Tuesday 26 May 2020 | 13:39 | SYDNEY
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About the project

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.

Latest publications

Iran deal shows that Congress is making it harder for America to manage China's rise

With the Obama Administration having secured sufficient votes in the US Senate to ensure the nuclear deal with Iran stands, the toll of this bitterly fought contest can now be taken. During what has been a particularly bruising debate even by American political standards, it was by no means clear the agreement was going to survive efforts to have Congress repudiate it. 

Secretary of State John Kerry and former Senator Richard Lugar, 2 September. (Flickr/US State Department.)

Proponents argued that the deal was the best available option for preventing Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and failure to approve it would favour Iran's nuclear and regional ambitions far more than any gaps in the agreement. Opponents argued that Iran cannot be trusted, that the deal is full of loopholes, and that Iran would translate the lifting of sanctions into greater regional power and support for terrorist groups. They portrayed the deal as a capitulation and the Obama Administration as weak on Iran. 

Israel's visceral opposition to the deal was another major factor galvanising congressional Republicans and putting pressure on a number of Democrats. Both sides were pushed to extremes in their denigration of the opposition; deal supporters were accused of inviting another Holocaust, and deal rejecters of holding common cause with anti-American Iranian hardliners

Republican opposition to a nuclear arms agreement negotiated by a Democratic president is nothing new. I witnessed this for myself when working in the office of then-US Republican Senator Richard Lugar in 2010, when he fought a grueling bipartisan battle alongside then-Senator John Kerry against fellow Senate Republicans to ratify the New START disarmament treaty with Russia. Lugar and Kerry succeeded, but only barely. 

The old adage that politics ends (or should end) at the water's edge was never completely true, but it nonetheless reflected the view of many in the political establishment that domestic politics should not significantly undermine the national interest, the international credibility of the state, or key alliances and relationships. Rejection of the Iran deal would likely have isolated the US, and left key negotiating partners high and dry, calling into question the diplomatic efficacy and good faith of the world’s superpower..

To debate in good faith what is or is not in the national interest in the domestic political arena is right and proper; to obstruct, deny and reject simply to deprive the other side a win is not. While there were important risks associated with the Iran deal that deserved to be raised, the political nature of much of the opposition is impossible to ignore. The intensity of the furor surrounding the deal, and the fact that the Administration's opponents came so close to blocking one of its key foreign policy initiatives, is cause to reflect on the extent to which partisan politics is limiting policy options in Washington — in particular, policy options that involve compromise.

As a statesman with a long history of working across the aisle on matters of foreign policy and international security, the now-former Senator Lugar is acutely familiar with the brutal reality of modern American politics. Lugar was ousted from the Senate by a Tea Party-backed Republican challenger who attacked, in part, his record of bipartisan cooperation. Almost five years after he and Kerry pushed the New START Treaty uphill through the Senate, I caught up with Lugar to ask whether he thought the political space for diplomacy in Washington has shrunk.

The Senator said he remains optimistic about the ability of the US Government to conduct rigorous foreign policy. Behind the scenes of the more controversial, media-saturated issues, Democrats and Republicans on legislative bodies such as the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (on which Lugar served as Chair and Minority Leader on many occasions) still find sufficient common ground to avoid gridlock. But on politically charged issues such as the Iran deal, Lugar lamented the increasingly obstructionist political environment in Washington as a major challenge.

All of this is concerning, because it suggests partisanship in Washington could inhibit high-stakes diplomacy at a time when the US manages one of the most important and consequential security relationships in its modern history: that with a rising and more assertive China. 

Cyber attacks, island-building in the South China Sea, disputed territories, human rights and economic spill-over from China's slowdown are all issues likely to increase political attention on America's China policies, especially leading into the 2016 presidential election. While the Iran deal has taken up a lot of the foreign policy oxygen in the primary contests to date, the candidates have already made aggressive forays on China policy, and this is likely to increase over time.

The controversy over the Iran deal raises the spectre that as key points of contention with China become the subject of politicised debate in Congress and on the campaign trail, the ability of the executive to conduct deft diplomacy in response to tensions with China will be curtailed. In particular, an environment where acts of significant diplomatic compromise, concession or accommodation are portrayed as capitulation will make it increasingly difficult for US leaders to find creative ways to solve disputes and avoid escalation with China. Already the stagnant opposition to US ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) arguably weakens US credibility and limits policy options on territorial disputes and island-building in the South China Sea.

