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: music and memories of war

Everyone carries a room about inside them. —Franz Kafka

With the passing this week of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, I started thinking about the ways we look back on the war in Iraq. In 2005, when asked about his memories of his ill-fated UN speech justifying an invasion, Powell described them as “painful”. Indeed, everyone carries a room about inside them. For something different this week, I’d like to suggest exploring Iraq and war through the memories not just of military men but of musicians.

My first pick is British composer Max Richter whose music you might have heard featured on movie soundtracks such as Waltz with Bashir, Prometheus and Arrival. Richter wrote The Blue Notebooks (2004) in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War as a “protest album”, inspired by the idea of music “as a place to think.” Of note, the album’s “On the Nature of Daylight” (featured above and linked here) is a 7-minute sea of melancholy harmony and stately beauty. Richter has said he thinks of the piece as “a meditation on violence and its repercussions.”

In 2016, when the British public enquiry into the war was finally published (we know it as the Chilcot Review), Richter penned a Guardian op-ed. In it, he reflects on the demonstrations against the invasion, the war’s aftermath and what he sees as Tony Blair’s continuing evasion of responsibility. For Richter, Blair’s actions continue to “insult the memory of those hundreds of thousands whose lives were taken.” Looking back on the 13 years between the article and his composition of The Blue Notebooks, he says:

When I perform The Blue Notebooks now, it seems at once familiar and strange. Time has passed; I am a different person but the events of 2003 and their aftermath still resonate daily. All of us were changed during that political moment, but I remain convinced that human creativity can influence the world, or at the very least our perception of it, in some small way.

The second suggestion is the Iraqi singer Kadim Al Sahir, one of the country’s biggest acts and famed throughout the Arab world, whose 2006 song “Baghdad Tata la elami” (“Baghdad Don’t Hurt”, above and linked here) became an “anthem of Iraqi suffering.” Even if you don’t understand Arabic, the yearning and heartbreak in Al Sahir’s voice project the anguish around him with more conviction than his lyrics ever could. A must-listen for his raw emotion, accompanied by the lush, sombre waves of Middle Eastern and Western stringed instruments.

The Iraqi singer’s devotion to his country has been long woven into his music, including in his most popular songs. In “Beauty and His Love” Al Sahir confesses to his girlfriend of someone he loves more than her, someone who fills his dreams: Baghdad. In February 2003, he toured the US to ”show another face of my country” and inspire Americans to ”think good thoughts—not all bad thoughts—of my people.” While he no longer lives in his motherland, in a 2020 interview with Vogue Man, Al Sahir’s devotion to his mission remains clear:

I carried Iraq with me to the most remote corners of the world through my voice, drawing the best picture of it so people can understand that Iraq doesn’t deserve war.

Ending on a high-energy note—and crank the volume for this—my last pick is US rock band Green Day and their 2004 hit “American Idiot” (above and linked here), inspired by their disgust with cable news coverage of the Iraq War. While some of the lyrics aren’t—unlike Wu-Tang—for the children, the song is a punchy, punk-influenced, hard-hitting protest against blindly going along with media-generated paranoia. Behold, the opening lines:

Don’t wanna be an American idiot! / Don’t want a nation under the new media / And can you hear the sound of hysteria? / The subliminal mind fuck America!

Performing in an abandoned warehouse in front of an American flag in faded black, white and green whose colours start to run halfway through the clip, the trio get drenched in fluoro green liquid spraying from their amplifiers. As lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong holds two fingers to his chin to simulate shooting himself, his message is clear: I’d rather be dead than believe this toxic shit.

“American Idiot” is the title track from an entire protest album of the same name which captures the angst and culture wars Green Day’s members observed in George W. Bush’s America. That said, in a 2017 Rolling Stone interview that touched on the legacies of the American Idiot album, bassist Mike Dirnt clarified:

I mean, American Idiot wasn’t fuck George Bush. That was a personal question that Billie was writing. “I don’t want to be an American Idiot.” We’re watching the fucking war take place on television for the first time in our lives and we were like, “This is bullshit.” But it was not a Bush record.

