Totality from a Mountaintop

The following appeared in Alpinist 60.


We pulled into the gravel lot by the trailhead at one hour past midnight and went to sleep to the sound of the fast flowing waters of the Deschutes. Around us, the cool of the Oregonian night. Nine hours till totality.

When morning came, we drank our coffee quickly and set out across a cattle grid and along a dusty track. Above, the Trout Creek Butte dominated the hilltop. The sunshade line fell across the arête where the Main Wall meets the North. Sweeping heights of stone burnished by unseen hands. A natural Doric frieze in the early morning light.


The hike to the cliff was steep and when we arrived, panting, we dropped packs onto a fallen pillar and looked out at the view we’d earned. The Malheur wilderness in summer.

The river below as seen from above. Beside it, brown plains and rolling hills. Mt Jefferson beyond. The air breathed fresh. A land for renegades. Do-whatever-you-want country.

We turned back to the vertical relief in front of us. Columnar basalt perfection—orange-brown colonnades split by parallel cracks of all sizes. The envy of any Hellenic stonemason, this was the temple where we would witness the solar eclipse.

We scrambled, unroped, to the summit. On top, there were only climbers.


“I hear totality is a real dopamine hit,” said one of us. She’d spent the early part of the morning shoulder-deep in an offwidth. The bruises still shone and the cuts still bled.

It began. We watched it happen through dark-filtered lenses. The sun was red, and there was a chunk missing from it. We knew the cause to be the moon, but we knew not what it meant. The fading light was quieting us. The landscape— the brown hills, the buttes, the vertical relief of our faces—dimmed. The sun was leaving. What was the firmament telling us?

In ancient times, two Anatolian tribes locked in battle beside the Halys River had thought the end nigh and instantly ceased fighting. We too, reduced to contemplation.

The air went cold and there we stood— quiet but connected, separate but as one—a mass of warm, awed bodies. Divining the heavens atop our wild acropolis, each of us an astromancer, we cocked our heads skyward to interpret the omens.

Then it happened. Totality.

The sky went dark and we had been transported to a different planet—a distant world whose once-familiar red dwarf star had been stifled by some alien night. There was shouting, yelling—the frenzied howls of our animal selves gone mad.

“I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky,” wrote Annie Dillard of an eclipse she’d seen. In the daytime darkness, she saw only death, but we saw something different.


Beneath a black sun and a midnight blue-to-ultramarine sky, we were wayfarers in a lost beyond. But horrified? No. We were here. Present. Nothing else mattered as we rode our planet through outer space, a blush of hooting partiers reveling in that boundless joy when somebody turns off the lights. The battle for the Halys plains—the petty things in life—be damned! We’d chased and found our Rapture.

Besides. What need to fear death when one has stood atop this mighty mesa—this mountaintop—for in that moment the butte had grown taller with us. What wonderment with Jefferson ghoulishly lit in the distance and the river-riven summer plains in deep shade below, while we—a roving band of seekers of high places—held up the emptiness of space with outstretched arms and level with all the colors of the sunset.

For that is what they don’t tell you about totality. And that is what you finally learn when you witness the solar eclipse from a mountaintop. Around us, in all directions, on all horizons—not just the west but three-hundred- sixty degrees—the oranges, the reds, the yellows, the tints of sunglow layered each atop the land’s own vanishing points. A sunset with no need of sun because the sun was still above us, obscured by the moon.

I had seen many brilliant sunsets. Sunset over the St. Lawrence—a gulf of rich magenta, frozen hard in winter. Sunset in the Sahara atop a sandstone rock tower—the emptiness of the desert and the orange-tinted hues of a horizon ablaze. Those were sunsets. But they were nothing like this.

The event was passing now. I knew before it happened. Too much time had gone. Totality was supposed at two minutes, zero-point-three seconds. We’d augured it.

And there! The shadow was slipping now! And there! A bead of radiant light leaking from a bend in the corona! The diamond ring effect, they call that.


But there was no worldly simile with which to liken this. For there was nothing grander, no image in our ordinary lives that could equate to the thing in front of us. No wedding band, no percussion cap. No neon sign, no gas light. No glowing coal, no forge tool.

For what worth is there in comparison when even contrasts collide? When the sun is black and the day is night and it’s sunset in the east and south and north and all at once?

The moon had slid now. In a moment the burning orb was back again. Blinding white. No longer safe to look at. Totality was gone too soon but we had no say in the matter. We’d seen it, we’d rejoiced in it and we’d spent that moment living. Now we turned our heads back to the Earth, and later, we made our way down the hill to carry on with climbing.

The Korea Crisis: When human politics apes that of chimps

This post appeared in Small Wars Journal. Link available here

At this point it’s probably not unreasonable to suggest that current events on the Korean peninsula have given much of the world’s news-consuming public reason to stop and listen. In recent months, the long-simmering dispute between the United States and North Korea has intensified – marked in part by an escalating war of rhetoric between the Trump and Kim regimes but also by a bout of tit-for-tat weapons tests and military exercises conducted by both countries.

As the situation threatens to spiral, a significant amount of attention has been centered around three key aspects of the crisis – 1.) the specifics of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (including the strategic consequences of and the science behind a nuclear-capable ICBM in Pyongyang’s arsenal); 2.) the current layout of the regional geopolitical chessboard (with the strategic dispositions of Japan, South Korea and China providing an additional layer of complexity); and 3.) what might be called “the temperament debate” – the ongoing public discussion about the comparative rationality and/or irrationality of both the incumbent “supreme leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the President of the United States of America.

To make sense of this broad swathe of topics – nuclear physics, international relations and political psychology – the discourse has oscillated between broad-outline explainers of great power politics right through to the atomic minutiae. Discussions about the practical differences between fusion and fission reactionsDetailed lexicological dissections of the words and phrases used by the main parties to the dispute (what, for example, does Trump’s use of the words “fire and fury” or “totally destroy” mean in real terms vis-à-vis troop movements?). All of this is rounded out with psychology-heavy think-pieces on likely scenarios for when narcissistic personalities collide.

The coverage on the topic is expansive and yet, despite the attempts of many to simulate the future using game theory et al, one less-considered variable – an entire field of study, no less – is missing from the equation. Primatology.

Indeed, while systems analysts, nuclear strategists and even psychologists provide vital insights on many key issues, perhaps the best way to make sense of the behavior currently displayed by actors on all sides of the de-militarised zone is – strangely enough – by looking at the political behavior of other Great Apes.

Owing simply to the fact that the realpolitik of other non-human primates often resembles our own, a primatological perspective offers a way to simplify an overly-complex discussion – allowing us to disassemble the crisis into its constituent parts and identify the basic animal behaviours being displayed.

While the rhetoric deployed by both North Korea and the United States might come across as erratic, inscrutable and wholly irrational to some, by comparing Kim’s and Trump’s bluster with the bluster of chimpanzees, for example, it becomes clear to the observer that both actors are behaving in a way which harkens to our species’ primal quest for power.

Bluster & Bluffing

The political behaviors of our closest relatives have been studied in great detail by Frans de Waal in his seminal work Chimpanzee Politics – an examination of a colony of chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo. For the most part, the “politics” observed inside the enclosure centered on the struggle for dominance between three male chimpanzees – Yeroen, Luit and Nikkie – the former being the colony’s traditional alpha male. For de Waal, the simian triumvirate that formed with Yeroen as the alpha, Luit as the beta (that is, his inferior and would-be usurper) and Nikkie as the gamma (the swing-voting, politically-ambitious youngster whose allegiance ultimately determined the outcome of any leadership struggle) provided an archetypal portrait of elementary competition in primate society.

At the core of these chimpanzees’ political lives, as with the spat between Trump and Kim, were two recurring behaviors– 1.) bluff displays and 2.) alliance-building – while a third behavior – 3.) war – loomed constantly as a possibility in the event that de-confliction failed.

Many of de Waal’s observations can be easily transposed into the human politics and chimpanzee bluff displays in particular, are a perfect case-in-point of where the politics of the Arnhem Zoo seem to ape those of North Asia.

For example, the following tantrum from Yeroen is worth quoting at length not only because it demonstrates how chimpanzees assert dominance but also because the bombastic style is so clearly recognizable in the public personae of both Trump and Kim today.

