About Natalie Sambhi

Natalie Sambhi is co-editor of Security Scholar. She is also Founder and Executive Director of Verve Research, an independent research collective focussed on the relationship between militaries and societies in Southeast Asia.

Security Scholar suggests

If you’re got time on your hands before the new Matrix film drops, I’ve got some reading, listening and viewing picks for you.

Military coup of the month: Earlier this week Guinea’s special forces booted out President Alpha Condé and suspended the constitution, begging the question, who’s the alpha now?* But did you know that half of coups fail? To understand why, check out Naunihal Singh’s book Seizing Power: the strategic logic of military coups which finds that the dynamics of military factions are a major determinant of coup success. If you can’t get your hands on a copy, check out this NYT article “What Makes a Coup Succeed? Confidence, Consensus and a Sense of Inevitability” which weaves in Singh’s work. (*full credit to El Diablo for this line.)

Still on Guinea, some of you might have noticed China’s Foreign Ministry issued an uncharacteristically strong statement about the country’s domestic politics, condé-mning the coup and calling for the president’s immediate release. If I were spending big money on bauxite (do I need to tell you what you can do with an aluminium tube?) from the world’s largest supplier, I’d be a bit uptight too. Over at Foreign Policy, Charles Dunst looks at why else Beijing hit pause on its noninterference policy with Guinea

China’s security influence in Africa: While China’s mining and economic interests on the African continent are well known, we don’t discuss Beijing’s influence on military and security affairs there nearly as much. Two suggestions to get you up to speed: first is a short Monkey Cage post by Natalie Herbert on how the Belt and Road Initiative motivates African countries to increase Chinese security engagement. Cooperation often takes the form of intelligence exchanges and police and military training, with security elements often “bundled” into BRI economic agreements.

Second is Dries Velthuizen’s short article on why China can address weaknesses in Africa’s peace and security. Velthuizen proposes that China enhance the African Union’s intervention capacity using lessons learned from the PLA, including the implementation of non-combatant approaches such as poverty alleviation programs. He also argues that China’s economic model be used as a blueprint for development. Read more about his research here (13 pages).

Thailand, between two ferns: over on The Strategist, Jittipat Poonkham smacks down outdated views of Thai foreign policy as bamboo bending with the wind. As Bangkok engages more militarily with Beijing, there has been a decline in alignment with its ally Washington. Hammering that point home, “Thailand has participated in more combined military exercises with China than any other Southeast Asian country.” Super informative is Poonhkham’s assessment of the material shifts in Thailand’s strategic relations with the US and with China, and worth pondering is his proposal for a new Thai narrative of “leading-from-the-middle”. 

Taliban and Jemaah Islamiyah: Next up, the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC) dropped new knowledge last week on the impact of the Taliban’s victory on Indonesia’s JI (20 pages). The quick take? “In the short-term, JI does not pose a significant threat [but] No one should rule it out”, says IPAC director Sana Jaffrey, and for now “the pro-ISIS groups remain the ones to watch.” There are some bits at the end on the Taliban but really the report is one useful update of JI’s goals and strategy, structure, cash flows, views on women and military capacity. 

Uncle Leo: Lastly, today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of mujahideen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud known as the Lion of Panjshir, killed in 2001 by al-Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists. If you ever wanted to know more about him, you might want to start with writer and investigative journalist Tam Hussein’s Twitter thread packed with articles, photos, quotes and interviews offering some glimpses into Massoud’s extraordinarily rich and complex life. The late Saudi journalist Jamal Khasoggi, who met Massoud in 1992, said “I fell in love with him like everyone else…he was truly an astonishing guy. I wish that Osama met Massoud…it could have changed history.” For balance, Hussein includes critiques of the guerrilla fighter, highlights his tainted legacy, and how his son Ahmad Massoud is leaning on a romanticised image of his father to shore up support for the resistance. 