One does not need to subscribe to an 'accommodationist' school of thought on US policy towards China to at least acknowledge that diplomatic compromise is an option that the US needs to keep open as it manages growing Chinese ambitions in the region. The concern is that is getting harder and harder to make that case in Washington.

Nuclear-armed submarines in Indo-Pacific Asia: Stabiliser or menace?

In this Report, Lowy Institute Research Associate Brendan Thomas-Noone and Nonresident Fellow Professor Rory Medcalf examine the implications of sea-based nuclear weapons for strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific.

This paper is part of a wider research and outreach project on nuclear stability in a changing Indo-Pacific Asia, supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Photo: Flickr/Royal Navy Media Archive

Afghanistan: Mullah Omar's death won't cripple the peace process

Much has been made of the recent 'shock' announcement of Mullah Omar's death over two years ago, either in Pakistan or Afghanistan depending on who you believe. In particular, the revelation has been widely interpreted as a major challenge to peace talks.

Shashank Joshi was right to point out (Mullah Omar dead? Afghanistan Peace Talks Under Threat if News is Confirmed) that, given the timely Eid endorsement of the peace talks supposedly from Mullah Omar (or more likely, from those in the Taliban leadership controlling the messaging from the apparently already-dead leader), the leaking of his death may well have been a direct challenge to the proponents of peace. Forcibly destroying the myth that the reclusive leader of the movement was still alive, in command and in support of the peace talks could be seen as an attempt to stop those talks in their tracks.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. (Flickr/USIP.)

If the admission of Mullah Omar's death sparks an internal power struggle to replace him, talks will probably stall in the short term. Given reporting on Mullah Omar's former deputy Akhtar Mansour's power play for the top job, the subsequent announcement of insurgent leader Jalaluddin Haqqani's death, Tayeb Agha's resignation as head of the Taliban Political Office in Doha, and the walk-out and even possible (unconfirmed) murder of Omar's son and leadership challenger Yaqoob, the leadership drama is already starting to play out like an episode of Game of Thrones.

As I argued in my last analysis of the prospects for peace, however, we must resist the temptation to interpret every setback as a cause to write the obituary of the peace process.

The announcement of Mullah Omar's death and its possible consequences present a potential spoiler in the peace process, and it will be instructive to see how both President Ghani and the pro-peace elements in the Taliban manage the first of many possible spoilers on the road to peace. But the truth about Mullah Omar needed to come out, and it's probably a good thing that it happened now rather than later.

As I told Danielle Moylan in her insightful article for the ABC on the implications of Mullah Omar's death for Afghanistan, his absence would have been a constant elephant in the room during talks with the Afghan Government. For the Taliban to publicly negotiate under the authority of a dead man would have been an act of diplomatic bad faith, and played extremely negatively both to the Taliban rank-and-file as well as the Afghan public who will eventually be asked to accept any peace deal.

If we assume the announcement was correct and that Mullah Omar in fact died years ago, as the Kabul rumour mill has long conjectured, then it was a matter of 'when' rather than 'if' his death was revealed. Although the announcement will probably stall talks for now, it was better to have gotten this out of the way early, before talks progressed and the foundation of a negotiated agreement was hammered out. Announcing his death later in the piece would have likely been far more disruptive, potentially calling into question what had already been negotiated and sending the peace process back to square one.

Getting the admission of his death out of the way now allows the leadership issue in the Taliban to be resolved before talks are too far developed and for a more sustainable basis of legitimacy for peace to be consolidated within the movement. If Mansour retains the leadership, reports that he generally supports the idea of engaging in peace talks are positive. There is debate about the extent to which he and other moderate elements in the Taliban genuinely support peace or whether they have been strong-armed by Pakistan. But the West has been urging Pakistan for years to exert pressure on the Taliban to come to the table, and if it finally has, then that is a good thing.