From contemplation to anguish to angst, here’s just a handful of music that the Iraq War generated. If you’ve got some music that makes you think back to, reminisce or remember that era, feel free to leave it in the comments section. Image courtesy of Flickr user The US Army. Catch you next week! —NS

Security Scholar suggests

It’s Friday! So grab a burger to go with a side of my reading, listening and watching picks below.

Myanmar’s military mindset. Kicking off today is Andrew Selth’s newly dropped tour de force report on the Tatmadaw aka Myanmar’s armed forces because, you know, there’s still a coup there. Even if you’re not focussed on Myanmar, his methodology on studying leadership is worth getting your head around and applying to China, Pakistan and other regimes. In a 45-year career spanning government and academia writing about international security and Asian affairs (including shit-tonne of books on Myanmar), Selth sheds light the country’s strategic culture and the military’s mental landscape. Breaking that landscape down into personal, institutional and national levels, he covers aspects like Buddhism, ethos, suspicions of civilians, fear of foreign interference and, super importantly, implications for interlocutors. A must-read for the civil-military, intelligence, Southeast Asian studies or strategic/military culture types. Full report here (PDF, 40 pages).

[Update] Quadrilateral thinking. Over on The Strategist, Dominic Simonelli argues why the Quad, in light of issues with ASEAN’s special envoy (sigh), could step into a greater humanitarian role in Myanmar. Work those quads!

The myth behind the might. Courtesy of El Diablo, I highly recommend this Foreign Affairs essay by Michael Beckley and Hal Brands that rigorously lays out the case for why we’ll see the end of China’s rise (yeah it’s paywalled but beg/borrow/steal). From dwindling demographics to Evergrande and economics to inert innovation, it appears Beijing’s got more than 99 problems. But puncturing myths about China’s inexorable rise isn’t cause for calm. Au contraire:

Revisionist powers tend to become most dangerous when the gap between their ambitions and their capabilities starts to look unmanageable. When a dissatisfied power’s strategic window begins to close, even a low-probability lunge for victory may seem better than a humiliating descent. When authoritarian leaders worry that geopolitical decline will destroy their political legitimacy, desperation often follows.

Target: Taiwan. If desperation sounds grim, it should. ABC journo and former CNN correspondent in Beijing, Stan Grant, follows up on Beckley and Brands, unpacking why Xi Jinping is obsessed with controlling Taiwan—”at the risk of a war that could shatter all China has built.” Also, check out his latest book With The Falling Of The Dusk (published March this year) with chapters on his firsthand experiences in China, the feelings of the Chinese people he met and his reflections on the regime and history.

Bombers and birds. For something a little different, in 1924 the BBC Radio delighted the public by broadcasting the sounds of nightingales singing alongside the cello of Beatrice Harrison (and y’all know I love the cello). In May 1942, amidst World War II the BBC was back recording the birds this time with the sounds of bombers flying overhead en route to bomb Mannheim. Read the story of how nightingales, Beatrice’s cello and war intertwined, take in the extraordinary recordings.

Battle Rhythm is a great podcast series run by two Canadian thinks, the Canadian Defence and Security Network and the Network for Strategic Analysis. Their latest episode #58 kicks off with a discussion about a reset (maaaaybe) between Ottawa and Beijing over the two Michaels and Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou. Interested in moral injury? Skip ahead to 25:20 for an interview with Stephanie Houle for her research on the Canadian Armed Forces. (49mins)

Bring da AUKUS (live). If you haven’t had enough about nuclear subs and regional order, check out this La Trobe Asia–US Embassy Canberra panel event in two weeks’ time featuring Aussie, American and Kiwi scholars. Apart from yours truly, you’ll hear from Dr Anna Powles, Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at Massey University, NZ; Assoc Prof Maria Rost Rublee, Politics and International Relations, Monash University; and Prof Peter Dean, Director, Defence and Security Institute, UWA, chaired by Dr Rebecca Strating, Executive Director, La Trobe Asia. Log on Wednesday 27 October at 2.30pm UTC+8 (Perth, Singapore etc) / 5.30pm UTC +11 (Sydney, Canberra etc). Register here.

