylor, PNG will also host the Pacific Islands Forum leaders' meeting in 2015, giving the Government in Port Moresby a rare opportunity to showcase its ambitions.  But it will need to battle a resurgent Fiji, which will be using a newly legitimate status after 17 September to reclaim its supremacy among the island states.

With Fiji's first election since the 2006 coup coming up, Alex Stewart argued that despite the now abandoned Australian sanctions and suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiji's foreign relations are 'at their healthiest since independence':

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 The Bainimarama Government has mounted a strong challenge to the Australian-backed Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) by launching its own rival organisation. The Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) has now held two successful summits that have garnered significant international attention. While it certainly doesn't have the resources of the PIF, the PIDF looks set to stay, and significantly blunts the impact of Fiji's ongoing suspension from the PIF.

This strengthened web of bilateral and multilateral relations has given the Bainimarama Government the maneuvering room it needs to take a confident stance against its Australian critics. When Foreign Minister Julie Bishop visited Suva last February to start on the road towards normalising the relationship, Fijian sources confidently proclaimed that this was Australia's last chance to remain relevant.

At the start of this week it was reported that the Abbott Government was considering a military role  for Australia in any US-led campaign against ISIS. I wrote that if the Government does intend to send Australian forces to help, it needs to first address two big points:

1. A comprehensive statement describing the US strategy for countering ISIS, and Australia's role in it: In this regard, the PM's recent statement that 'There would have to be a clear and achievable overall purpose, a clear and proportionate role for us, a careful assessment of the risks and an overall humanitarian purpose' was reassuring.

But it already looks as if the Americans are defining 'humanitarian purpose' broadly, and if it stretches still further until it becomes indistinguishable from a mission to defeat ISIS (or ISIL), we need to know exactly how this is going to be accomplished. As Brian Fishmanjust wrote on War on the Rocks, 'No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.'

I happen to think a mission like that would be disastrous for the US, and that Australia should dissuade America from carrying it out rather than offering to take part in it. But if the Abbott Government disagrees, it ought to at least do Australians the courtesy of spelling out exactly what the parameters of the mission are and how the goals will be achieved.

2. An assessment of the threat: Attorney-General George Brandis now tells us that the threat of extremists coming back from the Middle East is the 'greatest national security threat that Australia has faced in many years...The escalating terrorist situation in Iraq and Syria poses an increasing threat, unlike any other that this country has experienced, to the security of Australians both at home and overseas.'

That's some strong language, but it sits oddly against the assessments provided to the Government by Australia's intelligence agencies

And while we're on the subject of air campaigns in the Middle East, here's Rodger Shanahan on air power coming to the fore in multiple Middle East crises:

 As a former Army officer, my service bias has always made me a believer that only events on the ground matter. The air force is a great enabler but rarely the decisive factor. But my experience of the Middle East has also taught me the value that many governments place in air power.

In the Gulf in particular, technically advanced aircraft symbolise modernity and make up for the limited manpower available to staff their militaries. And it is a service that can be both a path to, or symbol of, political authority. Both Syria's Hafiz al Assad and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak were air force pilots (and later commanders), while King Abdullah of Jordan (like his late father King Hussein) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi are both qualified military pilots.

But as the region reels from multiple security crises, it is interesting to note the degree to which air power is being used by regional forces for a multiplicity of purposes. A student of air power would do well to focus closely on the Middle East at the moment for the rich field of research it is proving to be.

Tim Mayfield highlighted a recent Newspoll showing that a majority of Australians support aspects of the Government's proposed anti-terror legislation:

It is significant because, when it comes to matters of national security, public opinion really does matter. While on other issues it may be within a government's remit to move ahead of prevailing attitudes, when it comes to our collective safety there should be no such latitude.

This is because measures that are enacted with the aim of preserving the safety of citizens will inevitably impact on our liberty. And though the most basic function of any government is to protect its citizens, history is littered with examples of governments that have used this justification to concentrate their own power and quell opposition.