“Among the apes on the ground was Yeroen, one of the dominant males, who was in the process of warming up for a bluff display. His hair was already standing slightly on end and he was hooting quietly to himself. When he stood up his hooting became louder and some of the apes hurried off the drums, knowing that Yeroen’s displays generally ended there with a long, rhythmic stamping concert… After Yeroen had produced his customary din and had made several wild charges through the hall, things quietened down. The other chimpanzees climbed back onto the drums and resumed their activities.”

Apart from Yeroen’s noteworthy ability to create a din (and the key takeaway that the finale is usually anticlimactic) one feature of this archetypal bluff display is the presence of “piloerection” – the standing on-end of body hair that accompanies an increase in anxiety in a male chimpanzee. While this reflex is the direct consequence of physiological changes within the chimpanzee’s body, piloerection also serves as a visual warning to other primates that the ape in question is in an excitable mood – a veritable wearing of the heart on the sleeve.

Of course, the ready-made parallel to be drawn between chimpanzee piloerection and the rhetorical back-and-forth between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un is in the realm of visual and aural signaling. After all, a primate’s ability to appear dangerous to a competitor is intrinsically linked to his ability to make noise and transmit visceral, threatening imagery.

Echoing Yeroen’s “long, rhythmic stamping concert”, the loudest, most threatening piece of theatre in the Korean dispute is manifest in the symbolism of the nuclear missile – the quintessential obelisk to destructive power (always televised), often shown upright on a launching pad, ready to be fired sky-high (and noisily so) over the Sea of Japan.

Although some feminist voices have alleged the existence of phallic symbolism in the “missile envy” of nuclear arms races (as Carol Cohn described nuclear strategy conferences: [they are] filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thruster-to-weight ratios, soft lay down, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks), what the Kim regime’s public display of missiles on military parade grounds probably represents is simply “the baring of fangs” – a bluffing display designed to disturb the international system’s hierarchy of dominance.

Similarly and on the US side, the arrangement of F35 bombers in a delta formation during show of force exercises with South Korea serves not only as a basic demonstration of the US Air Force’s tactical prowess but also speaks to an ape’s elementary fear of “aposematic signaling” in dangerous animals. Early primates, according to one study, “evolved an aversion for aposematic signals in the form of potentially harmful triangular shapes”. Pointy things – zigs and zags on snakes, erect body hair on snarling primates, fangs, claws, nuclear-tipped missiles, fighter-bombers arranged like supersonic triangles across the sky are menacing to us as primates. It’s in our evolution.

South Korean and US Aircraft in Delta Formation Near the DMZ. (Source: NY Times)


Alliances too, being equally important in the political world of the chimpanzee, also occupy center stage on the Korean peninsula. As Mira Rapp-Hooper recently outlined: “arguably the most significant strategic implication of North Korea’s technical achievements this summer is not the magnitude of the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang, but the political consequences for U.S. alliances in Asia.”

Certainly, with countries like South Korea and Japan hedging their strategic bets on the co-signing of mutual defense treaties with Washington, it is not merely the fate of American cities at stake but also the viability of the alliances that uphold American hegemony. The rise of a powerful usurper, in short, necessarily threatens the status of the alpha’s alliances.

With this in mind, and granted de Waal’s observation that “physical strength is only one factor and almost certainly not the critical one in determining dominance relationships”, there’s perhaps only one question needing to be asked where US alliances in Asia are concerned. The military might of the US notwithstanding, how is it that an oceanically-remote predominantly-English-speaking country maintains alpha status in the regional primate super-colony of Asian nation-states?

The answer, of course, lies not only in America’s “power” (that is, its ability to project military force) per se, but also in what a primatologist would call the US’ “formal dominance” – its ability to entreat potential allies into postures of deference in order that they do its bidding (or, as Jane Goodall might put it – its ability to solicit “pant-grunt greetings” from submissives in the colony).

For South Korea or Japan, the incentive to defer to America as alpha comes not from a position of fear that the United States will attack them but rather from a position of hope that the United States will protect them in the event of untoward aggression from North Korea.

Similarly, alliance formation in chimpanzee society is rarely about a gamma capitulating to a credible threat from the alpha but often as not the result a weaker ape’s deliberate attempt to seek protection, thereby enhancing its political position by siding with a stronger ape. “Extended deterrence” – a currently-popular topic among nuclear policy wonks – applies to chimps as well.

For chimpanzees therefore, the credibility of the alpha is contingent on its ability to act as both a powerful own-whim-enforcer and a protector (particularly a protector of the gamma male and the females). Likewise for the US, its ability to maintain credibility among its Asian acolytes stems largely from its ability to act as security guarantor.

Yeroen. Alpha Male, Guarantor (Source: de Waal)

De-Coupling and Separating Interventions

What the recent entry of North Korea into “the ICBM club” represents in primatological terms however, is the maturation of a would-be usurper – the veritable “growing-up” of the beta male – one who possesses the ability to strike the United States and do serious damage to American cities.

In many respects, the end of the US’ theoretical invincibility also potentially undermines the United States’ alpha status since it forces America’s Asian allies to rely on a less-certain risk calculus which assumes the US would be willing to trade “San Francisco for Seoul”, as Colin Kahl neatly put it.

This presents a serious problem for the US – as it would for any chimpanzee alpha – since the unassailable guarantee of protection against aggression is the only indispensable benefit of joining any simian coalition. Without such guarantees, the alliance itself can be second-guessed.

This phenomenon, whereby a nuclear-armed adversary can separate a security guarantor from an ally, is known in nuclear deterrence-speak as “decoupling” and its enactment as grand strategy is probably intentional on North Korea’s part. Take the following press release from the Korean Central News Agency (the propaganda arm of the North Korean state), for example.

“It should not be forgotten that the whole of South Korea can turn into ruins if saber-rattling is shown…. The puppet-forces should not run reckless… their insensible acts in relying on the U.S. which is unable to be responsible for its own fate will only accelerate their self-destruction”.

Apart from vindicating the view that North Korea seeks to “de-couple” existing alliances by preying on doubts about the unassailability of the US alliance, what this kind of targeted South Korea-specific language represents is a deliberate attempt by North Korea to punish its southern neighbor for siding with the wrong chimp. Castigating tactics like this are classic examples of what primatologists call “separating interventions” – a frequent occurrence in chimpanzee politics.

In documenting the separating interventions used by Luit (the beta male at Arnhem) during his attempts to usurp Yeroen from power, de Waal describes how the former would violently punish key Yeroen allies (especially high-ranking Yeroen-aligned females). Punishment from Luit, according to de Waal, would come as retaliation for grooming sessions in which Yeroen, the alpha, had been the beneficiary.

To illustrate, during one particularly harsh separating intervention, Tepel, a silver-haired senior female, made a move simply to sit next to Yeroen. Luit, in turn, seized the opportunity to stomp on her. When Yeroen failed to intervene on Tepel’s behalf, the implication for all observers was that Yeroen’s credibility as alpha-protector had been undermined. Luit, by turns, was no longer just an irrelevant beta male – he was winning bouts in the colony’s realpolitik and presented as a credible threat to Yeroen’s dominance.

Ultimately then, the aim of separating interventions (as with “decoupling”), is to isolate the alpha from his traditional allies to such an extent that they are no longer willing to side with him for fear of repercussions from his competitors.

Clearly though, North Korea is not alone in playing the “de-coupling”/“separating intervention” game. Trump, if the veiled threats aimed at Beijing in late-night Twitter rants are anything to go by, has made it a linchpin of his Korean de-nuclearisation policy to embark on Luit-like separating interventions. The aim, of course, is to separate North Korea from its oldest, and perhaps only backer – China.

To some extent, the bombast might be working on China. Heed for example, the words of Zhu Feng, a well-respected voice in Chinese policy circles, writing for Foreign Affairs: “Beijing must face the reality that the Kim family’s nuclear and missile programs are opposed to Chinese interests and a threat to regional stability”.

The key take away from all this discussion on alliances, both simian and human, is that chimpanzees like nation-states, ascend the political ladder by siding with the most credible ally. As the primatologist Toshisada Nishida described of female chimpanzees – “females are winner-supporters” – while gamma males in the colony tend to employ a strategy of “allegiance fickleness”. Loyalty, by Nishida’s reckoning, lies nowhere and everywhere and only, ultimately, with the self, showing that chimps, perhaps like humans, are fundamentally Machiavellian in their outlook.

The Possibility of War

But even as alliances in Asia seem to be in a state of flux, the likelihood that the US would attack North Korea in a military first-strike without China having first cut-off ties with Pyongyang would seem to be low – at least, if we’re looking for parallels in chimpanzee society.

