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Dr. Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed at @bkampmark.

The Right to Clean Air in Jakarta

It seems utterly beyond debate but acknowledging legal rights to clean air has assumed the makings of a slow march over the years. The 1956 Clean Air Act in Britain arose from the lethal effects of London’s 1952 killer smog, which is said to have taken some 12,000 lives. The Act granted powers to establish smoke-free zones and subsidise householders to shift to the use of cleaner fuels (gas, electricity, smokeless solid fuel).

There is certainly no shortage of advocates for the self-evident point that clean air is vital. Some of this has been reduced – at least historically – to an issue about the non-smoker’s wish not to have the air clouded by the selfish actions of a smoker. But this is small beer when compared to the general levels of global pollution that keeps the Grim Reaper busy on an annual basis. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution kills 7 million or so people each year, with 9 out of 10 people breathing air “that exceeds WHO guideline limits containing high levels of pollutants, with low- and middle-income countries suffering from the highest exposures.”

In 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment David R. Boyd noted approvingly that a majority of States had, be it through their constitutions, statutes and regional treaties, recognised the right to a healthy environment. But recognition for such a right on a global level remained an unfulfilled object. The UN General Assembly, for instance, may have adopted a range of resolutions on the right to clean water, but never on the right to clean air. This is despite such a right being, according to Boyd, “implicit in a number of international human rights instruments, including the Universal Declaration to Human Rights (right to adequate standard of living), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (right to life) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (right to health).”

This month, a flutter of interest was caused by a ruling in the Central Jakarta District Court on a lawsuit lodged two years before accusing the Indonesian government of unlawfully permitting air pollution in the capital to exceed permissible, healthy limits. Citizens such as Istu Prayogi, who had never so much as touched a cigarette in their lives, joined the suit after his lungs revealed the sort of lung damage that would arise from being a heroic, persistent smoker.

The unanimous decision by the three-judge panel found that the seven officials concerned, including President Joko Widodo, three cabinet ministers and the governors of Jakarta, Banten and West Java were negligent in not upholding environmental standards. As Duta Baskara, one of the panel members observed, “They have been negligent in fulfilling the rights of citizens to a good and healthy environment.” The judges, however, dismissed the applicants’ submission claiming that the president had violated human rights.

The court directed that the seven officials take serious action to guarantee the rights of Jakarta’s residents by improving air-quality regulations and implementing measures to protect human health, the environment and ecosystems informed by science and technology. Environmental laws would also have to be policed more rigorously, along with the imposition of sanctions for offenders.

 

Photo from en.tempo.co

 

The scale of this effort is hard to exaggerate. On June 4, 2019, Jakarta registered the worst air quality in the world, if one takes the readings of the air quality monitoring app AirVisual as accurate. At 210 on the Air Quality Index (AQI), the city keeps ahead of the pack of other polluters such as New Delhi, Beijing and Dubai.

Rapporteur Boyd also offered his services to the 32 applicants, writing in his supporting brief that, “Protecting human rights from the harmful effects of air pollution is a constitutional and legislative obligation for governments in Indonesia, not an option.” The director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, Nur Hidayati, affirmed this view to The Jakarta Post in early June that breathing “clean air is our right that the government has to fulfil.”

These are not positions plucked out of some speculative realm of legal reasoning. The right to clean air in Indonesia is guaranteed by such legal documents as the country’s 1945 Constitution and the 1999 Law on Environmental Protection and Management. But the writ of law is not always a guarantee of its policing.

Before the September decision, Jakarta’s governor, Anies Baswedan, did not feel that a ruling against the authorities would cause much fuss. As the governor’s climate change envoy Irvan Pulunga explained, “The governor doesn’t see this lawsuit as a disturbance to the government’s work but a vehicle for collaboration.” Pulungan also insisted that improvements had been made to the city’s air quality over the course of two years.

This tune coming from the office of president has been somewhat different, more a case of fleeing rather than addressing a problem. In part, this is understandable, given that Jakarta has become a city of nightmares for policy makers, urban planners and the authorities. Few such concentrations of humanity on the planet are as plagued by environmental concerns. To debilitating air pollution can be added flooding, regular seismic activity and gradual subsidence.