Our debate on sea-based nuclear weapons and strategic stability continues. This week we had contributions from Thomas Mahnken, Andrew Winner Stephen Fruehling. Thomas Mahnken is a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning:

Beijing is undertaking a large-scale modernisation of its military, including its nuclear force. According to Department of Defense and press sources, China is fielding the mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile and is developing the mobile DF-41 with multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles. According to press reports, China has also conducted at least two tests of the WU-14 hypersonic boost-glide vehicle. China also fields theatre nuclear strike systems such as the DF-21. And China has invested considerable resources in developing and deploying the Jin-class SSBN and JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile (pictured).

China's nuclear modernisation is aimed at giving the Chinese leadership a secure second-strike capability. As Tom Christensen has argued, that is in turn likely to embolden China (if it has not already done so) to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy. The deployment of SSBNs is clearly part of that but is far less consequential than other Chinese developments.

Andrew Winner is Chair of the Strategic Research Department and a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island:

Both India and Pakistan are at the initial stages of deploying nuclear weapons on submarines. Being new to a deployed technology and operational technique does not mean the two governments and their militaries will not be careful or capable. Both states are likely to be highly cautious and professional in their deployment of these capabilities. However, there is always a learning curve with new capabilities and therefore always chances for misperception, miscalculation, and the threat of escalation.

And Stephen Fruehling is Senior Lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, and a member of the external expert panel on the 2015 Defence White Paper:

The development of an SSBN force indicates that China is not fully confident in the survivability of its land-based nuclear forces, and is at least hedging its bets. This is not fully unjustified, as land-based missiles still have to operate in prepared deployment areas that are vulnerable to the large-scale nuclear suppression campaign, of which the US is still capable. US attempts to build a survivable launcher for its own land-mobile Midgetman missiles during the Cold War are a salutary reminder of the inherent fragility of mobile ICBMs to nuclear blast pressure. Adding SSBNs to the mix would certainly complicate US planning for the unlikely event that it should ever consider a disarming strike on China, but it does not change the basic source of China's vulnerability, which lies in the numerical imbalance of the nuclear forces of both countries.

Investment in SSBNs thus indicates that China remains uncomfortable with the limits imposed by its small nuclear arsenal. But the scale of China's investment doesn't really address the issue. SSBNs put a lot of eggs into one basket and are no panacea for the problem of survivability, especially given China's geographic disadvantage. As such, their appearance in the region is a useful reminder that the broader factors underpinning strategic stability in the region — US military capabilities, including its nuclear arsenal, and the alliances they support in the Asian littoral — have a lot going for them still.

Is Hilary Clinton a foreign policy hawk? James Bowden:

One factor that seems to answer the first question in the affirmative is the sizeable distance she and her camp have recently sought to put between her positions and those of President Barack Obama. In a much-publicised interview with The Atlantic, Clinton called out Obama's failure to offer support to rebels fighting Bashar Al-Assad's regime in Syria as being culpable in the rise of the Islamic State, an organisation most recently in the news for the horrific beheading of US journalist James Foley.

'The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad — there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle — the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,' she said, adding that great nations needed better organising principles than Obama's favoured 'don't do stupid stuff.'

So far, so hawkish.

To finish off with a bit of economics, Stephen Grenville wrote on the continuing tragedy of European unemployment:

What is to be done? Draghi's answer is 'a bit of everything'. He'll keep monetary policy loose (and presumably do 'whatever it takes' if the euro comes under threat). But he is looking for help from fiscal policy and structural reform. A call for structural reform (ie. productivity improvement) is a standard element of just about any macro-economic prescription, but it carries more weight and urgency given the duration and depth of the European recession. 

Draghi quotes figures showing that European structural unemployment (the part that can't be fixed just by getting economic activity back to full capacity) as having risen from 8.8% in 2008 to 10.3% in 2013 as a result of the crisis and the lacklustre recovery. This would imply that the usual instruments of counter-cyclical macro-policy can't take the unemployment rate down very far. 