Relying on data from the Gombe Chimpanzee War documented by Jane Goodall in the 1970s, Harvard’s Richard Wrangham estimates that “lethal raiding” (a violent activity which he describes as “akin to predation”) will only occur under conditions where attackers outnumber a competitor by 5:1.

Similarly, and assuming that the US would not shoulder unreasonably-high risk, so long as China preserves the ratio at “5:2”, it would seem that the costs of engaging with a not-completely-isolated North Korea would be too great for Washington to bear.

The theoretical costs of such a war however, would be catastrophic – just as war is for non-human primates.

Reflecting on the Gombe Chimpanzee War, Goodall describes being so disturbed by the cannibalistic infanticide she observed during clashes between the Kasakela and Kahama male groups that she would wake at night after “horrific pictures sprang unbidden to [her] mind”.

“Lethal Raiding” is Uncommon but Extreme. (Source: BBC)

Such disruptions to ecological homeostasis – chimpanzee-caused, mushroom cloud-caused or otherwise – are often permanent, even if the territorial gains made by the Kahama males at war’s end were only transitory and ultimately arbitrary.

The good news however, if de Waal’s observations at the Arnhem zoo can be geo-located onto the Korean peninsula, is that “real fights” only amount to “0.4 percent of all confrontations between males” even if the political climate is often tense.

Here, of course, it’s important that our analysis does not fall prey to what critics might consider a gauche form of genetic determinism – the notion that just because we share 98.8% of our genetic material with chimpanzees means that our politicking and our war-mongering necessarily mirrors theirs. Indeed, it should go without saying that chimps are not humans, human are not chimps and our own political behaviour – be it intragroup or intergroup – is not a carbon-copy of what de Waal observed in the Arnhem Zoo. All the same, common trends across Great Ape societies still exist and one of them – perhaps the most important takeaway here – is that bluffing displays – even escalated bluffing displays such as we see today – should not give license to hysterical panicking about an “inevitable” nuclear apocalypse, even if North Korea’s foreign minister used just that word.

The final inference then is that even as North Korea test-fires missiles over Hokkaido and even as President Trump regresses to apocalyptic phraseology in his daily threats, our faith in regional de-confliction should not be abandoned entirely. As Hayden and Potts argued in Sex and War: “bluff and bombast may have been selected for by evolution because in certain situations they can establish social order without causing injury”.

This is not to say that we should ignore North Asia altogether nor take comfort in our usual sense of security. Just because a nuclear weapon has not been detonated in anger since World War Two does not mean it will not happen again.

Undoubtedly, what makes the current incumbents in Pyongyang and Washington so disquieting is their shared ability to disrupt the daily transactions of international relations with the bluff and bluster heretofore described. Furthermore, conflict of any kind, in chimpanzee society as in human society, is always preceded by bluff displays – so, the belligerence is necessarily concerning. But perhaps a primatological perspective is exactly what is needed here. For by acknowledging the similarities we share with chimpanzees, we might look at international relations not only as computational behavior (an interaction between warring machinated “states”) but also as a field where cohorts of animals are doing their best (and sometimes failing at that) to survive. Maybe too with a bit more primatology, the impersonal world of nuclear strategy can receive an injection of much-needed biological color so that the costs to human life can be brought more readily into focus.


The Rohingya Crisis: Dragging our feet will lead us towards the Mud

With international watchdogs united in their condemnation of Myanmar’s campaign in Rakhine State, the comparative silence from the Australian government has been deafening.

A major humanitarian crisis is occurring in Australia’s immediate sphere of influence and yet, despite the warnings from observers in the region, the relative hush on the floor of parliament is palpable. For the most part, DFAT’s vague – almost Charlottesville-like – condemnation of “all abuses of human rights” is thought to be an adequate stand-in for actual action while Julie Bishop’s announcement this week that $10 million of aid will be sent to the region is clearly lacking an accompanying strategy to definitively resolve the crisis.

If it’s true that our outrage at the Myanmar military’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State is delimited to the Chief of Army wagging his finger at his tatmadaw counterpart during a joint military conference, then it shows a remarkable lack of imagination in the government’s ability to solve problems. But there’s no reason why small powers like Australia can’t do more. At the very least, it’s upon us to start brainstorming what a real solution to the crisis might look like. Such a policy discussion must begin with a more detailed examination of the current problems facing the Rohingya, in order to understand which retardant is best suited to put out the fire.

The Rohingya, of course, have been the world’s most vulnerable Muslim minority for decades, but the trigger of the latest documented oppression is clearly linked to the emergence of a disruptive new political actor in Rakhine State.

Augured by sporadic skirmishes which began in October last year, on August 25th, members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) – a group that seeks the establishment of an independent state for Rohingya Muslims – launched a co-ordinated series of attacks on outposts controlled by the government.

Also known as Harakah Al-Yaqin (Arabic for the “the Faith Movement”, literally the “Movement of Certitude”), ARSA fighters have been labeled “terrorists” by the office of Aung San Suu Kyi and accused of links to the global jihadist movement.

Though it is true that some members of the movement are thought to have received “practical training” in Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan, according to the International Crisis Group, the available evidence suggests that ARSA’s “approach and objectives are not transnational jihadist terrorism”.

This knowledge should not draw a collective sigh of relief though, because if the problem continues to go ignored by the international community, there is every likelihood that the body-politic which comprises the ARSA militancy could transform into a local incubation chamber for a more serious strain of extremism. The possibility of an ideological swing towards a radical pole is indeed worrying, particularly as a sense of desperation amongst Rohingya refugees look set to become the status quo. The banner of jihad, we must remember, apart from being an effective mobiliser for extremists across the ummah (the supra-national Muslim community) also symbolises an escape from suffering for many who fly it – a false pathway to salvation for those without hope the world over. After all, the word “salvation” is a part of ARSA’s name.

Research for one, shows that there is a positive correlation between long-term state-directed oppression and religious extremism at the grassroots level.

Take, for example, the anthropologist Cabeiri de Bergh Robinson’s important study of the rise of jihadism in Kashmir. Examining how “being a mujahid” (one who undertakes jihad) became a valued socio-political category amongst Kashmiri refugees, Robinson was able to map how jihad gradually acquired cultural importance within communities who had previously emphasized “being a muhajir” (one who migrates to protect his family and live honorably as a servant of God elsewhere).

The shift toward jihad, according to Robinson, corresponded not only with continued oppression by the Indian state but was also tied to a shared communal feeling amongst Kashmiri refugees that suffering quietly outside the homeland was no longer adequate to challenge an entrenched and unjust status quo.

Especially for younger Kashmiris, “being a refugee” became culturally-synonymous with “victim” and joining the armed struggle became a means for self-empowerment in the midst of “the international community’s refusal to acknowledge and act on human rights abuses by the Indian state”.

Above all else then, what Robinson’s research shows us is that radicalization, as a phenomenon that is often linked to victimhood, is reversible only insofar as victim-producing conditions (like repressive violence by the state and indifference from the international community) can also be reversed.

Breaking with common wisdom then, when we think about the archetypal “sanctuaries” in which jihadism flourishes we shouldn’t only be thinking of “the ungoverned spaces of the world” but also of overgoverned spaces – places where a violent state is predatorily intent on delivering ordnance instead of order. In Robinson’s study, such a sanctuary might include a troop-encircled IDP camp in Indian Kashmir where a young “mujahid” sees military repression on all sides. In today’s Rakhine State, this is a rice paddy near Maungmaw where a Rohingya farmer has his land seized and then watches his family cut down by a helicopter gunship.
Moroever, if the situation remains unresolved, it is likely that young members of the Rohingya émigré in Bangladesh will respond violently to the “vicarious suffering” of their kinsmen and will continue to cross the border to join armed groups. Such an eventuality will surely cause the crisis to spiral further.

But even as ARSA’s resistance contributes to Rakhine’s destabilisation, the group has already spelled out the circumstances under which they could be brought to the negotiating table. In an interview with the Dhaka Tribune, a spokesman for ARSA suggested that “surrender” was possible if a safe zone for Rohingya inside Rakhine State could be provided by UN peacekeepers with an international mandate. Similarly, ARSA’s periodic press releases consistently raise the possibility of a cessation of hostilities to allow for UN and other humanitarian convoys to provide aid to Rohingya still living in Myanmar.

