Commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen is always worth reading – and below is his latest piece for The Australian.
As the time of the year would have it, I read his review of 2021 as I was completing my own for publication in the That Was The Year That Was series. Here is mine. Kilcullen’s follows.
As for the world at large, COVID19 continues to dominate the news, with more contagious variants popping up all over the place lake a game of “whack a mole”. As does the ongoing struggle to reach global consensus on the need to confront climate change. Tackling both looks a little like the story of Sisyphus, the Greek King of old who was condemned by Zeus to spend eternity rolling a huge boulder to the top of a hill only to have it roll back down as soon as he reached the top.
The year kicked off to a fine start with the January 6th Insurrection in Washington DC as Donald Trump endeavoured to cling on to office by inciting his supporters and sundry militias to storm the Capitol to stop the count of electoral votes that would cede the presidency to Joe Biden. Though he failed, and was impeached for a second time, and the Biden administration sought to calm America’s troubled waters, the Orange One haunts The US’ fractious and paralyzed politics and the prospect of a second Trump term is not beyond imagination.
Trump’s bestie, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime’s minister, also got the push in the wake of the third election in just over a year. The unique coalition that emerged from torturous negotiations spanned the political, social and religious spectrum – left and right, secular and orthodox, Arab and Jew, and promised little more than maintaining the unsatisfactory status quo, that pertaining to the occupation and the settlements, illegal migrants, and the disproportionate influence the Haredim, none of which are morally, politically, socially or economically sustainable.
China under would-be emperor Xi Jinping continues to aggressively build its military and economic power, determined to take its rightful and long overdue place at the top of the geopolitical ladder, causing consternation among its neighbours and also other powers and fears of war in our time. With Xinxiang’s Uighurs and Hong Kong firmly under its autocratic boot, it continues to expand its nautical footprint in the South China Sea and signals loudly that Taiwan’s days as a liberal democracy are numbered. It’s belligerency is increasingly meeting blow-back as other nations react in various ways to what they perceive as clear and present danger. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
Russia under would-be czar Vladimir Putin continues to aggressively rebuild its military power and influence, determined to revive the glory days of the defunct Soviet Union, whist channeling memories of its former imperial glory. Whilst in no way as powerful as China, it is taking advantage of the the world’s preoccupation with the ascendancy of the Celestial Kingdom Redux to reassert its influence in its own backyard – including the veiled threat to reconquer Ukraine – and also in the world, particularly in Syria and also, through the use of shadowy proxies and mercenaries, in Africa. What happens next is anybody’s guess.
America finally ended its “endless war” in Afghanistan, in a chaotic, deadly scramble that left that country’s forever unfortunate people in the hands of a resurgent and apparently unreformed and unrepentant Taliban. It’s over a 100 days since the last evacuation plane took off in scenes of chaos and misery, leaving behind thousands of employees and others at risk of retribution, and the new regime has yet to establish a working government. Meanwhile professionals, human rights workers, officials of the former regime, members if the old government’s security forces, and especially women and girls wait, many in hiding, for the worst. Meanwhile, winter is coming and th country is broke and on the brink of of starvation. A major humanitarian crisis is imminent. What happens next, everybody does indeed know. As St. Leonard said, “We have seen the future and it’s murder!”
Whilst the war in Afghanistan ended, there are still plenty to go around for the weapons manufacturers and arms dealers, the mercenaries and the proxies. The year began well for Azerbaijan when it emerged victorious from a vicious 44 day drone and missile war against Armenia for control of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave that saw Turkish and Syrian proxies engaged each side of the conflict. An old War was rekindled in Ethiopia as a Nobel Peace Prize winner sent his troops to rake pillage and conquer a fractious province which turned the tables and is now poses to seize his capital. Hubris extremis? Meanwhile, war went on in the usual places – Syria, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, and places too obscure to mention.
Meanwhile, back home DownUnder, the story that dominated political news – apart from COVID19 and the total fuck-up of the vaccine roll-out, was the delinquent behaviour of politicians and their staffers in Parliament House – commentators have likened the goings-on in there to a school yard or frat house, and more bluntly, to a Roman orgy, with tales of bullying and sexual harassment, drunken parties, mutual masturbation sessions, and even rape. The prime minister huffed and puffed and asked his wife how he should deal with the situation; commissions of inquiries were set up; and reports handed down. The motto is “we must do better – and we shall!” But as with most things these days, nobody believes what politicians say anymore.