He reports that Ireland has done better than Spain in terms of wage flexibility, but Ireland's main method of getting its unemployment rate down has been emigration, not only of disenchanted Irish youth but also the migrants from other parts of Europe who had flocked to Ireland when it was the Celtic Dragon, before the crisis.

 And Daniel Woker asked if France is now the 'sick man of Europe':

While the lack of economic reform remains a major drag on the country and on its role in Europe, the opposite is true with regard to two other major elements of potential progress towards the 'great European promise', as symbolised by the EU.

Firstly, Europe will have to develop the means to guarantee order in its 'near abroad' (Mediterranean, Africa) and to take a bigger part of responsibility for a functioning global order. As we all know, the US is unwilling and unable to continue to shoulder the burden on its own. It is fair and necessary that Europe should help, and here France has been a leader, especially with regard to Africa

The second area where France counts among the leading countries in Europe concerns assimilation of immigrants, especially those with non-European roots. The ugly historical chapters of racism in its colonies and of rampant antisemitism notwithstanding, 'la nation fondatrice des droits de l'homme' nevertheless has a pretty good record over the last 50 years of integrating the huge influx of immigrants from former colonies. The remaining challenge from mainly Muslim 'banlieus' (suburbs) and the present political onslaught from the xenophobic far-right have economic rather than social roots. They can be solved when the aforementioned economic reforms are tackled in earnest.

 Photo by Flickr user MyTudut.

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The opening of this essay, about the arbitrariness of the Middle East's national boundaries drawn up nearly a century ago under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, will be familiar to most. But then George Friedman takes things in an interesting direction:

The map may show a nation, but (Lebanon) is really a country of microscopic clans engaged in a microscopic geopolitical struggle for security and power. Lebanon remains a country in which the warlords have become national politicians, but there is little doubt that their power comes from being warlords and that, under pressure, the clans will reassert themselves.

A similar process has taken place in Syria. The arbitrary nation-state has become a region of competing clans. The Alawite clan, led by Bashar al Assad (who has played the roles of warlord and president), had ruled the country. An uprising supported by various countries threw the Alawites into retreat. The insurgents were also divided along multiple lines. Now, Syria resembles Lebanon. There is one large clan, but it cannot destroy the smaller ones, and the smaller ones cannot destroy the large clan. There is a permanent stalemate, and even if the Alawites are destroyed, their enemies are so divided that it is difficult to see how Syria can go back to being a country, except as a historical curiosity. Countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States might support various clans, but in the end, the clans survive.

Something very similar happened in Iraq.

(H/t The Browser.)

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The danger of sea-based nuclear weapons in Asia depends on the strategic context of the potential protagonists, along with the particulars of the platforms, delivery system, and doctrines.

Perhaps the least menacing in the short term is the interaction between India and China as each builds its sea-based nuclear capability. There are still years to go before each state has systems coupled with the need to deploy them in locations that could lead to dangerous interactions.

A second dyad, between US sea-based nuclear weapons and the growing Chinese maritime nuclear arsenal, has the potential for misunderstanding, risk-taking, and escalation, but Washington and Beijing are not in a state of on-again, off-again militarised hostilities. This, coupled with the distance from China that US nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines are likely patrol, limits some potentially dangerous interactions.

The India-Pakistan dyad, however, carries the potential to be the most menacing in the short-to-medium term.

Both India and Pakistan are at the initial stages of deploying nuclear weapons on submarines. Being new to a deployed technology and operational technique does not mean the two governments and their militaries will not be careful or capable. Both states are likely to be highly cautious and professional in their deployment of these capabilities. However, there is always a learning curve with new capabilities and therefore always chances for misperception, miscalculation, and the threat of escalation.

Three additional factors in the South Asian context make this newly emerging set of capabilities particularly troubling.

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The first is the very short range of India's first generation submarine-launched ballistic missile (the K-15 has a reported range of 750km) and Pakistan's likely submarine-launched cruise missile (the Babur, with a reported range of 700km). The second is that it appears Pakistan will be deploying its sea-based nuclear capability in a dual-use platform, a diesel-powered attack submarine. Finally, the two states have a history of wars and militarised crises over a range of disputes that will not be resolved anytime soon. 