While the leadership battle could cause a split that fragments the Taliban along pro and anti-peace lines, this may have been an inevitable consequence of pushing ahead with peace talks in any case. There were always going to be irreconcilable elements of the Taliban that would not accept peace. Disgruntled defectors may well raise the black flag of ISIS as they have previously, and the possibility of greater numbers flocking to ISIS is cause for concern. But for now, ISIS is not a strategic threat in Afghanistan, nor is it clear that it will become one.

What remains to be seen is whether Mansour (or whoever takes over the leadership) has the inclination to continue to engage in the peace process, and the charisma, influence and leadership to bring enough rank-and-file fighters with him to make a peace deal meaningful. While uncertainty continues to characterise the road ahead, the possibility of a negotiated settlement to this conflict remains real.

Peace talks in Afghanistan: The case for optimism

There were reports last week that the Afghan Government has officially met with the Taliban for the first time in years in Islamabad to discuss the beginning of formal peace talks – talks which could start as soon as the end of Ramadan later this week. This follows a series of unofficial meetings held throughout the first half of the year between a variety of Afghan officials, High Peace Council members, and other stakeholders (including prominent women) with Taliban representatives in China, Norway and Qatar.

This could mark a turning point in the long, haphazard peace process in Afghanistan, although there have been false starts before; most notably, the collapse of the Taliban office in Doha in 2013.

There will be understandable scepticism about this latest tilt at peace. Reports of the meeting in Islamabad were accompanied by news of another car bombing of a NATO convoy in Kabul. While its representatives attend meetings, the Taliban presses ahead with its campaign against the Afghan National Security Forces, making advances throughout the provinces and conducting terrorist attacks against major targets, including the Afghan parliament in late June. Commentators instinctively question how the Taliban could be serious about peace while at the same time attacking the national legislature.

Certainly it remains unclear how much of the senior leadership or the rank-and-file of the Taliban support a peace deal. But it is wrong to equate continued attacks with a failure of the peace process. The Taliban will want to negotiate from the strongest possible position, and that means pressing ahead with its military campaign. Just as we would expect the Government to continue its counter-insurgency and military operations in the absence of any agreement, it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise from the Taliban.

Additionally, elements within the Taliban opposed to negotiating a settlement may try to derail talks through provocative acts of violence. Indeed, questioning the validity of the peace process every time there is a major attack could empower the hardliners.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said emphatically that the Afghan Government is ready to talk peace, and there are good reasons to believe that the Taliban (or at least elements within its leadership) also feels the time is right to cash in its chips and make a deal.

Ghani's outreach to Pakistan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and China to build regional support for the peace process has increased diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to engage. A thawing of relations between Kabul and Islamabad in particular, and a shift in mood in Pakistan about its relationship with the Afghan Taliban following the Peshawar school massacre, may have raised concerns among the Taliban leadership about overstaying their welcome in Pakistan.

With the group's finances strained and fighters weary of the long war, the Taliban's military capability is unlikely to improve in future fighting seasons. Despite its strong showing in the 2015 fighting season, the Taliban cannot hold territory for long periods and it is unlikely to win an outright military victory in the foreseeable future. The Taliban's success this year may be an opportunity for it to negotiate from a position of strength.

A spate of defections to ISIS in the last 12 months may also increase the pressure to make a deal before the Taliban loses more numbers to this new competitor in Afghanistan. Contributing to this concern would have been Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's recent announcement that Hezb-e-Islami will now fight for ISIS against the Taliban, raising the spectre that ISIS could grow to become a serious military threat to the Taliban.

Taliban engagement this year is a cause for optimism. The most recent informal meeting hosted by Pugwash in Qatar produced a statement indicating the Taliban may be willing to consider compromising on its traditional red-line issues of women's rights and education, modifications to the Afghan constitution, and the departure of foreign troops. Its willingness to meet publicly on so many occasions is itself a positive change.

If the Islamabad meeting does lead to peace talks, it marks the beginning of a long and difficult process rather than the end of one. In the meantime, we can expect more violence, breakdowns and resumptions of talks, and mixed messages from within the Taliban as competing factions jostle for power and airtime. Forbearance from all sides, including Western coalition partners sceptical after years of disappointments, will be needed if the peace process is to stand a chance.

Photo by Flickr user Ash Carter.