Only a month after the lawsuit was filed, the president proposed relocating the capital to another spot to be built in East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. “The burden Jakarta is holding right now,” he claimed at the time, “is too heavy as the centre of governance, business, finance, trade and services.” Such moves promise to abandon one problem by creating another, given the risks posed to the environment of East Kalimantan.

Showing a spirit not exactly collaborative in nature, an appeal against the ruling is expected by the government. Jakarta’s governor, in particular, finds himself facing a range of orders from the court, including designing environmental “strategies” and policies to mitigate the air pollution” under the direction of the supervision of the Home Affairs Minister.

Modest as it is, the victory for the applicants in the Central Jakarta District Court shows, at the very least, that that courts remain an increasingly important forum to force the hand of legislatures in ensuring that something so elementarily vital is not just seen as a right but enforced as one.

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The Anglo Unilateralists Strike

When President Joe Biden won the White House, he promised, with a facility of unceasing boredom, that diplomacy was back. “Diplomacy is back at the centre of our foreign policy,” he stated on February 4. “As I said in my inaugural address, we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.”

The fact that such diplomacy had never gone away seemed to escape him. In the simpleton’s view of politics, his predecessor had abandoned the jaw jaw approach to international relations for muscular and mindless US unilateralism. Allies had been belittled, ignored and mocked. Strongmen had been feted, admired and praised. It was now incumbent upon the United States, urged Biden, that “American leadership” confront “this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.”

It would have been more accurate to say that President Donald Trump’s coarse, business board room model was simply too much of a shock for those familiarly comfortable with guile, deception and dissimulation. But Biden’s return to acceptable hypocrisy did not mask the “America First” note in his temper. Since then, that temper has seen a dramatic, ahead-of-schedule exit from Afghanistan, building on Trump’s undertakings to conclude open-ended wars and commitments. US allies began to wonder whether the Biden model was that different from Trump’s cruder original.

With the announcement on September 15 of the trilateral security pact AUKUS, an agreement between the United States, United Kingdom and Australia to deepen military ties in an effort to contain China, the “diplomacy is back” cart was soiled and upended. The European Union had not been consulted. A furious France only received a few hours’ notice that the agreement they had made through the Naval Group with Australia to construct the next generation of attack class submarines had been dissolved. Countries in the Indo-Pacific were also left in the dark.

France, in some ways even more than China, the primary target of AUKUS, is incandescent with rage. On Franceinfo radio, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was unsparing in his remarks. “This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr Trump used to do.” He confessed to feeling anger and bitterness. “This isn’t done between allies.”

As recently as July, Le Drian had visited Washington, where he pointedly stated that France was “an Indo-Pacific nation with territories that give [it] the world’s second-largest exclusive economic zone” with a permanent military presence of 8,500 personnel in the region. Paris, along with EU member states, was in the process of formulating a clear Indo-Pacific strategy. Efforts were being made in creating “strategic partnerships” with Japan, Australia and India. Regional organisations such as ASEAN were being brought into the fold. Any “transatlantic pivot toward the Indo-Pacific” had to be taken “together”.

At the end of August, Australia and France held their inaugural Foreign and Defence (2+2) Ministerial Consultations. No hint was given that something was brewing. As the joint statement outlined, “Ministers underscored the importance of the strong and enduring commitment of other partners, including the United States, and Indo-Pacific partners in upholding an open, inclusive and resilient Indo-Pacific in accordance with international law.”

With notions of sham togetherness shaken, retaliation in the old diplomatic tradition has followed. President Emmanuel Macron has recalled the French ambassadors to the United States and Australia. Britain was rebuked somewhat differently, being spared the same harsh treatment; being underhanded was the very sort of thing Paris expected from their historical enemy. In Le Drian’s words, its conduct had been “opportunistic,” with London being little more than “the fifth wheel of the wagon”.

In a joint statement, Le Drian and French Minister for the Army Florence Parly emphasised that this new security arrangement had been arrived at to the “exclusion of a European ally and partner … at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.” The move signalled “a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret.”