Podcasts: Yup, this week’s Suggests came with a big serve of coup d’état, so why stop now? From the 2019 files, CSIS’ Into Africa host Judd Devermont interviews Naunihal Singh (Naval War College), Max Siollun (Nigerian historian and author), and Alexis Arieff (Congressional Research Service) on intra-military dynamics and coups play out in sub-Saharan Africa (35mins). Then, recorded back in 2017, Naunihal Singh and Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes dig into Zimbabwe’s case and military coups in general (37mins). 

Events: Go shorty, it’s your birthday! With the Philippines–US Mutual Defense Treaty turning 70 in 2021, watch Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Lindsey Ford discuss the history, the present and the future of the alliance. Hosted by Pacific Forum via Zoom on Wednesday 22 September 9.30pm UTC -4 (DC folks) / Thursday 23 September 9.30am UTC +8 (my peeps in Perth, Singapore and KL), register here

This week’s tune is courtesy of 50 Cent, dedicated to D-Lor and L-For. Image courtesy of Flickr user Halil Gokdal. See you next week! —NS

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?

Podcasts

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).

Events

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

Security Scholar suggests

Hey readers, it’s been a long time, I know I shouldn’t left you without a dope beat to step to … but truly, this blog isn’t dead, it’s just been dormant while I’ve attended to other things. So today I thought I’d revisit my Security Scholar roots with some recommended reading on this week’s international security focal point, Afghanistan.

These reports are but a few of what’s being churned out right now. They’ve made the cut because they delve into deeper issues about the country’s future under the Taliban:

Kristian Berg Harpviken, “The Foreign Policy of the Taliban”, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Aug 2021, 3 pages https://www.prio.org/Publications/Publication/?x=12644

Benjamin Jensen, “How the Taliban did it: Inside the ‘operational art’ of its military victory”, Atlantic Council, 15 Aug 2021 https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/how-the-taliban-did-it-inside-the-operational-art-of-its-military-victory/

Borhan Osman, “Bourgeois Jihad: Why Young, Middle-Class Afghans Join the Islamic State”, United States Institute of Peace, Jun 2020, https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/06/bourgeois-jihad-why-young-middle-class-afghans-join-islamic-state

Thomas Ruttig, “Have the Taliban Changed?”, CTC Sentinel, Jun 2021, https://ctc.usma.edu/have-the-taliban-changed/ (Ruttig is co-director of Afghanistan Analysts’ Network which was based in Kabul.)

Martine van Bijlert on emerging Taliban strategy and Afghan political elite allegiances, Afghanistan Analysts’ Network, 19 Aug 2021, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/war-and-peace/the-taleban-leadership-converges-on-kabul-as-the-remnants-of-the-republic-try-to-reposition-themselves/

Today’s image also reflects the end of the ADF’s mission to evacuate Australians and visa holders out of Kabul, as announced by the Defence Minister and reported this morning. Image source: Department of Defence

A glimpse inside Indonesia’s Bela Negara ‘defend the nation’ program

Talk about Indonesia’s Bela Negara program began a little while ago. The concept of the citizenry defending the nation isn’t new, though it is now being introduced systematically through training centres administered by the Ministry of Defense. The overarching goal of the program is to instil nationalistic values, underpinned by the Pancasila ideology, in the hopes that social stability will withstand threats in the form of extremism, drug abuse, communism and even homosexuality. In February, Minister for Defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu labelled the LGBT movement as a form of proxy war.

The idea of proxy war—that enemies could exist anywhere at anytime, ready to bring down the Indonesian state—situates the military at the forefront of defending the nation. Through the Bela Negara program, military elites such as Ryamizard and TNI chief General Nurmantyo can legitimise their pronouncements of threats against Indonesia.

Reuters was given a glimpse into training held in West Java (Reuters Photo/Darren Whiteside):

The Wider Image: Defending the nation against perceived threats

For the full photo essay, see here.

Read the full story by Reuters’ Eveline Danubrata and Johan Purnomo here.