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Unlike the deployment of nuclear warheads on land-based missiles or nuclear gravity bombs, sea-basing of nuclear weapons carries a much greater chance of close-up and regular interaction between the forces of two potential protagonists. In peacetime, once India and Pakistan actually have operational platforms deployed, it can be expected that each side will seek to gather intelligence on the acoustic signature of the other side's submarines, along with information about operating patterns and locations. This creates chances for accidents, incidents, or heightened tensions, particularly as the relatively short ranges of the missiles mean that deployment areas may be relatively close to the other's territorial waters.

Yes, such submarine-versus-submarine interactions occur already without any public acknowledgment of increased tensions, but the importance of nuclear weapons may cause both sides to take greater risks both to gather intelligence and to defend a nuclear-armed platform. Similarly, both sides may become more aggressive in patrolling and defending territorial waters, contiguous zones, and even exclusive economic zones if they want to deny the other side from gaining operational familiarity with a particular stretch of water.

If another militarised crisis between India and Pakistan were to occur after the deployment of sea-based nuclear weapons, the chances of inadvertent escalation will be higher than in an environment absent these platforms. In the case of Pakistan's likely nuclear platform – an Agosta-class submarine basically indistinguishable from its conventionally-armed counterpart – Indian naval commanders and their civilian leadership may be faced with a difficult dilemma. Protecting India's surface and submarine fleet from Pakistan's submarines in a crisis or war requires aggressive detection measures and attacking potential contacts. However, India may feel constrained if it does not want to inadvertently escalate a crisis or conflict by destroying the 'secure second-strike' portion of Pakistan's nuclear triad. If India were to destroy a Pakistani submarine carrying nuclear-armed missiles as part of a conventional war, would Pakistan's leadership interpret this action as crossing a nuclear threshold?

Similarly, in a future crisis or conventional war, what would Pakistan do to place itself in a better position to track and, if possible, destroy the INS Arihant or its successors? Pakistan has shown itself both willing and able, as far back as 1971, to undertake long-range, risky submarine operations in an attempt to strike at high-value Indian assets on India's east coast. Would India view such a Pakistani operation in a future crisis as escalatory? What would its response be?

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President Obama is already being pilloried for his statement, made in a press conference earlier today, that 'we don't have a strategy yet' for combating ISIS. No strategy? This for a terrorist group that his own Defense Secretary described as 'an imminent threat to every interest we have...Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen, so we must prepare for everything'.

Still, at least Obama has things in the right order: strategy first, then bombing. William Kristol, on the other hand, would prefer to just get started: 'What’s the harm of bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens? I don’t think there’s much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there.' Kristol is a neo-conservative and leading foreign policy voice among Republicans.

It's a good thing Australian Defence Minister Senator David Johnston signaled on Wednesday evening that an Australian decision on whether to join US military action was not imminent:

I think the Americans and most of us would want to see a stable government in Baghdad. And that's not going to occur until 10th September when the new Prime Minister takes over. And if he's inclusive, I think that will make things a lot more visible, tangible and concrete going forward. So we're a long way from that.

 As I said on Wednesday, before Australia commits military force, we first need a clear assessment of the threat and a plausible strategy for defeating that threat. Without that, we would essentially just be dropping bombs to 'see what happens'.

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All photos by Vlad Sokhin.

In a new Lowy Institute Analysis published today, Jo Chandler presents a devastating picture of the endemic violence against women in Papua New Guinea and the role Australia can play in supporting local initiatives to address the problem. Below, Jo reflects on how remote justice is for many women. 

Over the past six years I've made numerous trips to PNG, usually intensive excursions but too quick (as media paradigms tend to dictate) and likely too ambitious, ranging across health and education and into politics, resources development and corruption. Violence was rarely the story I went looking for, but it was inevitably the one I found.

