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The International Security Program looks at strategic dynamics and security risks globally, with an emphasis on Australia's region of Indo-Pacific Asia. Its research spans strategic competition and the risks of conflict in Asia, security implications of the rise of China and India, maritime security, nuclear arms control, Australian defence policy and the changing character of conflict. The Program draws on a network of experts in Australia, Asia and globally, and is supported by diverse funding sources including grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. It convenes international policy dialogues such as the 2017 Australia-ROK Emerging Leaders International Security Forum and has a record of producing leading-edge, influential reports.

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Lifting the veil on jihad

In April 2015 a fresh-faced Australian-born doctor appeared in a slick Islamic State video extolling the virtues of making hijra to what he portrayed as a utopian Islamic society. The video showed the doctor, Tareq Kamleh, in a pristine and well-equipped paediatric ward tending to a premature baby.

Fast forward two years and the picture is somewhat different, as shown in this video, released yesterday. Kamleh's clean-cut face now sports a wispy beard and he no longer looks fresh, while the hospital surrounds are less salubrious as the dystopian Islamic society that Kamleh helped create crumbles around him. This time the children he tends to are dying, a tragedy that is a grim and apt analogy for the violent and intolerant caliphate that Kamleh and thousands of other Western Muslims rushed to join. Aside from a reminder of the tragedy of war, what is particularly interesting about this video is that part-way through (around 3:15) Kamleh's humanitarian guise gives way to an AK-47 wielding jihadi speaking from an underground cave calling for true Muslims to join the hopeless fight but to also realise that their jihad should not be geographically defined. The video ends by telling President Trump that Kamleh is glad US soldiers are in Syria because jihadis love death more than they love life. A familiar if somewhat tired jihadi refrain.

This latest video, that shows Kamleh has gone about as far from the Hippocratic Oath (or Declaration of Geneva in modern parlance) as a doctor can, is a timely reminder to people who rely on social media grabs to determine the actions of someone traveling to Syria or Iraq allegedly to provide ‘humanitarian support’. That 2015 video of Kamleh in a paediatric ward should have fooled no one (it certainly didn't fool the authorities who charged him with three terrorism offences) as to his true intentions. Clearly he and Islamic State only showed what they wanted us to see.

The same holds for others who have travelled to Syria to join IS or al-Qa’ida but, wishing to avoid the legal unpleasantries that membership of a terrorist organisation brings, claim they have gone to provide humanitarian aid. This type of fabricated claim has been a constant feature of this conflict since its earliest days. Adam Brookman from Melbourne, for instance, claimed he entered Syria to provide humanitarian assistance without any evidence of links with a humanitarian aid group. Authorities didn't believe it and charged him. Another Australian Muslim convert, Oliver Bridgeman, has also presented himself as a humanitarian aid worker, largely through the selected release of video clips that show him working with children, and a soft expose on 60 Minutes. Again, the authorities have formed a different view of his activities, and in March last year issued an arrest warrant for 'incursions into foreign countries with the intention of engaging in hostile activities'.

In the social media age in which we live, it is right to be cynical about those who claim to be traveling to jihadist conflict zones for humanitarian purposes only. Unless they also provide verifiable evidence of connections with legitimate humanitarian aid groups, their claims should carry little weight. Whatever other purpose it serves, Tareq Kamleh’s latest video is a jarring demonstration of the jihadi propensity to cite humanitarian activities in a bid to disguise their true motivations and actions. The Lowy Institute will be releasing a research paper on this issue later this year.  

Resilience in the post-RAMSI era

Understanding how and when governments might intervene in failing countries is an art rather than a science. It requires detailed knowledge of the country in question, the resilience of the people and systems in relation to the emerging crisis, and the willingness of the people to accept an intervention. There are domestic political considerations too. Successive Lowy Institute polls have shown that while the Australian public are likely to support stabilisation operations in the Pacific, or deployments to stop a government bent on genocide, the deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq proved much less popular.

Yet despite the complexity of these interacting factors, a systemic approach to resilience and fragility may help policymakers better identify threshold indicators that warn of an impending crisis. As I outlined in my previous post, breaking complex systems down into understandable components allows the formation of a framework to assist in understanding fragile states. The end of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) this week is a good opportunity to look back and see how this framework could have been used to pre-empt crises in Solomon Islands and, more importantly, how it can assist policymakers and officials identify future stresses in the country.

