Security Scholar suggests

Smashing through the boundaries, lunacy has found me, time to suggest more rea-ding! Welcome back to my weekly picks of informative reads, pertinent podcasts and upcoming events.

There’s currently no shortage of reporting and analysis on Afghanistan, the humanitarian challenges ahead and the future for terrorist organisations. However, strategic thinkers based in the Indo-Pacific are debating right now what the US military withdrawal heralds for American commitment to its regional alliances. For one, does “abandoning” Afghanistan lead allies to lose faith in Washington? Director of the University of Western Australia’s Defence and Security Institute (and friend), Professor Peter Dean says this is nonsense; rather, US allies, including Australia, should be reassured. To be sure, he links to numerous academic studies which demonstrate that withdrawing from one theatre does not mean a lack of resolve in the eyes of alliance partners. In light of the rapidly changing strategic balance resulting from China’s rise, he and other Australian analysts argue that commitment is better directed where the stronger interests lie. Keep reading for the view from one of the US’ most steadfast partners (NB today’s image, courtesy of Department of Defence, shows Australia soldiers training with US Marines in the Northern Territory during Exercise Koolendong 2021, the largest combined exercise in the ten-year history of Marine Rotational Force – Darwin).

Next up for today is the relatively recent publication from PRIO aka the Peace Research Institute Oslo, Conflict Trends in Asia 1989–2019 (41 pages), and data geeks, this one’s for you. As the names suggests, the report takes a longitudinal view of state and nonstate conflicts in the region and compares it to global data. Key takeaways? In 2019, there were 15 state-based conflicts in six different countries however, contrary to global trends, there were only three nonstate conflicts and a record number of ceasefires (yay, well kinda). Between 2017 and 2019, Afghanistan was the most violent place worldwide, with 30,000 conflict-related deaths. What I found useful were the graphs and infographics throughout that compared stats between Asian states but also how Asia stats measured up alongside Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and Europe. Published in 2020, the report doesn’t cover important developments such as in Myanmar so fingers crossed there’s an update in years to come. If 41 pages is too long, check out the four-page policy brief here.

From Afghanistan then Asia, it’s now time to turn to South America and, specifically, tacit agreements between state and nonstate armed actors. For a security update quickie, watch Crisis Group expert Bram Ebus discuss how Colombian guerrillas, the Venezuelan Amazon and a gold mining bonanza are linked to the increasingly violent events in Venezuela’s western border with Colombia (5mins30s).

Lastly, is empathy important to strategy? In a brief but thought-provoking blog post, military ethics professor Pauline Shanks Kaurin extends Lawrence Freedman’s assertion that “empathy matters to strategy” to the potential implications for moral injury. While her post is a few years old, her questions are no less pertinent. The part that caught my eye, in particular, was this:

But empathy, especially for an adversary, is hard and also hard work. It requires emotional and cognitive skills, critical thinking, moral imagination and a willingness to step outside of one’s own world – at least temporarily. But there is also danger. Can empathy shift into sympathy? If it does shift, can that impair one’s ability to engage in strategies and tactics against the party in question. Or even if it does not impair this in the moment, can it produce guilt and moral injury later?

The problem of child soldiers seems a clear case. I can enter into the world of the child soldier, I can imagine the difficult situation they find themselves in and see why they are fighting.  I also have children. If I target this child with lethal force, will I feel like I am targeting my own child? Will I feel guilt because in my worldview, children are not to be combatants, they are to be protected as innocent? Will I be able to kill if it is called for? How will I feel afterwards?


Stephen Biddle has a new book Nonstate Warfare: the military methods of guerrillas, warlords, and militias which I’ve just ordered (because lockdown online shopping … ). If you’re into the audio side of things, check out Biddle’s interview with John Sakellariadis for Princeton UP Ideas Podcast in which they discuss whether there are differences between state and nonstate military methods. Their chat, recorded on 13 August, a few days before the fall of Kabul, ends with some questions about the rapid advance of the Taliban (1hr 20mins).

Meanwhile, Saferworld’s Warpod episode 7 looks at special forces, private military security contractors and their impact on the changing character of conflict with two sets of guests. The first guest is Dr Samantha Crompvoets of Rapid Context and author of a report that documents allegations of abuses by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. She outlines the factors that led to those findings, the subsequent internal investigation by Defence (published as the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report, commonly known as the Brereton Report) and the need for transparency. Riffing on a theme of keeping it real, the second set of guests are Malte Riemann and Norma Rossi of the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst who grapple with the challenges of outsourcing killing to contractors, particularly by drones. They challenge the idea of “remote” warfare, highlighting both the impact on communities whose individuals have been targeted and the lesser examined impact on communities and governments who do the outsourcing (38mins).


Most recently the CIA’s Counterterrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia before retiring in 2019, Douglas London is launching his memoir, The Recruiter: Spying and the Lost Art of American Intelligence, Thursday 30 September 10am UTC -4. For Aussie and most Asian audiences, grab a coffee because it doesn’t start until Thursday 30 September 10pm UTC +8 / Friday 1 October 12am UTC +10. Hosted by the Middle East Institute by Zoom, you can register here.

This week’s instalment was brought to you with the sounds of Aussie legends Silverchair (and a sweet acoustic version at home). See you next week! —NS