And not just here in Australia, but all over the world. Trust is in short supply, and indeed, people’s faith in democratic traditions and processes is shaking as populism and a taste for autocracy spreads like … well, a coronavirus. The US was recently named a “backsliding democracy” by a Swedish based think-tank, an assessment based on the attempted Capitol coup and restrictions on voting rights in Red states. In the bizarro conspiracy universe, American right wing commentators and rabble-rousers are urging their freedom-loving myrmidons to rescue Australia from totalitarianism. Apparently we have established Covid concentration camps and are forcible vaccinating indigenous people.
In early December, US President Joe Biden held a summit for democracy, and yet his administration are still determined to bring Julian Assange to trial, a case that, if it succeeds, will limit freedom of speech. The conduct of the trial also poses a threat to the US’s reputation because it could refocus attention on the ugly incidents during the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were exposed by WikiLeaks. There is a strong humanitarian and pragmatic case to look for a way out of Assange’s Kafkaesque nightmare, but the bastions of freedom, America, Britain and Australia show no interest in doing so notwithstanding the harm it does to their democratic credentials.
Uncustomary for him – it must be the season of goodwill – Kilcullen ends his review on a note of cautious optimism:
“Given the events of 2021, all this suggests that in 2022, despite the darkening international threat picture, a more independent, self-reliant, resilient and capable Australia, stepping up to confront the challenges of great-power competition – amid a rising threat from China, declining US influence and an increasingly complex and dangerous security environment – will be necessary and achievable. We should all hope for a sense of urgency and commitment in the face of the new environment’.
David KilCullen, Weekend Australian 18th December 2021
As we look forward into next year, the geostrategic and security picture for Australia has never been more complex and rarely more challenging. In security terms, this year was one of American weakness, Afghan betrayal, rising Russia-NATO tension and the emergence of space warfare and advanced technologies as domains in a new Sino-American Cold War.
But it was also the year of AUKUS and the year Australia found its feet despite increasingly belligerent bullying from Beijing. Several key events shaped 2021, and these in turn give us a clue as to how things might develop next year.
The year began in chaos as Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol, seeking to stop what they saw as a stolen election. Belief that an election has been stolen is one of the most well-documented triggers for revolutionary unrest.
Many Republicans, independents and even some Democrats still see the election as rigged – and, by extension, the Biden administration as illegitimate – boding ill for US stability into next year. The unrest that peaked during deadly riots in 200 US cities and all 50 states through the summer of 2020 seems to have subsided. But this is an illusion, since last year’s tension was stoked by the media and anti-Trump politicians.
Now back in charge, establishment institutions have an interest in damping dissent and, as a result, media amplification of unrest has been more subdued this year. But the underlying issues remain: riots continue in places such as Portland and Seattle, racially charged trials have triggered deadly protests, extremists are active on left and right, and murder rates are at levels not seen for 30 years. All of this is likely to come to a head next year around the US midterm elections. The worst inflation in four decades, supply-chain disruptions, labour disputes, retail shortages, soaring fuel prices, persistent Covid-19 restrictions (800,000 Americans have now died during the pandemic) and the most illegal border crossings since records began in 1960 complete the picture of a superpower in decline whose domestic weakness encourages its international adversaries.
Afghanistan: a triple betrayal
US feebleness was evident in August when, without bothering to consult his allies, President Joe Biden insisted on the rampantly incompetent withdrawal from Afghanistan that prompted apocalyptic scenes at Kabul airport. The botched evacuation was not only a betrayal of our Afghan partners – in whom the international community, at Washington’s urging, had invested unprecedented effort since 2001 – but also a betrayal by Biden of NATO and non-NATO allies, including Australia.
It was a defeat on the scale of Saigon in 1975, though the comparison is unfair to that withdrawal, which was more professional and less self-inflicted than this one. The resulting contempt in coalition capitals (and military headquarters) has been quietly intense, even as Americans’ trust in the armed forces plummeted to its lowest level this century, reflecting the military’s recent inability to win wars and its failure to hold anyone accountable when it loses.
It was a triple betrayal: Afghan leaders from president Ashraf Ghani down abandoned their people in the moment of truth, fleeing to safety while leaving them to the Taliban and the prospect of famine. The UN estimates that more than 20 million Afghans are at risk of starvation this winter, meaning 2022 may well turn out to be an even worse year for Afghans than 2021. Even while many of us continue working frantically to help evacuate his people, Ghani is calmly writing a book in Abu Dhabi – perhaps a sequel to his well-received Fixing Failed States – while his henchmen live large on money squirrelled away in advance of the collapse or carried with them as they fled. Some, such as the leaders of the National Resistance Front, Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, fight on, while others (including former president Hamid Karzai) proved courageous in the crisis. But with these few exceptions, never was a people so ill-served by their own leaders or so badly left in the lurch by their self-styled friends.