It has been 14 years since the Pacific community agreed to send a regional intervention force to the Solomon Islands under Australian leadership. By the time troops, police and administrators landed in Honiara to establish RAMSI, the violence had already cost an estimated 250 lives. The economy was also in tatters. GDP had dropped by about 24% between 1998 and 2002 and by 2003 external debt had ballooned to almost 80% of GDP. This is partly because Australia had declined to intervene, despite repeated requests from successive Solomon Islands Prime Ministers, since the start of ‘the tensions’ in 1998. In the time it took the international community to respond, a gradual increase of chronic stresses had overwhelmed political, economic, security and social cohesion systems to crisis point; that is to say they were no longer functioning.

Before looking at how the model may help policymakers identify any future deterioration of security in Solomon Islands, it is useful to look back and examine the period leading to the RAMSI deployment.

One of the strengths of the model is it does not dictate which systems should be examined. This allows it to be tailored to the differences of each country, or region, being examined. For Solomon Islands I have chosen to examine four systems: international security, governance and legitimacy, economy, and social cohesion. Along these four lines I have plotted events that, in hindsight, can be seen to be threshold indicators - which is to say they signified additional stresses or sudden shocks that put the system under pressure. (Hover your cursor over each point on the line to see details of the event.)

Analysis of these threshold indicators are instructive. Although there were several instances of intervention in the lead up to RAMSI, they did not manage to reduce the stresses beneath the threshold tolerance. One example was the deployment of the International Peace Monitoring Team (IPMT). The team, comprised of 47 unarmed members from defence, police, and civilian agencies, was tasked with the ‘supervision of the surrender of weapons, regular inspection of the stored weapons, [and] confidence building within affected Solomon Island communities’.

Yet ultimately the IPMT was not designed to deal with the conditions it found on the ground. The parties to the conflict did not believe it was in their best interest to disarm and the IPMT did not have the mandate to enforce a peace. While the then-Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, put a positive spin on the withdrawal of the IPMT, stating ‘its departure reflects the change circumstances on the ground’, the reality was that the conditions were not ‘ripe’ for intervention, at least not by unarmed personnel.

Looking ahead

The departure of RAMSI has led to some to question whether Solomon Islands is ready to strike out alone. There have been some reports in the media that locals remain sceptical of the capability of local police. The outgoing Special Coordinator, Quinton Devlin, has emphasised that advisors will remain in country and Solomon Islands will continue to receive assistance in the form of aid. So, what warning signs should those advisors look out for?

First, they should identify which systems they, as advisors, have the capability and expertise to monitor, and determine which of those systems are the most fragile. Looking back at the historical analysis, these are likely to be internal security - based on the perceived legitimacy and capability of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force - and the economy.

Efforts should then be focused on identifying likely threshold indicators and how the stresses that are likely to have caused them can be addressed. This will allow action plans to be developed and put in place before a system reaches crisis point.

Finally, to ensure resources are available to react to any system shocks, the delivery of financial aid needs to be flexible, allowing money and resources to be switched to support systems under pressure, even if that was not the original planned destination. To allow this to happen, advisors should use the same framework and monitor a consolidated list of threshold indicators. They should meet regularly to discuss the state of the systems they are monitoring to avoid stove piped attitudes developing.

There is much that those who have served in RAMSI should be proud of: it stabilised a nation and gave the people hope. Ultimately, though, the legacy of RAMSI will not be measured by what was achieved over the last 14 years, but by what happens in the future. This model may assist in pre-empting risks to that future.

RAAF’s decision on Syria raises more questions than it answers

Yesterday the Australian government announced the RAAF is temporarily ceasing operations over Syria. Although a Defence spokesman told the ABC that ‘force protection was regularly reviewed’, it is hard not to conclude the move was a response to the US downing of a Syrian jet and the subsequent threat by Russia to track any aircraft west of the Euphrates River with surface-to-air missile systems.

At first glance, this seems to be a sensible approach by Australia. Why risk an aircraft being shot down over Syria in an operation that is not fighting a direct threat to Australia? The material and human costs, in the form of the loss of a multimillion-dollar aircraft and, more importantly, in terms of the aircrew’s lives, do not seem to be worth the payoff of dropping a couple of bombs on ISIS positions.