Naturally, there are a number of bureaucratic obstacles standing in the way of an international peacekeeping operation with a mandate inside Myanmar. Legalities surrounding Myanmar’s sovereignty aside, China (and its veto power in the UN Security Council) also presents itself as an unknown geopolitical quantity.

Nevertheless, establishing a UN safe zone comparable to the one enforced by the French-led Opération Turquoise at the end of the Rwandan Genocide is not an insurmountable task. And inaction, as Robinson’s examination of the radicalisation process shows, is not an option here.

One hopes that if our post-9/11 foreign policy blunders have taught us anything, it is that proactive measures to combat extremism are preferable to reactive measures. Here, unlike in Afghanistan, where direct intervention has long since lost its utility – our outlook for counter-terrorism should be predictive – focused on prevention instead of attrition.

By exerting greater pressure over Myanmar to reign in the actions of its military and by creating an internationally-mandated safe zone in which the Rohingya can find protection, the current crisis in Rakhine state offers a rare opportunity where the perennial roots of terrorism can be pruned before they gnarl and grow.

Jihadist sentiment has not yet become widespread amongst Myanmar’s Rohingya but if the current trend continues and the crisis remains ignored by the international community, that’s a “not yet” that won’t last. The future of Rakhine State should be cause for everyone’s concern.


The sun was setting over the stony hills and the goats were bleating an accompaniment to the changing of the light. The day was almost through and from where she sat in the notch of an acacia tree she could see beyond the hilltops, right to the jagged horizon. Bathed in the glow of day’s end, the distant chain of mountains was alive with colors of orange and rose-pink – colors that made her feel warm and happy and thankful.


Beneath her, a pair of shallow wadis split the open ground while beyond tendrils of dust slithered across the hill-scape. The trees dotting the distant ridgelines were withered and desiccated and a dry evening breeze was blowing gently, tussling with the black locks that fell across her face.

In the plains behind her, the villagers of Yakla were readying themselves for the evening routine.

From the minaret of the town’s tiny mosque, the muezzin was calling the faithful to prayer before the last red thread had disappeared from the sky.

Ash-hadu an-la ilaha ila Allah,” came the muezzin’s lowing accompaniment over the loudspeaker. “I witness that there is no God but God”.

Then, after he had acknowledged his Prophet, the muezzin’s voice grew louder. “Hayya ala as-salah!” he was shouting. “Hie ye to prayer!” “Hayya ala al-falah!” “Hie ye to success!”

The little girl knew of course, that she must go back down to Yakla when the ummah were called to pray. This was the way things were and she was happy to oblige.

Still though, when she was up here with the mountains in the distance and a breeze blowing gently across her face, she felt she could stay forever. Surely everything she could possibly need could be found up here if only she had the courage to just reach out and take it. Sometimes she was jealous of the goatherds. Many of them spent days at a time up here with nothing but the animals and the open air to think about.

“Awwah! What a life!” she thought to herself.  There were no chores to do up here.


From her perch she trained her eyes away from the mountains and towards Yakla. Down in the walled compound where she slept, she could see her mother Maryam looking for her in the yard. By now she would be wondering where her daughter had gone. The little girl would have to make up some excuse for her absence.

She wouldn’t lie of course but perhaps if she came back with dates from the grove there was a good chance her mother would be pleased. As long as she was attending to chores of some kind, the woman couldn’t hardly complain.

The call to prayer was over and the little girl dropped to the ground, gathering up her things. The jagged horizon was darkening behind her and she moved quickly down the rocky ridgeline, flitting through the moraine to the bottom of the hill.

Now on flat ground, she ran to the date grove with her basket held firm in the crook of her elbow. It took her minutes to gather what a lazier girl might gather in an hour. Then, her basket full, she hitched up the hems of her long frock and moved through the dust to the outskirts of town.


Reaching the wall of the first building, she looked to her left and paused for a second. A hundred meters away a man was standing just beyond the edge of the settlement.


Fahad was tall and eighteen-years-old, and with dark-skin, kind eyes and a birdlike face he was both handsome and severe-looking at the same time. Fahad was on guard duty tonight so he would not be going to the mosque to pray. Instead, he had placed his Kalashnikov on the ground beside him and was rolling out a prayer mat on alone.

“Every mujahid his own imam,” as the little girl’s uncle liked to put it.

Fahad had caught her sneaking up to her hilltop perch on many occasions and he’d come to know her well for it. Sometimes he would chide her for these indiscretions, though always with an unusual gentleness.

She liked Fahad and she knew that he liked her back but Fahad hadn’t seen her yet, and so with her homeoming long overdue, she slipped by, unnoticed. Verily, by the time she reached the door of her uncle’s compound, she had done so without being seen by anyone at all.


Her mother Maryam was waiting in the sitting room when she entered. At first the woman looked angry but when she saw the basket of dates in her child’s arms she relaxed a little, bridling her wrath.

Yallah Nawar,” she said. “It is time to pray.”

Nawar – ever the daughter of her late father – liked to go by the Americanized “Nora”, but since she had come back to the house later than expected, she didn’t have much choice in the matter. She was Nawar for now.

The house was empty when they moved to conduct ablutions and by the time they had finished praying the house was still empty. So, with little fanfare, Maryam ushered her daughter into the kitchen.

“Your uncle will be home very soon,” said Maryam.

Nora nodded and began preparing the food.

Abdulraouf Al-Dhahab – Nora’s mother’s brother – had called ahead to say that he would be home in an hour with a guest. As was always the case, it was Maryam’s intention to have everything ready by the time the men arrived. Abdulraouf was the most respected man in Yakla so it was incumbent on Maryam to preserve his reputation with her cooking.

Abdulraouf, and his remaining brothers were the last of the menfolk of the Al-Dhahabs – the pre-eminent clan in the Rada’a district – and since rising to the chieftaincy Abdulraouf had also assumed leadership of the Organisation in Al-Bayda province.

Though she was very young when her uncle came to power Nora had observed Abdulraouf’s rise within the Organization with genuine curiosity over the years.

For the last three years, it seemed, Nora’s uncle had asserted control over the Organization’s Al-Bayda arm with a natural ability. A talented diplomat and negotiator, Abdulraouf was very good at building alliances, proving himself, time and again, to be a master of the minutiae. When visiting with the chiefs of neighbouring clans, for example, he would bring them back to Yakla for elaborate bestowings of fine food, gifts and encomium. A personal but wholly political touch where no detail was to be left unexploited.

Yesterday, Abdulraouf and his brothers had gone to Shabwa for a wedding and today they were bringing home a guest from the reception.

“I do not know much about this guest,” said Nora’s mother as they finished the preparations. The dinner this evening would be a platter of lamb mandi cooked in ghee. Served over rice. With lahoh flatbread for dipping and a large pan of honey-drizzled sabayah for dessert. And dates as well. “All I know is he is Saudi,” Maryam added.

It took Nora and her mother another half an hour to finish the dinner and lay the accoutrement in the sitting room but when the door did open, they were ready in their burqa to hide themselves from the foreign guest.

The men entered all at once – Ahmad, Sultan and Ilah first with Abdulraouf and the guest following closely behind them. Much like Fahad, all the Al-Dhahab men had a rather aquiline appearance – stern and hawkish expressions; sharply dressed in tribal robes with the blade-hilts of their jambiyya tucked into their belt-sashes.

While his brothers walked right past Nora and her mother, Abdulraouf – with a nod towards Maryam – stopped to introduce “Sheikh Seif Al-Nims Al-Joufi” – then he too passed into the sitting room.

The women were alone in the foyer now and once the men were seated, Nora and her mother moved into the kitchen. As she had done many times before, Nora piled the food onto a giant platter, and then, with her mother, carried it out into the sitting room. They lingered for a moment while the men served themselves and then, with a “tsssk!” from Ahmed, they returned to the kitchen to eat their portions.

As she ate her supper, Nora mused about her uncles and their Saudi guest. As always, she was happy when her uncles came home. Abdulraouf and his brothers were not tyrants like the menfolk in the houses of some of Nora’s friends.

That said, affairs in the household of the sheikh were not always as rosy as Nora’s cheeks. Nora knew, for example, that Abdulraouf would hit her mother from time to time because she would often see the aftermath on her face.

Once dessert was served, Nora and Maryam returned again to the kitchen and then, a little later, they heard the men laughing and getting up to leave. Then, in time, Ilah had exited with Al-Joufi to show him to the guesthouse, and now with all the plates and dishes away, Nora and her mother removed their head-coverings and went to sit in the sitting room with Maryam’s brothers.