Russia: playing a poor hand well
America’s enemies, and not only the terrorists emboldened by the Taliban victory, have noticed its weakness. Vladimir Putin moved quickly to fill the vacuum in Afghanistan’s Central Asian borderland, partnering with China on several military and economic initiatives, deploying troops to the Afghan-Tajik border and signing a weapons deal with India, a move that parallels his efforts to win Turkish support through arms sales. In the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic and Arctic oceans Russian ships, submarines and aircraft are more active than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago next week.
Putin always has been brilliant at playing a weak hand well, and this year has been no exception. In the early months of 2021, with Biden distracted after the Capitol riot, and congress impeaching Trump for the second time, Russian forces pressured Ukraine with a troop build-up and threatening deployments on its border. The result was a conciliatory summit meeting between Putin and Biden in June, seen in Europe as mostly benefiting the Russan side.
After the Afghan fiasco, Russian activity in the Baltic States and Ukraine ramped up, and Russia’s ally Belarus tested the frontier defences of Poland and Lithuania with a manipulated flood of refugees, copying a Russian technique pioneered in Norway in 2015 and repeated several times since. Now Russian forces, including missile, tank and artillery units – perhaps 175,000 troops in all – are again massing within striking distance of the Ukrainian border, prompting urgent concern in Kiev.
Again, the US response reeked of appeasement, with Biden allegedly urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to offer formal autonomy to the eastern region of his country that has been under de facto Russian occupation since 2014, while assuring Russia and NATO that the US has no plans to fight for Ukraine’s freedom. These assurances were given the same week Biden hosted the Summit for Democracy, posing as leader of the free world. Neither Ukraine’s elected leaders nor Afghan parliamentarians – now on the run for their lives – commented, though Russia and China issued stinging critiques.
With winter approaching, Russian energy exports remain essential for Europe, while Russia – as a side effect of US policies targeting domestic energy production in pursuit of the Green New Deal – is the second largest source of US petroleum imports, giving Putin yet another card to play. The northern hemisphere winter of 2021-22 is thus likely to see Russia making use of its “energy weapon” within a broader suite of coercive tools.
China’s uneasy rise
If Russia played a weak hand well this year, China continued strengthening its hand. Beijing’s navy is growing at an astonishingly rapid pace while the modernisation and professionalisation of its land, air, cyber and rocket forces continue. The regime’s nuclear arsenal is undergoing substantial expansion, with hundreds of new missile silos discovered in remote desert areas. Cyber attacks, economic coercion and diplomatic bullying remain core elements of the Chinese repertoire, even as Western business leaders and sports stars (again with honourable exceptions) turn a blind eye to its crackdown in Hong Kong, bullying of Taiwan and oppression of the Uighurs.
China’s completion last year of its BeiDou satellite constellation, equivalent to the US Global Positioning System, threatened the dominance of GPS for the first time since 1993, with implications for every aspect of Western society, from EFTPOS transactions to infrastructure and transportation. Then in mid-October China tested a fractional orbital bombardment system, a shuttle-like spacecraft moving at hypersonic speed, able to evade missile defences and deliver a nuclear warhead anywhere in the world with limited chance of interception.
The Chinese test demonstrated how far US technology is lagging in this area, while marking the emergence of space warfare as a domain of conflict. Russia’s demonstration of a counter-space capability, destroying one of its own satellites in orbit (and creating a debris cloud that threatened the International Space Station) showed China is not the only adversary in space. Moscow and Beijing have announced joint plans for a permanent moon base, while China’s space station appears to include military modules.
More broadly, hypersonic technology – missiles moving at more than five times the speed of sound that can manoeuvre to avoid defences – are proliferating.
The so-called tech war among the superpowers includes these technologies alongside directed-energy weapons, robotics, nanotechnologies, bioweapons, quantum computing and human performance enhancements. These are among the most important areas of competition in the new cold war, along with the contest to control commodities (rare earth metals, copper, cobalt, lithium and uranium) and assets such as silicon and gallium nitride semiconductors that sustain them.
The first big event for China next year will be the Winter Olympics in February. Australia has joined a US-led diplomatic boycott of the Games, with Britain, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Lithuania. Others may follow, but a diplomatic boycott – where athletes still participate – will have limited impact.
The Olympics are important for another reason: Admiral John Aquilino, newly appointed chief of US Indo-Pacific Command, has argued that Beijing is holding back on any move against Taiwan until the Games are over, meaning that from next March the risk of war in the Taiwan Strait may rise significantly.
Beijing may be emboldened towards any future conflict by US failure in Afghanistan, of which China is the biggest beneficiary. China’s control of mineral resources in the country (and its de facto recognition of the Taliban) gives it leverage, while Beijing’s alliance with Islamabad allows the currently dominant Taliban faction in Kabul, which is heavily influenced by Pakistan’s intelligence service, to draw on Chinese support to consolidate control.