However, beneath this pragmatism lies a deeper, more important set of questions for Australia. These questions are interwoven, yet can be considered as three parts – material, moral and philosophical –  of a larger question: how does Australia seek to utilise lethal force to further its national objectives?

The first part of the question relates to the material cost of achieving national objectives. The RAAF air-to-ground capability in the Middle East is provided by the six F/A 18-F Super Hornets of the Air Task Group (ATG). The RAAF purchased 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets as an interim capability due to delays in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter program, at an assessed cost of more than $6 billion, or about $250 million per aircraft (not including operating costs since). The last report by the Australian National Audit Office into the cost of training aircrew was conducted in 2004, prior to the purchase of the Super Hornets, and estimated it cost $15.2 million to train a combat pilot. That cost will no doubt have gone up since then, and there is also the cost of training the Air Combat Officer who sits in the rear of the Super Hornet. Conservatively speaking, it is reasonable to assess the cost of a Super Hornet and crew over Syria is therefore in excess of $270 million.

So, from a purely financial point of view it is a risk putting that aircraft and crew into a contested airspace. Yet, this in itself is a paradox, for while it would be a fiscal loss if an RAAF aircraft was shot down over Syria, it begs the question as to whether Australia has spent $270 million per platform on a fighter aircraft unable to operate in a modern threat environment.

Ten years ago, when then-Defence Minister Brendan Nelson announced the purchase of the Super Hornets, Peter Criss, former Air Commander Australia, said: 'This thing will not survive in a fight now in our region - now, right now. Not another five years down the track, 10 years down the track. It is a dog'.  It would seem at face value that Criss may have been right. If he was wrong, and the Super Hornet is fit for role, then the Russian statement should not be a cause for ceasing operations.

The second part of the question is the moral question: that of putting our aircrew into harm’s way for a threat which is not existential. This is a particularly difficult dilemma. For over a decade Australian Army soldiers were asked to patrol areas in Afghanistan that were high threat: 40 were killed in action and another 262 wounded. Australia currently has Special Forces soldiers advising Iraqi forces battling to recapture Mosul. Over the same period Royal Australian Navy personnel have risked their lives in treacherous conditions to rescue boat people in distress. However, acceptance of mortal danger is part of the contract for all service personnel. While the bravery of RAAF aircrew who fly operations over Iraq and Syria (fully aware of their likely fate should they be forced to eject over ISIS territory) should not be underestimated, the risks they face should also not, in and of itself, be a cause for ceasing operations.

Which leads us to the final of the three questions: the philosophical question. Why has Australia put its air force personnel in harm’s way in Syria? What are the endstates it hopes to achieve in this campaign? Three objectives are commonly stated. First is the defeat of ISIS. It is true that air power assists with this. However, airpower is only part of the solution: a combat enabler. This has been clearly shown in Mosul where air power has been critical but not decisive. The defeat of ISIS will be only be achieved through ground forces, which is why the Iraqi Security Forces have begun a dismounted assault on Old Mosul this week.

This brings us to the second objective of the ATG – supporting ground forces. In the past, the ATG has, as part of the coalition, conducted close air support of allied fighters on the ground. News reports indicate those fighters are still battling ISIS on the ground. Therefore, they presumably still require close air support. A withdrawal from supporting partnered troops on the ground probably means the US Air Force will have to pick up the extra tasks. Which leads us neatly into the third, geo-strategic, objective: supporting the US alliance.

Many have argued the only reason we are really in Syria is because our national security strategy is based on the US underwriting our sovereignty through the ANZUS alliance. Supporting the US in the Middle East is, in effect, an insurance premium. I have more than a little sympathy for this argument. But, US media is already reporting Australia has suspended operations over Syria. If our support for the US in Syria is part of our national security strategy, why back out now?

Military force has no intrinsic value unless accompanied by the political will to apply it. The announcement yesterday implies that Australia has decided it no longer has the political will to apply air power in the fight against ISIS in Syria. This is puzzling, particularly as, in a final twist, it turns out that the RAAF has not conducted any sorties over Syria since February in any case. This makes it all the more baffling as to why the announcement was made in the first place.