Special words were reserved for Australia, a country now wooed by an unconvincing promise of eight nuclear-powered submarines that are only promised to enter service sometime in the 2040s. The decision was “contrary to the letter and the spirit of the cooperation which prevailed between France and Australia, based on a relationship of political trust.” Le Drian, in a separate observation, weighed on the theme of infidelity, calling the decision, “A knife in the back.”

None of this takes away from the fact that the original Franco-Australian contract, reached in 2016, was an ill-thought out undertaking to build 12 conventional Barracuda class submarines in imitation of the nuclear powered Suffren design. It was vain, costly and promised obsolescence before viable performance. Then again, the French argument goes, the Australians wanted it.

The justifications for this episode of Anglophonic mischief have varied in their insolence and disingenuousness. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was all shine and floss in claiming that France remained “a vital partner” in ensuring security in the Indo-Pacific “and we want to find every opportunity to deepen our transatlantic cooperation” in the area. To a question suggesting that France had been stabbed in the back, Blinken mechanically repeated the vital importance of a “transatlantic” association.

Australia’s simply disposed Defence Minister Peter Dutton preferred fantasy by way of explanation, claiming that his government had been “upfront, open and honest … We can understand of course, the French are upset at the cancellation of a contract but in the end, our job is to act in our national interest.” Britain’s Defence Minister Ben Wallace was of like mind, promising that, “Nothing was done by sneaking behind anyone’s back.” But sneaking there was, and it was the Anglosphere, led by the United States, doing the sneaking.

AUKUS is less a trio than a hefty, bullying chief accompanied by a willing assistant and an enthusiastic supplicant. It is a declaration of hostile intent in a region of the world that promises to be the Europe of 1914. It has also encouraged the EU to formulate its own Indo-Pacific policy with haste and independence. “The regrettable decision which has just been announced on the FSP [Future Submarine Program] only reinforces the need to raise the issue of European strategic autonomy loud and clear,” observed Le Drian and Parley. Policy makers in Beijing will be struggling to stifle their amusement.

 

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Nuclear White Elephants: Australia’s New Submarine Deal

It does not get any messier or more chaotic than this. Since 2009, when Australia’s Future Submarine Program (FSP) known as Project SEA 1000, began to take shape, strategists and policy makers have been keen to pursue the next big White Elephant of defence spending. And few areas of an already wasteful area of public expenditure are more costly – often mindlessly so – than submarines.

The Australian effort here is particularly impressive. Pick a real winner by signing a contract for a yet to be designed attack class submarine, supposedly necessary in an increasingly dangerous region. Ensure that this design is based on a nuclear model and remove that attribute, aptly described as “dumbing down a nuclear submarine by removing the whole basis of its superior capability, and then charging at least twice as much for a far less capable submarine.”

Just to make things interesting, make sure the order is for 12 of these yet to be designed and built creatures. Make sure, as well, that they are only ready sometime in the 2030s, by which time they risk being obsolete in a field of other contending submarines with superior capabilities.

The dubious honour for this monumentally foolish contract, with an initial cost of AU$50 billion, fell to the French submarine company DCNS (now called Naval Group). It nudged out German and Japanese contenders with pre-existing designs. “The decision,” a government announcement in April 2016 explained, “was driven by DCNS’s ability to best meet all of the Australian Government requirements. These included superior sensor performance and stealth characteristics, as well as range and endurance similar to the Collins class submarine. The Government’s considerations also included cost, schedule, program execution, through-life support and Australian industry involvement.”

The contract warmed the French military establishment. It was praised as the “contract of the century.” Le Parisien’s editorial lauded the prospect of thousands of jobs. President François Hollande could say that he was also capable of pulling off a contract to aid the French military industrial complex, despite being a socialist. A “50-year marriage,” claimed French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian with honeymoon exuberance, had begun.

The post-nuptials were not promising. Rear Admiral Greg Sammut had to concede in an estimates hearing before Australian senators that another AU$50 billion would be required to sustain the submarines for the duration of their operating life. “Many of the detailed costs of acquisition and sustainment will be determined during the design process through choices made but at this point early estimation of the sustainment costs for the fleet are of the order of up to $50 billion on a constant price basis.”