The cost of Indonesia’s C-130s

As the death toll rises from yesterday’s terrible crash of an Indonesian Air Force C-130B Hercules, two sets of questions emerge: the first concerns the number and type of passengers on board, and second, the state of Indonesia’s ageing fleet. Today on Twitter, Evan Laksmana made some salient observations:

According to TNI-AU chief Air Marshal Agus Supriatna, the plane was authorised only to carry military personnel and their family members; a common practice for remote postings. Associated Press has reported that 32 passengers on board the C-130 were not designated either category. Family members of some of the victims reveal some passengers were willing to pay for their seats on the C-130 rather than board a commercial aircraft because it was cheaper. Supriatna has said he would fire any officer involved in commercialisation of the flight. If that’s the case, I have some more questions: how often are these practices occurring? Are the aircraft being used to transport other goods? Was this more rent-seeking behaviour from TNI officers, and why?

Other questions have been raised about the air worthiness of the Hercules. President Jokowi has called for an investigation into the cause of the accident, as well as a ‘fundamental restructuring’ of TNI’s capability management and procurement.

TNI must legitimately review its capability development cycle. But some politicians and lawmakers in Indonesia are quick to reduce the matter to developing indigenous capability over acquiring secondhand platforms like the C-130. For instance, when an F-16 jet caught fire at a military parade for the President in April, Supriatna declared that Indonesia shouldn’t have bought used jets, arguing the money would have been better spent on new ones. But Prashanth Parameswaran explains, it’s not a simple dichotomy; the decision at the time to buy older yet upgraded aircraft was a reflection of complex considerations.

If the aircraft are upgraded and in good working condition when they are handed over, what systems does Indonesia have in place to maintain and sustain them? When Australia agreed to sell Indonesia used C-130Hs in 2012, the MoU clearly stated that Indonesia would be responsible for refurbishment and maintenance costs.

I haven’t seen a report yet for the F-16 that caught fire in April and the results of the C-130 investigation won’t be available for some time. But, until it acquires newer platforms or builds its own, Indonesia will need its current fleet of used C-130s for HADR operations and to move troops around. Hopefully the good from this disaster is another push for TNI to be transparent in how it maintains its airframes and how its officers are using them.

Indonesia’s next military chief: Mr Proxy Wars?

General Moeldoko’s time as TNI’s head honcho is coming soon to an end. His term ends in July when he and his bapak rings will be up for retirement. Despite the looming deadline, Jokowi has not yet identified Moeldoko’s successor. Traditionally, the role has rotated through the services (since, 1999 anyway) with four-star generals eligible for the job. That should mean current Air Force Chief of Staff Agus Supriatna will become “Panglima”.

However, as Prashanth Parameswaran points out, it’s far from clear that’ll be the case.

There have been public murmurings, including most recently from VP Jusuf Kalla, that the rotational approach isn’t set in stone. For his part, Jokowi hasn’t indicated either whether he’ll follow tradition or go his own way.

The reasons for playing down Supriatna’s chances are not immediately clear (and happy to hear what others suggest), but let’s consider one of the options should Jokowi go with someone else. Remember, “Mr Proxy Wars” aka Army Chief of Staff General Gatot Nurmantyo? Back in March, he stated efforts to cede Timor-Leste from Indonesia were actually a proxy war for Australia to secure an oil field in the Timor Gap (a point I’ll return to another time). In the same talk to university students, he said Indonesia’s drug problem among the youth was part of a proxy war aimed to weaken them.

That’s the not first time he’s made such statements, and to be fair, they might not amount to much should he take over from Moeldoko. That said, at a time when there appears to be a renewed sense of nationalism in Indonesia, statements made by a Panglima that victimise Indonesia risk fanning nationalist flames. Moeldoko penned strident statements in the Wall Street Journal about the legality of China’s claims in the South China Sea, contrary to statements made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Another vocal Panglima could widen the rhetorical divide between Indonesia’s military and diplomatic arms on key security issues.