The first instinct of a journalist trying to communicate a crisis is to quantify it — to bundle it up in statistics. But the data on violence in PNG is scarce, and it is inevitably scrubbed clean of identity and humanity. The reality, by contrast, is raw, overwhelming, unfathomable, complex.

So you might describe the scores of walking wounded waiting for triage outside highlands hospitals every morning, oftentimes the bashed and basher sitting together, waiting their turn. Or you might try to capture the vulnerability of girls and women when they venture out of home, and how it shackles their movements and their prospects in city and village alike. Yet these narratives fall short when they depict PNG women as merely helpless and scared. They are also tough, funny, resourceful, cunning, resilient.

But perhaps the trickiest thing to communicate is just how formidable the landscape is for women wanting access to justice. So many obstacles. The remoteness. The poverty of resources, of cash. The lack of roads, personnel, and vehicles to respond to emergencies. The shortcomings of police capacity and culture. The brutality, often inspired by hard-wired notions of payback and supercharged by modern blights of bitterness and booze. The failure of agents of the state to honour their ethics and their obligations, and to uphold the law.

These were issues I was starting to poke around last October when I made the first of a few visits to East Sepik. I stopped over in Wewak on my way to Maprik, in the hinterland, hitching a ride with an Oxfam team visiting their local partner agency. The Nana Kundi Crisis Centre is one of a mere handful of women's refuges sprinkled across the country.

As it happened, the hotel in Wewak was overrun with Papua New Guinean and Australian officials and dignitaries all similarly preoccupied with questions of justice. They were en route to the opening of a community law and justice office in Lumi, West Sepik. Among them was Kerenga Kua, one of PNG's most distinguished lawyers before entering politics and, at that time, serving as Attorney-General and Minister for Justice. (In June this year, he was abruptly sacked by the Prime Minister.)

Kua settled down in the warm evening with myself and photographer Vlad Sokhin (his images above). In Australia, interviewing politicians is an endurance test of spin and obfuscation. In PNG, it is most commonly about Big Man bluster and posturing. In both contexts many words are spoken but little is said. This interview proved to be something else.

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What I want to understand, I say, is why terrible crimes continue to be committed with such impunity. 'We have a formidable problem,' says Kua.

We have a very big land area and our population is scattered through remote communities. It would not be a problem if the culture in the community reacts positively to the established legal system. But the culture that prevails at the moment...is to look after your own. So if one of your own offends against the law, you protect him. That is what the community does, they protect perpetrators. So a victim (of violence) is not, in the first case, able to report the matter and mobilise the witnesses and bring the offender to account unless that victim has a stronger network of support (than her attacker). Then that can be used to force the issue to the proper legal system.

Many disputes never get past the informal mechanisms exercised by clans, families, and tribes outside established systems. 'If you hang around Port Moresby on the weekends you will see a lot of gatherings under the rain trees, in the shade,' he explained. 'Those are informal dispute resolution systems in progress. They don't register it in the courthouse.' Violent crimes are dealt with under the trees because people don't trust the government to support both the offender and the victim.

People have set up their own default system, so the government systems have become irrelevant, more or less. You see it at a rural level as well. You might demand that the victim and her witnesses and everybody march to the police station and lay the report and get the offender charged. But in the background the offender and their people are busy attacking the victim and her supporters and witnesses yet again.

Inevitably the winners are those with the biggest gang of wantoks (relatives), and so it will remain, says Kua, until such time as the Government secures trust and authority.

The next step up the legal ladder is the village court, which is recognised as part of the formal sector and empowered to resolve disputes by reference to customary law and practices. Village court magistrates are not supposed to deal with serious criminal matters like rape and assault, but 'of necessity they deal with it, to bring about a resolution, to bring about peace to that particular segment of the community.'

But there is little capacity for deterrence against serious crime within the 'settlements of convenience' delivered at village level. The preferred government strategy, Kua says, is to get the matters to police, charges laid, committal in the district court and, where there is a case, a full trial in the National Court.