Indirectly, the failure of two decades of intervention in Afghanistan is seen as discrediting Western attempts to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, vindicating China’s transactional approach.
Beijing’s 25-year strategic co-operation agreement with Tehran, signed in March, lets China import oil directly from Iran, helping to draw Afghanistan into a Chinese-dominated regional economic and security order.
It also reduces China’s reliance on seaborne petroleum imports through the Malacca Strait and South China Sea, making it less vulnerable to US action in the Pacific.
Iran: further than ever from a nuclear deal
For its part, Tehran has made great strides in developing its nuclear capability since 2018, when Trump suspended US participation in the multilateral deal signed by Barack Obama in 2015. This prompted severe concern about Iranian nuclear weapons in Israel and in the Sunni Arab states of the Middle East, while European diplomats warn the 2015 deal will soon be beyond saving. Iran suspended its involvement in talks to rescue the deal, conducting an internal review after its presidential election in June. Though talks have resumed, and Tehran seems willing to co-operate with UN monitoring, a return to the previous deal appears further away than ever. The fact Iran is revising its stance largely because of pressure from Russia and China, rather than in response to US sanctions, underlines American impotence and Sino-Russian influence, even as the two US rivals meet this week to discuss joint responses to what they describe as increasingly aggressive US rhetoric and sanctions threats.
Iran’s dominance in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and Lebanon’s ongoing humanitarian and security crisis) has helped cement Tehran’s influence across the Middle East and Levant while reinforcing the regional role of Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, and the Russia-Iran and China-Iran partnerships that made that position possible. This will persist next year. After the Afghan withdrawal it is hard for Washington to justify its troop presence in Iraq (where the anti-ISIS combat mission has officially ended) or eastern Syria, where US forces are deployed without approval from congress or any clear mission or end state. Something to watch in the coming year will be whether progress towards any resumption of the nuclear agreement coincides with further US withdrawals across the region.
AUKUS: doubling down on a weak partner?
As this overview shows, Australia’s environment this year has been more threatening and less predictable than at any time since the 1930s, as recognised in last year’s strategic update and cyber-security strategy, and underlined by the AUKUS agreement in September. Much has been made of the nuclear-powered submarines to be acquired under the agreement, a truly transformational move for Australian naval capability, though one that will take a long time to implement. Much sooner, indeed starting next year, long-range strike capabilities including Tomahawk and JASSM-ER missiles for the navy and air force, Apache attack helicopters for the army, and self-propelled artillery (under a separate deal with South Korea) will represent an immediate step up in Australia’s military posture. A new national critical technologies strategy, part of the broader technological component of AUKUS, is another important element of the new, more assertive stance.
As 2022 unfolds, AUKUS will represent an important indicator of the way ahead. If the agreement becomes a broadbased framework on which to build expanded co-operation with like-minded players – particularly Britain, which is rediscovering a role East of Suez and partnering with Australia on more issues than ever – then it will strengthen our leverage in the face of this new era of conflict.
If, on the other hand, AUKUS becomes another way to double down on the US relationship, increasing our reliance on a declining partner, the agreement could quickly become a net negative.
The alienation of France (given that the French have more citizens and more capable military forces than any other European power in the Pacific) carries significant risks, as the South Pacific increasingly looks like a new theatre of conflict with China. Likewise, as India’s recent weapons deal with Russia illustrates, AUKUS can neither replace the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – the informal partnership between the US, Japan, India and Australia – nor should it.
Encouragingly, 2021 seems to have been the year Australia found its feet despite bullying by Beijing since Canberra’s call for accountability on Covid-19 last year. China’s diplomatic high-handedness, shrill anti-Australian propaganda, economic coercion, cyber attacks, political interference and aggressive deployment of intelligence assets near our coastline were designed to teach us a lesson and show every Western-allied power what happens to those who step out of line. This backfired badly, pushing Australia into closer relations with allies, helping Australia’s economy diversify away from a damaging dependence on China, and prompting a sharp decline in Australians’ perceptions of China.
As a global energy shortage began to bite in late 2021, and China’s growth slowed, Chinese dependence on Australian iron and coal revealed itself as a key aspect of economic leverage – naturally prompting Beijing to threaten Australia over it.
Given the events of 2021, all this suggests that in 2022, despite the darkening international threat picture, a more independent, self-reliant, resilient and capable Australia, stepping up to confront the challenges of great-power competition – amid a rising threat from China, declining US influence and an increasingly complex and dangerous security environment – will be necessary and achievable. We should all hope for a sense of urgency and commitment in the face of the new environment.