When they entered, Abdulraouf was sat at the centre of the room with a short-wave radio – antenna fully extended – tuned in to the broadcast from Al-Jazeera. Ahmad and Sultan lay sprawled about the room, relaxing on the long low divans lining the walls.

“There is a new President in America,” said Abdulraouf, head tilted towards the radio.

“Yes,” nodded Ahmad. “President Trumb.”

Abdulraouf nodded and, turning off the radio now, he added. “Yes President Trumb. Sheikh Al-Joufi has told me that this man has begun executing Muslims in America.”

Nauzubillah!” Maryam placed a hand over her mouth. “Why such horror?!”

“He is a yehud,” said Abdulraouf, using the word for “Jew”. “I have heard that he has plans to kill all of the Muslims in America.”

Nauzubillah.” Maryam again. “I seek refuge in God”.

Nazubillah,” nodded Abdulraouf.

“I think this man Trumb is worse than the last President,” added Ahmad.

“Yes.” Abdulraouf again. “He has killed many, many of our brothers.”

“We shall defeat the Crusaders yet.” Ahmad. “And we shall kill them all as they have killed our sons and brothers and fathers. By Allah I swear it.

Abdulraouf nodded again. “Insha…” . “If it is the will of….”

His voice was cut short by a low droning buzz coming from outside the house.

The sound was unfamiliar to Nora so she looked to her elders for an explanation. The calm expressions of men at home had been replaced with anxious looks. Worried looks. Looks that were fearful even.

Silence now. Silence except for the buzz.

“What is that?!” Abdulraouf said in a quiet voice.

Ahmad reached for an assault rifle in the corner of the room and was up and out the side door, jogging into the compound yard.

The buzzing noise had become louder now. The sound was surely from an engine – Nora realized – because it sounded like the bwerrr of a motorcycle without a muffler.

Al-zinana,” said Abdulraouf at once. “Drone.”

Without warning, a shockwave blasted through the room and everyone was thrown off their feet. There echoed the boom of a very close-by explosion and dust was falling from the ceiling. A moment of silence while everyone collected themselves. Nora’s ears were ringing.

Yallah!” Abdulraouf was shouting at his sister now. “Bring me the arbijy!”

At her brother’s bidding, Maryam ran across the room, turned a corner, disappeared for a moment and then came back with a long tubular weapon. Nora knew from listening in to her uncles’ conversations that this was a weapon capable of destruction on a theatrical scale.

“Where are the rockets?!” shouted Abdulraouf. He looked angry as he ripped the rocket launcher from his sister’s grasp.

Again Maryam disappeared and in an instant she was back, fumbling and juggling with a trio of silver-tipped rockets.

“Go!” Abdulraouf shouted to her now, pointing at another assault rifle lying at the far corner of the room. “Find Arwa! Fight!”

Arwa was Maryam’s friend – a Saudi woman who had married one of Abdulraouf’s fighters many years ago. Arwa and Maryam had both learned how to use weapons.

“Gooooo!” Abdulraouf was shouting now, lashings of spittle catching in his moustache.

Ahmad instructed Nora to remain inside the house, and then he was gone and everyone was gone now and there was gunfire now as well – the chatter of a machine gun – and there was the sound of missiles and the the rumble of helicopter rotors somewhere in the distance accompanied by the bwerrr of a louder, more powerful machine gun coming from somewhere off in the sky. Then there was the sound of a rocket and another rocket then more gunfire and all of a sudden there was a loud bang and then another fizz of a rocket and another bang – a bang building into an explosion – and then a crash as a helicopter or an aircraft or indeed a V-22 Osprey (though Nora did not know it) landed hard in the middle of Yakla.

More gunfire. Grenades. Screaming. Gunfire.

Then Nora’s mother had re-entered the house and she had a Kalashnikov in her hands and Abdulraouf was coming back through the door as well with his rocket launcher but he was all out of rockets and Fahad – the birdlike youth – was right behind his leader. And now Abdoulraouf had discarded the empty rocket launcher and he had run into the adjacent room and he was already back with a Kalashnikov and now they were ready for a stand-off inside the room and the only thing said by anyone now was “ummi!” or “mama!” from the little girl and her eyes were filled with tears because she didn’t understand what was happening.

Then, without warning there was a bright flash and a bang and Nora was blind and there were explosions all throughout the room and then something sharp slammed into her throat and all of a sudden she was lying on her back on a divan and she turned her head to the side and saw that Abdulraouf’s stomach was open with his innards pouring onto the floor and her mother was crumpled in a sad little pile in the corner of the room like a bundle of disheveled laundry. And Fahad – there was no more Fahad.

And now there were two strange men in the room – clad in camouflage and wearing body armour and helmets and carrying fearsome looking sand-colour-painted assault rifles. Both of them had a presence in the room which was dominating and it occurred to Nora that these strangely-dressed men could just as well have been some strange race of cyborgs for the quad-tubular goggles dangling in front of their eyes.

“Clear!” one of them shouted in a language Nora did not understand.

“Fuck! Those two are women!” Shouted the other one.

“Check for vests!” shouted another.

Nora watched as the first man lifted the strange quad-tubular goggles off his eyes and reached down to frisk her mother’s corpse. “Clear,” he stated, emphatically, after a few brisk movements. The strange man stood above Nora now and when he saw the blood seeping from her neck she could see that there was remorse in his eyes and he gave her a quick pat before he said “clear” again and then he stepped away with an ashen look, flitting his head from Nora to her mother and then back to the little girl and then back to her mother’s body as if he was trying to make sense of it all.

There was silence for a moment. Then a – “Fuck! Owens is down!”

A third man – “Owens” – had entered the room during the battle and he had taken a bullet just like Nora had taken a bullet and the bullet had gone straight into his neck in a very similar location to where the bullet had entered Nora’s own neck.

From where she lay, spluttering, with a torrent of warm, dark blood springing from the bullet hole, Nora could see the man they were calling Owens and she could see too that he could see her as well. And he was looking at her. He was looking at her and she could see his eyes. Owens’ eyes.

This man has gentle eyes, she thought. She quite liked Owens. But why was Owens here?

Eight years wise now, Nawar Al-Awlaqi was old enough to know that none of these men had come here to kill her. Why would any man, least of all a man with eyes like Owens’ eyes – come all this way from wherever he had come from – America she supposed – just to kill her? Why would anyone come all this way for her – the little girl from Yakla?

She knew of course that none of these men had chosen to come here. She was old enough to know that much. Their coming here was somebody else’s decision.

And yet… and yet here they were. And here she was. And she knew that she was dying because it hurt too much to mean anything else. And the two strange men were speaking to each other now in that same language and they were moving now but she didn’t understand what they were doing or what was happening or where they were going except that one of them had put Owens’ body on top of his shoulders and the other one had his gun up as he stepped out the door.

There was a lot going on but she didn’t understand much of it. Really, all she understood was that she was lying in a pool of warmth on a divan and that her neck hurt very much. Too much. And it was hard for her to breathe. That much, she understood. The rest though… the rest she just couldn’t understand.


Nora Al-Awlaqi


Chief Petty Officer William Owens




Orwell on Perpetual War

A fictional strategist’s logic for the continuation of hostilities in Eurasia/Eastasia:

“The war, therefore, if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture. It is like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. It eats up the surplus of consumable goods, and it helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs. War, it will be seen, is now a purely internal affair.”


Afghanistan: No Viable Goals and No End in Sight

With confirmation from United States officials earlier this week that an additional 4,000 troops will be sent to buttress the training and advisory mission in Afghanistan, one is forced to consider what to make of the state of affairs in that country. Frankly, it’s time the public started asking the hard questions, especially in light of Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne’s pledge that “[Australia] will always consider requests from the United States — our most important ally — for assistance”.

So what long-term national security interests are likely to be achieved by the US and its allies in Afghanistan in the future. Is the task to “defeat the Taliban” an impossible mission guided by a skewed sense of what the military can realistically accomplish? Is the current training mission “a bandaid for a bullet wound”, as one US combat advisor described it? A boulder to be rolled uphill by the military for all eternity, with an ever-so-slightly different campaign plan every four years?

According to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, one of the chief architects of Donald Trump’s “new” strategy, the plan announced earlier this week draws on lessons learnt by the combat advisory teams who deployed alongside the Iraqi Army in the fight against Islamic State. The main takeaway, apparently, is that embedding Western military advisers with forward units is better than leaving them behind at base.