Understanding resilience and fragility in the South Pacific

This post is part of the Lowy Institute's South Pacific Fragile States series.

After the US withdrawal from both the Paris Accord and Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Pacific Islands region is looking for reassurance from Australia and the US. The recent AUSMIN summit did produce a joint statement reaffirming US and Australian commitment to the region, but the South Pacific will need more.

Many nations across the region are subject to geostrategic, domestic and non-traditional drivers of instability that load stress onto national and local systems, sometimes to crisis point. The question for Australia and the US is how to work best with partners in the region to increase their resilience to these stresses.

Why resilience?

As Jenny Hayward-Jones recently commented, ‘resilience’ has been a buzzword in the development community for a while now. Hayward-Jones highlights the incredible resilience already inherent in South Pacific communities, often forced to cope with natural disasters independent of government support and she rightly points out history has shown the people of the South Pacific to be fantastically resilient. Indeed, they have much to teach Australians on the subject.

However, Australia does not often deal directly with the people of other sovereign nations. International partners must deal with local governments. This is especially the case when considering issues of security. As such, it is important to understand the systems that allow Pacific states to function. I want to propose a model for examining resilience and fragility within these systems that can guide security-focused policymakers.

A systems approach to resilience and fragility

A nation-state is an excellent example of a complex adaptive system, in that it consists of many diverse and autonomous components that are interdependent in ways that make it hard to predict the outcomes of altering any one part of the system. As you can see in the resilience framework model below, each system, which incorporates subordinate sub-systems, can tolerate a certain amount of stress or shock but, if too much pressure is applied, the system will reach a threshold. At this point it will fail and the system will go into crisis.

Usually, unless it is a truly black swan event, there will be a number of threshold indicators that, if picked up, will denote an increased likelihood of system failure. Once these are recognised, policy makers can be alerted to the probable impact of that system failing. They can also get timely and sound guidance as to the risks of allowing that system to fail, as well as the costs and risks associated with pre-emptive or post-crisis intervention.

Assessing intervention and risk tolerance

It is important to highlight at this point that, should Australia choose to intervene, it can do so at any point along the line; it does not have to wait until there is a crisis. Any intervention, be it pre-emptive or post-crisis, will have one of two aims: it will either seek to reduce the stresses on the system so that they no longer overwhelm the system, in effect returning the conditions to pre-crisis levels, or it will attempt to make the system more resilient. Preferably, any intervention should aim to increase system resilience, even if addressing the causes of a crisis. In the long run, it is increased resilience that will allow a nation to cope more effectively with future shocks and stresses.

The timing of any intervention is important for two reasons. Firstly, and critical for policy makers, is the cost differential between pre-emptive and restorative intervention. A good example is the cost of Britain’s intervention in the Balkans. The then-Foreign Secretary of the UK, Jack Straw, highlighted in a speech in 2002 that intervention in Bosnia, which only occurred after multiple systems had passed their thresholds and the nation had failed to function as a state, cost the British taxpayer at least £1.5 billion. In comparison, the intervention in Kosovo, which occurred at the point of crisis, cost £200 million while the pre-emptive intervention in Macedonia, which occurred when threshold indicators suggested systems were approaching crisis, cost just £14 million.

Second, it must be noted that the risks, and costs, of both intervention and declining to intervene are not just financial. The risk descriptors outlined below are an attempt to articulate the impact of that risk to the Australian government across five categories: national reputation; political capital; human capital; financial cost; and environmental impact.

The other important aspect of timing is detecting when the environment is ‘ripe’ for intervention. The theory of conflict ripeness suggests parties to conflict only resolve their issues when they are ready to do so, usually when other options that would give them a more favourable outcome have been exhausted. In other words, this is the art of identifying and seizing the point where a stalemate is reached and parties are willing to accept an intervention. This is very much a qualitative judgement, best made by experienced observers on the ground. It is also worth highlighting that if some environments are ripe for intervention, others will be ‘unripe’. Intervention in unripe environments are likely to be ill-received and may even exacerbate problems.

When confronted with decisions about resilience and fragility in the South Pacific, policy-makers can benefit from considering this model. It focuses on identification of threshold indicators, and it also articulates risk holistically. Most importantly, it forces decision-makers to compare the pre-emptive costs of intervention against the cost of restorative intervention.


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