As Evan Laksmana and Jim Della Giacoma rightfully note, the military—and army in particular—is searching for relevance. It could be that Nurmantyo’s comments are part of this trend. Yet at a time when Jokowi’s vision for Indonesia as a “global maritime fulcrum” depends on a stronger maritime force (being navy, coast guard and air force driven), there’s little apparent logic in appointing back-to-back Army chiefs.

Despite the need to rebuild the Navy and Air Force under the Minimum Essential Force plan, the Army has been given a boost in recent years. During SBY’s presidency, the Army has incrementally ramped up duties to include larger and more frequent peacekeeping operations, counterterrorism functions and, with a slew of MoUs since Jokowi’s presidency, civic affairs. These civic functions range from rice distribution to countering violent extremism activities and disrupting human trafficking networks. Some remote and insecure parts of Indonesia do need to rely on Army logistics for distribution of food and presence for security, but the Navy and Air Force need more championing if they’re to protect Indonesia’s maritime domain.

Naturally it’s hard to know exactly how a Panglima will perform just by looking at his track record. In any case, come late July, part of that mystery will be solved.

Indonesia security links and other interesting stuff

It’s been a long time since the last post but I’m still blogging! For today, I’ve rounded up a few links of interest to Security Scholar readers.

First, this week I wrote about what a Jokowi presidency in Indonesia might mean for the country’s strategic outlook and defence relations with Australia. It’s not something many have touched on yet, and I’m keen to discuss this further (comments welcome). My bottom line is that there won’t likely be much change as Jokowi will inherit much of the strategic environment and many of the defence policies of his predecessor. We’ll have to see who his foreign, defence and coordinating ministers will be to get a better sense of how Indonesia’s current policies will evolve. In terms of Indonesia’s military modernisation:

TNI’s modernisation program aims to develop a ‘Minimum Essential Force’ (MEF) by 2024 which entails major upgrades of naval, land and air capabilities as well as the development of a local defence industry. While many of those developments were driven by SBY, some have made their way into legislation, which a new president might find hard to alter. Indonesia also has a number of capability development projects and acquisition deals on the go with partner countries. Defence officials recently announced that the first batch of F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets as part of a US grant are due to arrive in country in October.

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Tuesday’s Indonesia defence and military links: ‘not a good day’ edition

Yup, to paraphrase Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, it hasn’t been a good few days in the Australia–Indonesia relationship. The story de jour, of course, has continued to be allegations that Australian authorities have been tapping the phones of Indonesian President and his close circle. At the time of writing, the Australian PM has rejected calls to apologise while Indonesia’s Ambassador to Australia is on his way back to Jakarta.

But it’s important to remember that even through diplomatic lulls, the relationship continues to function. For one, TNI-AU and RAAF began their biennial exercise Elang AusIndo in Darwin today. The bilateral exercise focuses on airborne interception and involves eight Australian FA-18s, six Indonesian F-16s and 200 personnel from both sides. For images of past iterations of Elang AusIndo, check out Defence’s image gallery here (2009) and here (2011) or The Base Leg blog (2011). Continue reading

A wrap-up of Indonesia and allegations of Australian spying

Instead of the usual Indonesia defence and military links, I wrapped up recent developments and commentary on allegations of Australian spying on Indonesia over on The Strategist (original version available here):

Last week, the furore over spying allegations revealed in reports leaked by Edward Snowden that rocked Europe reached Australia. On Thursday 31 October, Fairfax papers reported that Australia had been spying on its neighbour from its Jakarta Embassy. Continue reading

Indonesia defence news and military links

koko

Welcome back to the working week!

Last week, my colleague Benjamin Schreer argued that Indonesia will side with the US, despite its (long-standing) non-alignment policy. I have a different view: I think it’s too early to tell, unless something dramatically changes in the strategic environment that causes a fundamental rethink in Jakarta. Relations with China are far more complicated than Ben describes (and in fairness, can describe in a blog post). In particular, I don’t see Indonesia’s bilateral relations with China and the US as zero sum as Ben suggests here:

However, should China continue to push the strategic envelope in Southeast Asia, it’s very likely that Indonesia will not only push back but will also increase its strategic cooperation with the US.

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