With a “frontline” emphasis for Trump’s campaign plan, you can see similarities to another “new” campaign plan recently outlined by Senator John McCain, who applauded Trump’s speech as a “big step in the right direction”. In his strategy, McCain argued that a “long-term, open-ended counter-terrorism partnership” with the Afghan government and the deployment of military adviser-trainers with the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces at the kandak (battalion) level instead of the higher corps level was the key to victory. What this means is that more troops are wanted to achieve a set of goals that a much larger force in 2011 could not achieve either.

To the uninitiated, a strategy that splits hairs over minutiae in mission structure instead of having a frank discussion about the mission’s fundamental problems might seem a little beside the point, especially when one considers that violence in Afghanistan derives less from non-desirable teacher-student ratios in US-Afghan training camps than it does from complex feuds over tribe and religion.

“There’s always more you can do — more advisers you can send, more capabilities you can develop for the Afghans,” says Dr Mike Martin, a Pashto-speaking former British army officer and research fellow at King’s College London.

“The Afghan government will take the support gladly because they would prefer that foreigners do the fighting for them. If you are an Afghan faction this is the game: get some foreigners to fight for you”.

Rather than being dragged into the conflict every time a new feud erupts between the Afghan government and its local enemies, Dr Martin argues, what is needed is simply a “minimum viable force” — the smallest possible training and support mission and a small counter-terrorism force — to keep the government afloat. This would prevent both mission creep and everybody’s worst case scenario — the fall of Kabul.

With such calls for minimalism seemingly sidelined in the President’s new strategy, however, the question that arises is what are an extra 4,000 troops going to do that the 100,000 deployed by President Obama in 2011 could not?

One begins to wonder if the emphasis on numbers and mission structure is a distraction from more basic problems looming in the background. Problems such as, say, the possibility that the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces might not be a viable fighting force without a permanent US military presence to buttress it.

The looming likelihood of a permanent war-footing for America in Afghanistan is worthy of consideration, not least because a core theme of Trump’s speech revolved around the idea that “conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy [from] now on”.

There’s a strong whiff of McMaster and Mattis in this phrasing because it’s indubitably correct that wars do not conform to neat timescales. It’s also true that this rhetoric can be interpreted as an attempt by Trump to distance himself from Mr Obama — a man strongly criticised for announcing his withdrawal timeline and giving the Taliban cause to “wait the US out”.

At the same time, even if Trump is right, that conditions instead of preferred timeframes should dictate decisions, it does nothing to allay the public’s concern that Afghanistan has become a case study in “endless war”.

But this is what makes the way Western governments formulate Afghanistan policy so frustrating. While a vague set of goals are well-known to the public — “disrupting and dismantling the neo-Taliban insurgency” or “denying sanctuary to jihadist groups” for example — never has a single campaign plan shown signs of permanently achieving any of these goals.

Preferred though they may be, they just don’t seem particularly achievable.

If jihadist ideology cannot be wholly eradicated on the Afghan-Pakistan border, is there a point at which we can call its outreach successfully contained? If “the Taliban” cannot be militarily defeated then at what point should other options be explored?

If Trump is good to his word that “perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban”, then what are the conditions in which this settlement could occur? At what point does the US President seek conflict termination over conflict perpetuation?

Trump needs to outline as clearly as possible by what quantifiable metrics his mission would be deemed a success. At present, we have none.

All in all, too many questions remain unanswered. With no tangible goals, no maximum spends and no body count cut-offs provided in Trump’s strategy-free strategy for Afghanistan, the public cannot but keep guessing how, when or even if Western military involvement in the country will come to an end. And that is exactly the problem.


Isolation and Deviance in the Military

Antipodean audiences are no doubt disturbed by a slew of recent allegations that members of the Australian and New Zealand special forces were responsible for the unlawful killing of civilians during operations in Afghanistan.

The shock delivered to the cultural landscape of these two, geographically-isolated island-nations cannot be understated.

In both countries, ANZAC Day – a day of commemorative remembrance for the soldiers of the “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps” of World War One – is marked as a sacrosanct ritual in the national calendar. For Australians especially, the mythology of “the Digger” – the garrulous but well-meaning Australian soldier – occupies an important role in the formation of the broader communal identity.

As a former Australian soldier myself, to think that my country’s most highly-trained Diggers would carry out atrocities while carrying a worn insignia of the Australian National Flag is to undermine a foundational myth about who “we” [Australians] are as a people – requiring an inward gaze that is at once too raw and atavistic for it to be comfortable.

And yet, as Erich Remarque once said of the horrors of the Western Front and as Churchill once said of “the truth” more broadly: “there it is” – and this is what has been done in our name.

Of course, given what anthropologists know about the propensity for violence in all human societies – national myths like that of “the spotless ANZAC” are begging to be dispelled.

Unpleasant as it may be to stew on, ANZAC forces were the guilty party in at least two notorious episodes during World War One – one, a drunken riot through Cairo’s Wazzir district which left the place half-burned to the ground; the other, the premeditated massacre of more than one hundred Bedouin males in the Arab village of Surafend.

Rather than getting bogged down in the obvious however (that barbaric violence is not exclusive to one’s enemy) the key to understanding any act of wartime misconduct is to examine the specific cultural context in which it occurred. At the meta-level, the use of the word “crime” in the term “war crime” naturally implies deviance. But since the incidents in Afghanistan do not seem to have occurred in isolation, it makes sense to look at this kind of individuating behavior as a socialization problem as well.

On the whole, the majority of the allegations levelled at Western forces in Afghanistan pertain to incidents involving so-called “special forces” – the hand-picked cadres of shock troops styled as elite fighters in modern Western militaries – so it also makes sense to focus on the cultural habits within these units themselves.

First and foremost, “special” forces derive their nominal adjective in that they are specially groomed for the most special and dangerous military tasks following a rigorous training process. This training process, often referred to as “selection” by members of these units, typically involves the completion of an arduous set of tasks designed to test a soldier’s physical and mental acumen.

Functioning as a rite of passage comparable to the agōgē curriculum in ancient Sparta – this selection process creates a closed-circle environment where credibility within the group is determined by a member’s “badged” status – proof that he is a graduate of the selection system. The consequences of the closed-circle environment that selection creates is two-fold. One the one hand, such units are able to break with the regimented methodologies of the conventional army – finding a space for lateral thinking and flexibility in the performance of military duties.

On the other hand however, by elevating and separating “special operators” from their regular counterparts, the end result is the creation of an effective “Army within an Army” which conducts its business at a distance, and sometimes in isolation of the rest of the force.

The word “isolation” is the operative word here, because in more ways than one, it is useful for describing the kinds of cultural and geographic spaces in which aberrant behavior like war crimes can occur.

From a geographic perspective, one of the whistleblowers in the ABC’s reporting, explicitly emphasized that Afghanistan’s “remote, isolated environment” provided a space in which the laws of war could be bent by “an influential minority” within special forces.

The imaginarium of “rural Afghanistan by night” also describes the kind of environment in which deviant behaviour might occur. Elementary human fears of the dark aside, the nighttime provides a domain in which potential witnesses are either asleep or numerically few – where the harsh detail of the light of day is hidden to prying eyes.

The specifically nocturnal aspect of some of the alleged incidents cannot be ignored, not least because night raids by Western special forces proved to be an ongoing sore point in the relationship between coalition forces and Afghans at the height of combat operations. After a spike in killings associated with HVT operations in August 2010, the tempo of night raids remained steady country-wide until the death of Hamid Karzai’s cousin, Yar Mohammad Karzai during a midnight attack in rural Kandahar. Although data collected by the Afghan Analyst’s Network suggests that ISAF began “taking more care” following this incident, night operations – especially those conducted by special forces – continued until Karzai himself (responding to pressure by local Afghans) issued a wholesale proscription on actions at night by ISAF in April 2012.

Karzai’s ban notwithstanding however, a number of former SOTG members have since recounted that raid planners simply took the proscription in stride. For the most part, night raids continued with H-hour timed for “nautical first light” – an hour when only those equipped with night-vision equipment would be able to effectively conduct operations.


Why the spike in August 2010? (Source: AAN)


Elsewhere, other factors are also at play in what Dr Megan McKenzie has described as special forces’ “culture of exceptionalism”. The structural isolation from the rest of the army, while it provides special forces units a degree of autonomy, can also provide a space where governance over an individual soldier’s actions (especially his actions on the battlefield) ceases to be vertically-defined. In such an environment, where “rank is nothing compared to talent”, the possible implications vis-à-vis a special operator’s “freedom of action” are many (and perhaps self-explanatory).