Tiffs and disagreements over distribution of labour and further costs started to bite. How much of the work would actually be undertaken by labour based in Australia? Would the French company be keeping the lion’s share? With such problems, and the pace of development, another idea started to gain momentum in the halls of defence: a competing, cheaper design, based on a rejigged version of Australia’s existing Collins Class submarine, might be a suitable alternative. In the meantime, perhaps a German alternative might also figure, namely the Type 214 diesel electric submarine developed by Howaldtswerker-Deutsche Werft GmbH (HDW).

In May, Naval Group’s Transfer of Technology program manager Fabrice Leduc solemnly told his staff that the submarine project had been subjected to a “political timeline” following a change of minister in the Australian Defence portfolio. The new occupant, Peter Dutton, was biding his time because “he wanted to have some strong warranties from the industry and especially Naval Group in terms of cost and schedule.” The marriage had truly soured.

On September 15, the press gallery in Canberra was awash with rumours that a divorce was being proposed. In the early hours of the following day, the question as to whether Australia would be dissolving its union with Naval Group was answered. In place of that union would be a ménage à trois with the United States and United Kingdom, a security three-way with Australia as the subordinate partner. The glue that will hold this union together is a common suspicion: China. In place of the Attack Class submarine: a nuclear powered alternative with Anglo-American blessing, based on the US Virginia class or UK Astute class.

In their joint statement announcing the creation of AUKUS, a name deserving a place in a science fiction glossary, the joint leaders of the three countries “guided” by their “enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order” had resolved “to deepen diplomatic, security, and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, including by working with partners, to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.” AUKUS would be a new “enhanced trilateral security partnership” to further such goals.

The agreement is nothing less than an announcement to powers in the region that the Anglophone bloc intends to police, oversee and, if necessary, punish. The three countries will “promote deeper information and technology.” Security, science relating to defence, technology, industrial bases and supply chains will be further integrated. Deeper cooperation would take place “on a range of security and defence capabilities.”

The first initiative of the agreement stands out: “we commit to a shared ambition to support Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy.” Expertise to “bring an Australian capability into service at the earliest achievable date” from the submarine programs of both the US and the UK would be drawn on. AUKUS unmistakably ties the countries into the same security orbit, meshing them to principles of “interoperability, commonality, and mutual benefit.”

Australia’s submarine policy has previously eschewed nuclear propulsion. Now, as a dowry for receiving such largesse, Canberra is offering up Australia as a confirmed US asset in policing the Indo-Pacific. In any conflict situation, the wallahs of the antipodes are unlikely to say no to any request to do battle with the Middle Kingdom. US Navy commanders will also be smacking their lips at maintaining attack vessels in Australia as part of the arrangement.

In the meantime, neighbours will be troubled, despite assurances that the vessels will only have a conventional weapons capability. Nearby Indonesia is unlikely to be glowing in admiration.

The dissolution of the union with Naval Group will also be costly, with the defence company bound to push for a generous compensation package. (AU$400 million is a suggested figure, though this is unlikely to satisfy either Naval Group or the Parisian overlords.) To this can be added AU$2 billion already spent.

As the divorce costs are sorted, some Australian politicians have pledged to make dissenting noises, with the Greens leader Adam Bandt already warning that the decision promised to “put floating Chernobyls in the heart of Australia’s cities.” Protests from anti-nuclear activists and advocates are in the offing.

 

 

Then arises that enduring problem of actually building these naval beasts. US lawmakers will be rooting for the construction of the submarines on home soil, a situation which promises to mirror the headaches caused by the Naval Group contract. Australia also lacks a shipyard able to build or maintain such vessels.

In playing its part in the creation of AUKUS, Canberra has exchanged one white elephant of the sea for another. But in doing so, Australia has done so in manner more threatening, and more significant, than anything associated with the Naval Group Contract. The small space Australian diplomats might have had in keeping Canberra out of any foolish conflict in the Indo-Pacific has become miniscule. The war mongers will be dewily ecstatic.