And, to end on a lighter note, check out the The Juice Media poking fun at Scotty from Marketing with this “Honest Government Ad” on AUKUS. Image courtesy of Flickr user Marc Veraart. See y’all next week! —NS 

Security Scholar suggests: three military memoirs

Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. —Saul Bellow

This week’s instalment is a little less sassy and a bit more sober in subject matter. It’s a quick round-up of three military memoirs I’ve recently read. As Bellow’s quote suggests, a memoir is more than just a record of certain events in your life. Memoirs help create meaning out of the past in service of the present. They are a selection of memories, strung together to tell a story. Every memoirist dances between candour and concealment. The very act of writing a memoir, in some cases, is a therapeutic catharsis.

So with that in my mind, the first book for today can be described as devastatingly honest. Exit Wounds (2013) a no-holds-barred look into the life of Australian Army officer, Major General (rtd) John Cantwell. Cantwell lays out how he dealt with his demons (or, at times, not) from his time in Gulf War 1 and how trauma took its toll after gruelling deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Read it for a senior officer’s perspective on war and PTSD, especially one who grew up before mental wellbeing formed a greater part of our public conversation. My winter morning companion, I couldn’t put it down. If you prefer listening to things, check out Life On The Line’s two-part interview with Cantwell here (part 1) and here (part 2).

Next up is Survivor: life in the SAS (2021) by Mark Wales, which chronicles his dream to join Australia’s special forces, multiple deployments and struggles in dealing with moral drift. Written in no-bullshit language, it’s another exceptionally candid story of highs and lows. Read it for special forces officer’s view on how he navigated life after the SAS and how, after finding the courage to try new and daring things, he found light at the end of the tunnel. Wales’ comeback at Wharton was some much-needed inspo for the week. Life On The Line also nabbed him for a two-part interview here (part 1) and here (part 2).

The last one is a wild card, so bear with me: it’s an important memoir written by the man who literally opened and closed the gate on Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor* and a review essay of his book. While many accounts about the Indonesian military’s time in East Timor speak of the human rights violations (and rightly so), Lieutenant General (rtd) Kiki Syahnakri’s memoir Timor Timur: the untold story (2013) is an Indonesian perspective that not just defends the TNI’s actions in the province but criticises them as well. Yes it’s in Indonesian, so I strongly suggest reading Bob Lowry’s 11-page review essay on Kiki’s book (PDF), published in the Australian Army Journal. Having served as Army Attaché in Jakarta, Lowry is a fount of knowledge on the TNI (the man wrote a book on them) so he adds considerable depth to Kiki’s reflections and much-needed context to how Indonesia experienced that era. A must-read for Australian strategic and military thinkers (and super helpful to my thesis).

*As background, Kiki was posted as a junior officer on the border between East and West Timor in 1975, opening the border to Timorese fleeing to the west. Some 24 years later, as Commander-in-Chief of Martial Law in East Timor, he handed over authority for the province to then-Major General (rtd) Peter Cosgrove who headed up INTERFET after a referendum in August 1999 rejected Indonesian rule.

Fitting in with this week’s theme (one to ponder), the music is brought to you by Avenged Sevenfold, suggested by El Diablo. Image courtesy of Department of Defence. See you next week! —NS

Security Scholar suggests: AUKUS and Southeast Asia edition (updated)

[Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore sections updated Wednesday 29 September] Welcome back! With AUKUS dominating the news, I took a small break from Suggests to write for The Strategist (more on that below). Today’s a small hit of Southeast Asian views on Australia’s nuclear-powered submarines and the new security pact announced on 15 September as well as some interesting things to sink your reading teeth into.