Referring specifically to the loose leash given to special forces in Afghanistan, Chris Green, a British Army intelligence officer who served in Helmand stated that “the troops I worked with, worked under very very strict rules of engagement… it seemed to me that special forces did not have to apply the same rules in quite the same way”.

On the same topic, the ABC’s whistleblower speaks of a “lack of accountability”, “protectionism” (as in, protecting one’s peers from facing repercussions for unlawful behavior), “self-glorification” and a “culture of emulation” where other soldiers’ and other units’ “kill counts” are trophies to be envied. Bed Wadham, a former military investigator and sociologist at Flinders University neatly describes the entire phenomenon as “violent elitism”, arguing that unlawful deviance can occur as a result of “team cohesion in elite groups… who operate with the belief that they are above the law”.

Certainly, none of this should be surprising to anyone who has properly digested the semiotics of the title “Rogue Warrior” – the autobiography of SEAL Team Six founder Richard Marcinko – whose unit now stands accused of a post-mortem practice called “canoeing” described as “a ritualised form of enemy mutilation”.

It’s important to point out that the autonomous and selective nature of special forces in and of itself, does not necessarily “cause” a war crime situation to occur. Special forces selection courses specifically seek to identify professional integrity in an individual – meaning that the ethical caliber of the average soldier may be higher than in a regular military unit.

Moreover, battle fatigue, as well as the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from over a decade-and-a-half of sustained combat operations surely plays a role here, especially when one considers that many of the soldiers in the reporting were involved in nightly raids six-days-a-week on up to eight back-to-back tours in heavily-contested parts of Afghanistan.

Indeed, “moral injury” – which social psychiatrist Brett Litz contends is caused by transgressions against deeply-held ethical and cultural norms – could be linked to the “un-truing” of a soldier’s moral compass in certain cases.

The connection between prior (traumatic) military service and violent crime has recently been discussed by Hugh Gusterson in his inquiries into mass shootings in the United States. Although, at first glance, Gusterson’s discussion seems to be compromised by its typecasting of veterans as crazed Rambos, the link between combat stress and deviance in the military should not be overlooked.

One need only look to the experiences of the American soldiers during the events immediately leading up to Mỹ Lai to observe a correlation (though not necessarily causation) between combat stress and the killing of civilians. The potential link between combat stress and war crimes situations is certainly one which requires more examination.

In any case, the causes of deviant behavior in wartime are complex and multifarious. Few of the mentioned causes, in isolation, seem sufficient to produce a war crime situation although “isolation” itself – both geographic and cultural – seem a necessary condition for a perpetrator to escape accountability and oversight.

Either way, a breakdown of discipline and a dearth in restraint is at fault here – two battlefield phenomena from which no one – least of all, a professionalised military with a reputation to maintain – stands to benefit. Ultimately, when the application of force – that is, killing – becomes not merely a means to an end but rather the end itself, a military force will tend to find itself increasingly less useful to the government it serves. If the allegations are telling of the larger state of affairs within the units in question, Australia and New Zealand’s special forces are heading that way.

‘Land, kill and leave’: On CIVCAS and HVT

The photographs, the documents, the whistleblower testimony are all there — the brutal details of our diggers’ conduct brought forward into the harsh light of day.

A blow has been dealt to the prestige of Australia’s special forces with in-kind damages likely to follow for the reputation of the Australian Army as a whole.

At first, it might seem tempting to think of these kinds of events as isolated incidents that do not speak to a more widespread problem within the Army’s special operations community. But misconduct on the battlefield also speaks to a wayward shift in a military force’s broader operating culture.

Along with the Maywand District murders and the Panjywai massacre, what these new allegations levelled against Australian soldiers in Uruzgan will come to symbolise is the ultimate failure of Western militaries to adapt to a fight where the decisive battle was the human terrain.

According to our military leaders, the reason for Australia’s presence in Uruzgan province between 2001 and 2014 was to “clear, hold and build” a Taliban-free Afghanistan. Per counterinsurgency doctrine, by providing an enduring sense of physical security to local Afghans, the “hearts and minds” as well as the rifles and trigger-fingers of fighting-aged males in Uruzgan would eventually be won over.

At some point it seems that this strategic guidance either failed or was wholly ignored.

While Special Operations soldiers had earlier played a kind of “guardian angel” role in support of their regular counterparts in the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force, as the Afghan war dragged on, that role became increasingly aggressive.

An upsurge in “direct action” operations began to distract from efforts to secure the population. By 2010, much of the task group was solely focused on so-called “high-value targeting” — the coalition’s effort to kill or capture an ever-growing list of local Taliban “commanders”.

As a former Special Operations Task Group member drily put it to me, the new penchant for fly-in fly-out missions conducted out the side of a Black Hawk saw the entire concept of operations switch from “clear, hold and build” to “land, kill and leave”.

Of course, operating in this manner was never going to defeat the Taliban. Insurgencies are complex adaptive systems capable of surviving the deaths of leaders. As David Kilcullen writes in Counterinsurgency: “decapitation has rarely succeeded [and] with good reason — efforts to kill or capture insurgent leaders inject energy into the system by generating grievances and causing disparate groups to coalesce”.

All this considered then, by channelling an apparent “shoot first, never ask questions at all” ethos, there’s a good argument to be made that much of SOTG’s work in the final years of the Afghan War was counter-productive.

In many ways, the sunset years of operations in Afghanistan marked a transitional moment in the Australian way of war — one which saw our special forces transformed into the hyper-conventional juggernaut it has become today.

In other Western forces, the over-emphasis on “conventionalised” operations — that is heavy-hitting operations which deviate from the subtle and indirect approach of yesteryear — has had similar results on the ground.

The Australian flag sowed onto the arm of a military uniform worn by a man

Courtesy: ABC News

The New Zealand SAS is currently reeling from allegations that its members carried out “revenge raids” against civilians. US Navy SEAL Teams have now been linked to extra-judicial killings and corpse desecration on the battlefield. In Britain too, the story is much the same. Reports of “rogue” SAS troopers and battlefield executions. Civilian casualties. A Ministry of Defence probe into war crimes allegations.

Incident by incident, this is how the war in Afghanistan was lost.

Despite more than a decade and a half of sustained military effort, today Taliban and other extremist groups cover as much as 40 per cent of the country.

Certainly, where our own efforts are concerned, the data is clear. Australia’s war in Afghanistan was a failure. According to the Institute for the Study of War, districts like Shah Wali Kot (where Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith’s VC-winning charge took place) are now categorised as “high confidence Taliban support zones”.

Elsewhere, the observable metrics on the ground speak for themselves. In 2002, US intelligence estimated the Taliban’s strength at 7,000 fighters. As of 2016, that number has increased to 25,000. As this year’s spring fighting season begins, the Taliban still control roughly a quarter of Afghanistan.

More than anything, what these new revelations demonstrate is that somewhere along the way our military, and our special forces in particular, simply lost the ability to effectively counter an insurgency.

Once upon a time, “the best of the best” were trained to operate like “phantoms” — treading lightly and prudently alongside their local partners.

Today, however, the legacy they will leave behind in the minds of Afghans will be a brutal one. The civilian cost of the Special Operations Task Group’s operations in Afghanistan is now apparent for all to see.

Escaping the Flood

In my car next to the trailhead, I switch on my headlamp and step out into the cold air. The night is dark but my tiny beam of light splits the heavy mist like a ship’s lantern through thick sea fog. In running tights and an ultra-lite shell, I am cold in the pre-dawn chill. For a moment, I consider throwing on another layer.

You should just get moving, I say to myself, because I know that when I’m moving I’ll become warmer. So that is what I do. By the time I’ve reached the first of the switchbacks I am warmer and I’ve found my stride. Below me, the creekbed boulders rumble, pushed along by a torrent of rushing snowmelt.

Rubble Creek. So no-named for the remnants of an ancient First Nations village that lies beneath. Sp’u7ets – meaning “boulders” – the Lil’wat people call this place. One day, a great rockslide washed it all away. Caused by the beating wings of the Thunderbird, they say.

My thoughts flit back to the trail. Planting the tips of my poles into the loamy ground – I move forward and upward. My pack is small – a daypack really with some water, a few energy gels, a down jacket and rain pants – although I’ve leashed a pair of snowshoes to the outside. It was a long, wet winter and there’s still a lot of snow up there.