Ultimately the solution is to 'send a more powerful message to the men — that you cannot commit, let's say, a violent sexual offence against a woman, and then you bury it at the village level, without allowing it to go through the proper court system.'

That all requires building infrastructure and capacity (courts, skills, systems, personnel) 'and that is what we are doing,' says Kua. But it is a long haul 'and as a nation our issues are many.' Justice competes against a range of other critical priorities, including transport, health, and roads.

Meanwhile his strategy is to signal the seriousness of the issue by imposing the death penalty, which remains on the books in PNG, though it has not been used since 1957. Prime Minister Peter O'Neill moved soon after taking power to reactivate it and Kua has dispatched teams overseas to investigate lethal injection. It is coming, he says.

'For want of a better solution, in desperation, when you have this kind of impunity existing and growing in a society, we are forced to a corner, where we resort to things like the death penalty for rape, for aggravated rape.' In the PNG context 'fire has to be met with fire. You use fire sometimes to kill off bigger fires elsewhere.'

We can't...allow a level of impasse and status quo to continue to permeate to the detriment of our women folk, our young girls, our vulnerable population. We have to do something about it. I hope you don't come and take offence to that. Because the European Union (and the United Nations) are openly coming out to us and saying 'listen you can't have death penalty, you can't have corporal punishment'. And I'm thinking 'where do they come from?...What solutions do they have for our issues?' (We have) no taxpayer base, very limited financial resources, (we're) trying to deal with all the human issues of life and falling short of course, as one would expect.

Kua tells me he is proud to be the Attorney-General who oversaw the enactment of family protection legislation (more than 20 years in the making) which makes it easier for victims to get interim protection orders at the grassroots village level, defines a wider range of offences, and also empowers and directs police action.

'Our heart has always been with our womenfolk, for the majority of us,' Kua says. 'We are committed to doing everything we reasonably can within the confines of the resources available to us. That is the commitment we can give them.'

Today Kerenga Kua is gone from office, another maelstrom consumes the energies of the power players, and it is business as usual in far-flung village courts and under the rain trees of Port Moresby.

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It has an odd name and a confounding operative clause, but the 'Australia-Indonesia Joint Understanding on a Code of Conduct' signed today in Bali by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa is good news.

What's with the name? According to the Associated Press, Julie Bishop 'wanted to call it a "Joint Understanding," while her Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa preferred "Code of Conduct." So they combined the titles.' (And, it might be added, mangled the English language in a way reminiscent of the award Montgomery Burns once conferred on Homer Simpson for 'outstanding achievement in the field of excellence'.)

As for the operative clause, in Julie Bishop's words it 'specifically says that Australia and Indonesia will not use our resources, including our intelligence resources, to harm each other's interests'. The actual text reads:

The Parties will not use any of their intelligence, including surveillance capacities, or other sources, in ways that would harm the interests of the Parties.

There are several ways to parse that statement, and no doubt that is just what was intended. In fact, there is probably no agreed definition behind it, which is just fine for both sides. A deal like this is not enforceable anyway, and is more about finding a face-saving way to resume a relationship which is mutually beneficial.

Mind you, it carries risks. Although we haven't heard from Mr Snowden for some time, were the Guardian to release a new tranche of documents tomorrow exposing more Australian spying activity against Indonesia, the language about not using intelligence assets to harm each other's interests could become a weapon in the hands of angry Indonesian legislators. Then again, if such a possibility actually deters both sides from doing too much spying on the other in future, it's a good thing.

And here's another good thing: according to Bishop, the Code 'lays the groundwork for even greater cooperation in the area of intelligence sharing...including in relation to the issue of foreign fighters.'

That is excellent news. The counter-terrorist cooperation between Australia and Indonesia since the 2002 Bali bombing is something of which both sides can be genuinely proud. It has stopped bombings that could have killed countless more Indonesians and Australians and stalled Indonesia's democratic transition. It has also dealt a severe blow to the feared terrorist group Jemaah Islamiya, and ought to serve as an international model of how the terrorist threat can be contained.

Photo courtesy of @aosny2011.

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