Check yo’self. Officially Indonesia is viewing the submarine decision “cautiously” and was “deeply concerned over the continuing arms race and power projection in the region”. There is, of course, more than one view in Jakarta so also check out this excellent thread by friend and colleague Evan Laksmana who raised important questions from an Indonesian strategic perspective and rounded up all op-eds and statements by former foreign ministers, retired military and major media outlets (updated to include op-eds by senior Foreign Ministry official and Jakarta Post senior editor). My latest Strategist article also picks up the theme of Indonesia’s potential concerns. As an insightful counterpoint to Jakarta’s official caution, over on Foreign Policy friend and fellow SDSC PhD scholar Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto had some wise words about AUKUS’ utility to ASEAN:

Australia’s experience can offer lessons for ASEAN countries. Instead of counting the costs of opposition to Beijing, ASEAN leaders should ponder their affordability. ASEAN countries need to reflect on how much independence they have lost or are losing while deflating opposition to Beijing’s coercive diplomacy. Rather than fearing China’s counteroffensive, ASEAN should formulate an Indo-Pacific strategy that recognizes AUKUS, the Quad, and other similar arrangements as leverage over China’s growing military and economic power.

Meanwhile, the Defence Minister of Malaysia says “We need to get the views from the leadership of China, especially China’s defense, on AUKUS that was announced by the three countries and what are their actions following the announcement.” What does he really think they’re going to say?

Another friend over in Kuala Lumpur, defence journo Dzirhan Mahadzir has a more chilled out series of tweets of how AUKUS plays out with Malaysia. Check it out in full but in short: “We don’t like it but we still BFF (Best Friends Forever) with Australia.”

“You go girl!” (mostly) Among the upbeat club, the Philippines seems to be the most supportive so far. Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin’s statement points out that ASEAN, “singly and collectively”, isn’t packing enough heat to “avoid disproportionate and hasty responses by rival great powers” and that “the enhancement of a near abroad ally’s [ie Australia’s] ability to project power should restore and keep the balance rather than destabilize it.” Worth reading the statement in full. Since then, on Tuesday 28 September, President Duterte’s spokesperson said that his boss wasn’t too keen on the pact which could “[insert talking points about triggering nuclear arms race]”. Analysts are asking why the spokesperson would buck the tone laid down by the nation’s top diplomat … but then again, it’s Du30.

Softly softly. Singapore was a bit more muted, with PM Lee saying during his call with Australian PM Morrison the same day as the announcement that he “hoped that AUKUS would contribute constructively to the peace and stability of the region and complement the regional architecture.” Meanwhile, on Saturday 25 September at the UNGA, Foreign Minister Dr Balakrishnan expanded on his PM’s words, saying “The fact that we have a longstanding and constructive relationship [with Australia, the UK and the US] with large reservoirs of trust and alignment is very helpful because it means we are not unduly anxious about these new developments.” While underscoring the importance of ASEAN centrality, he added that AUKUS was “really part of a larger geo-strategic realignment, and we have to take these things in our stride.”

Peace out in! Similar to Singapore, a spokesperson from Vietnam‘s Ministry of Foreign Affairs just yesterday carefully stated “All countries strive for the same goal of peace, stability, cooperation and development in the region and the world over” and that “nuclear energy must be developed and used for peaceful purposes and serve socio-economic development, ensuring safety for humans and the environment.” In contrast, former Vietnamese diplomat Nguyen Ngoc Truong kept it real real: “Beijing may become even more aggressive. But China reaps what it sows.”

No sugar. While Thailand hasn’t released an official statement, former Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said “No one country in the region wants to be under the domination of China and the U.S. presence is thus a necessity” and “the current Chinese leadership has become revisionist with assertive and aggressive ambition.” Worth reading in full is senior Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn’s take of how AUKUS will turn Southeast Asia into a “new battleground of the “Hot and Sour War””.

Grab a cuppa. Shout out to my ANU officemate and Friday Burgers crew member Emir for recommending Anand Gopal’s essay “The Other Afghan Women” in The New Yorker. (more commentary on this to come)

Laying down the law. My viewing choice this week is UNSW law professor Douglas Guilfoyle. Besides from being an absolute boss on maritime law and the South China Sea, he gave this presentation on the potential application of the international criminal law doctrine of command responsibility to the findings of the Brereton Report inquiry (40mins).

This week’s Suggests brought to you by the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Bring Da AUKUS Ruckus”. Image courtesy of Department of Defence. Catch y’all next week! —NS

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.