At dawn I reach the lookout for the volcanic plug known as “the barrier”.

Behind that wall, I muse, lies Lake Garibaldi and a million years of pent-up energy. A natural dam created by a quick-cooling lava flow, geologists at UBC have assessed the barrier structure as “extremely unstable”. At its base, Rubble Creek flows from a breach in the moraine.

One day, the whole thing will go and Squamish will share the same fate as Sp’u7ets.

I keep moving. Half an hour later I’ve reached the lake-rim. An hour later, with snowshoes on now, I’ve passed Taylor Meadows and the snowline. The snow, though old and beginning to rot, crunches happily beneath my snowshoes.

Old White, my friend. It is good to see you again. I haven’t skied much this winter. “Obligations”. But now, here I am. By myself. Above it all. Escaped. At last.

In the distance, I catch a glimpse of Mount Garibaldi. Nch’kay – “muddy”. Garibaldi’s glacial névé forms the source of the muddy waters of the Cheekeye.  According to Squamish legend, during a time of great flooding, their ancestors sought sanctuary on the summit. Only on the highest peak in the area could they escape the Flood and the Mud.

Back in the post-diluvian era – in the world after the Flood – I keep moving. Then, I see it. My objective. The Black Tusk. T’k’t’ak mu’yin tl’a in7in’a’xe7en .  “Landing Place of the Thunderbird”. A jagged pinnacle of volcanic rock lancing into the sky. I remember climbing it a few summers ago. The feeling of the warm, cinder-rich rock beneath my hands – the mountain a pinnacle of debris – black and andesitic. Shattered, as though from the impact of some gigantic bird of prey.

As First Nations tell it, it was here where the Thunderbird landed to comfort the Flood’s survivors. He gave them food. He nurtured them – wrapping them in His wing.

It suddenly occurs to me that the apparent duality of the Thunderbird is important. Its wings can nurture or its can wings can flap. It can provide comfort or it can wreak havoc. A true creator-destroyer. Like the mountains themselves.

Starting up the approach slopes of the snow-covered Tusk, I look down at my watch. I see the numbers and suddenly, I stop. Six hours have lapsed since I left the car. Today is a work day for me – I’m moonlighting for a night shift tonight. I realise I’ve run out of time. A part of me of wants to push on – to sever ties with the world below. Ditch the clock. Forget my obligations. Linger in the sunshine. Keep in company with the snows. Escape entirely.

I mull over it. What would happen if I just stayed here?

But I can’t stay here. Our time in the mountains is only temporary – will always be temporary. The comfort the Thunderbird can provide only fleeting.  Sooner or later, we all must return to the Mud below.

Besides. The mountain – as they say – “isn’t going anywhere”. And I live here after all. The trailhead’s a twenty minute drive from my door step. I turn around. I make my way back down to Rubble Creek.

Wadi Boraq

Photo: Squamish-Lilw’at Cultural Centre/Squamish Public Library

Boko Haram’s Decline Will Reveal Nigeria’s Bigger Problems

A good news story, seemingly rare these days, came in Sunday’s announcement that Boko Haram — a jihadist group currently menacing Nigeria’s north — released 82 of the 276 schoolgirls they had previously abducted from the town of Chibok.

While it is too early to speculate about what this means for the group’s long-term political future, there should be no doubt that this deal was negotiated with the Nigerian Government in a position of strength.

Even as Boko Haram continues amassing fighters — recruiting over 2,000 children in 2016 alone — and spreading fear through its online propaganda campaign, since late last year structural weaknesses within the group have begun to show.

Following a leadership spill between Abubakar Shekau, the successor to the group’s spiritual founder Ustaz Mohammad Yussef, and the group’s spokesman Abu Musab Al-Barnawi, factional in-fighting between the two camps has led to deadly skirmishes on a number of occasions.

A reinvigorated campaign by the Nigerian military corresponding with the 2015 election of hardline former general Muhammadu Buhari has also enjoyed progress against Boko Haram.

So far at least, the changes implemented by Buhari and his newly-appointed commanders seem to have had a positive effect on the battlespace.

Shifting the location of the operational headquarters from Abuja to Maiduguri (the locus of the problem), overhauling military procurement by cracking down on budgetary mismanagement and adjusting the Army’s tactical focus to saturation patrolling throughout Borno state are among the positive measures which saw the number of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria decrease from 270 in 2015 to just 36 in 2016.

On the whole it seems, especially with Sunday’s news of the Chibok schoolgirls’ release, improvements on the ground in northern Nigeria appear to be increasingly and incrementally tangible — at least, when compared with the worsening situation in Mali.

Concurrently however, the UK Foreign Office, in updating its in-country travel advisory, reported the receipt of new information that Boko Haram was “actively planning to kidnap Western foreign workers along the Kumshe-Banki axis” near the Nigeria-Cameroon border.

Of course, the kidnapping of foreign aid workers and oil workers by jihadists is not a new phenomenon in West Africa. Neither is the emergence of a specific threat is not suggestive of the historical absence of the same threat.

If it’s true though, that Boko Haram is now searching for an explicitly Western kidnapping target to boost its global profile, then it would indicate that a crucial psychological tool and bargaining chip has been lost in the release of the Chibok schoolgirls.

Furthermore, if Boko Haram’s increasingly splintering membership is shifting the emphasis away from large-scale military operations towards low-level kidnappings then the group’s relative strategic position is perhaps in even worse shape than previously thought.

Just as the 2014 kidnapping and beheading of the French mountaineer Herve Gourdel by a group of Islamic State sympathisers in Algeria revealed the work of a peripheral subgroup vying for relevance, a transition away from mass abductions of entire girls’ schools in favour of bundling stray Westerners into people-mover vans would seem to show Boko Haram as a militant group in decline.

If we go by the number of attacks alone, Boko Haram’s “power” — that is, its ability to project military force over territory that it controls — does seem to be decreasing.

That said, if the last decade and a half spent “fighting terrorism” has shown us anything, it is that eliminating the threat posed by jihadist groups is a task which transcends success on the battlefield.

An individual kidnapping, while a comparatively miniscule event, can still have a profound psychological impact on a target population.

This is even more pronounced when the individuals being targeted are foreign aid workers whose reconstruction work, per the counterinsurgency theorist David Kilcullen, is crucial for “hardwiring” militants out of the local environment.

As such, while Mr Buhari is right to be proud of the fact that Boko Haram is no longer capable of “articulated conventional attacks on centres of communication and populations”, his attendant claim (articulated as early as December 2015) that Boko Haram is “technically defeated” continues to be, at best, a little optimistic.

As the International Crisis Group summarised of the situation in May last year: “Boko Haram is seemingly on a back foot … [but] it is unlikely to be eliminated in a decisive battle.”

Naturally, excessively focussing on one’s military successes also allows Mr Buhari to divert attention away from deeper structural problems in Nigeria which underlie the jihadist crisis.

Corruption in particular remains a persistent driver of local instability.

According to one study by PricewaterhouseCoopers, if the misappropriation of funds by key influencers is left unchecked by 2030 it could cost the Nigerian economy up to 37 per cent of the national GDP.

The Nigerian public’s trust in its own institutions, especially the police force, is also at an all-time low.

It’s not all depressing though. Culturally, at least, Mr Buhari does not have a difficult adversary to contend with in Boko Haram.

On a grand historical timescale, it is difficult to imagine that a group as bizarre as Boko Haram — which at one point introduced a tax “for breathing” on some residents in a suburb of Maiduguri — could actually impose what they wish to see imposed on the Nigerian people.

Certainly, the rise of anti-Boko vigilante groups since the Chibok kidnappings would seem to indicate that on some fundamental level the group’s use of child suicide bombers and its propensity for sexual slavery simply does not resonate with the locals.

Likewise, if Nigeria’s generals are to be believed and the territory now controlled by Boko Haram is confined to a few jungled pockets of the Sambisi Forest, then that, at the very least, is a sign of progress.

And yet, as much as the world would like to see Mr Buhari’s mission accomplished, positive trends do not a “technical defeat” make.

As Stephen Chan from SOAS-University of London glibly put it: “Something is rotten in Nigeria — and something peculiarly Nigerian at that.”

The rot, if the metaphor carries, continues to fester, unabated. And until that rot is excised, whole-bodily from the Nigerian system, it is likely that the extremist problem will persist.