 

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News Corp Turns Climate Change Inactivist

The faux Damascene converts have been doing the rounds in the Murdoch empire of late, stirring interest in matters green and attempting to shift, if ever so slightly, discussions on climate change. Known for being a stable of environmental vandals and fossil fuel standard bearers, News Corp has gone for a green turn of sorts.

Within the media imperium, harmony on the issue of how to report climate has not been one of accord. The patriarch, Rupert Murdoch, was unable to keep younger son James and wife Kathryn from venting on the issue. “Kathryn and James’ views on climate change are well established and their frustration with some of the News Corp and Fox coverage of the topic is also well known,” a spokesperson for the couple told The Daily Beast in early 2020 as bushfires in Australia raged. “They are particularly disappointed with the ongoing denial among news outlets in Australia given the obvious evidence to the contrary.”

At the time these comments were made, a board member of News Corp who wished to remain anonymous and un-scalped, observed that the couple were “pissing inside the tent and that’s unusual. It’s evidence of how high tensions within the family are over climate change.”

All fanfare about family discontent and tent urination would ignore the fact that Rupert remains a person content to stir the pot of demagogy while seeing things rather differently from his own perch. In a 2007 speech, he declared that, “Climate change poses clear, catastrophic threats.” While there might be disagreement about “the extent” of that change, “we certainly can’t afford the risk of inaction.”

In that same speech, he committed his organisation to the very goal platoons of his journalists and shock jocks biliously revile. “We can do something that’s unique, different from just any other company.” News Corp could set a sobering example: “Our audience’s carbon footprint is 10,000 bigger than ours. That’s the carbon footprint we want to conquer.”

 

 

By 2011, the company had achieved carbon neutrality as part of its Global Energy Initiative, a program not only designed to maximise company efficiency but to woo the advertising dollar. The initiative’s director, Liba Rubenstein, was unabashed on that score, telling a conference hosted by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change of a “great opportunity in incremental revenue from various companies who want to promote their own green practices on our platforms, and so it’s important for us to be a legitimate platform for that, if they’re going to spend their dollars with us.”

All this, from the outfit that gave us such specials as Rowan Dean of Sky News Australia, who called climate change in July 2019 “a fraudulent and dangerous cult, which has paralysed and bewitched the ruling elites, and is driven by unscrupulous and sinister interests including the power-hungry socialist mob at the UN.” Or that particular favourite Andrew Bolt of The Herald Sun, who has warned everyone, including children, not to believe the “climate change hoax.”

When asked about why his company had provided a pulpit for such opinions at the corporation’s Annual General Meeting in 2019, Murdoch claimed none could be found in his employ. To the questioner came the reply that “there are no climate change deniers around I can assure you.”

News Corp Australia, for its part, has decided from next month to execute what can only be regarded as a ceasefire of sorts against various climate goals such as zero emissions by 2050 or carbon reduction policies. The editorial board is even considering endorsing the 2050 target. Sky News chief executive Paul Whittaker resisted calling these moves as constituting a campaign. “I would describe it, in terms of Sky News, as an exploration of what are very complex issues,” which has become News Corp-speak for inaction.

In doing so, this move promises to provide an alibi for a conservative Morrison government internally bruised by a battle between the fossil fuel lobbyists and supporters of firm climate change goals and harried by such countries such as the United States and United Kingdom.

The organisation denies that what is in the offing has anything to do with advertiser concerns or external pressures. “No doubt other media and social platform users will try to take issue with our coverage to make News the story,” News Corp Australasia’s guarded executive chairman Michael Miller stated, “however we have never been afraid of pushing boundaries and facilitating tough and uncomfortable conversations.”

The move, timed to coincide ahead of the Glasgow climate change summit in November, conforms to the usual pattern of previous New Corp campaigns. The more naïve sorts suggest that the news body has seen the light. Richie Merzian, climate and energy program director at the Australia Institute, is not one of them, bluntly suggesting that this move amounted to “moving from an F to a D student.” A genuine prospect in the offing was News Corp moving from a denialist frame of mind to one of prevarication, “delaying climate action with non-solutions and unaccountable long-term targets.”

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who lays his political assassination by his own party members in 2018 squarely at the feet of the News Corp press goons, is also far from convinced. “That right-wing populist climate-denying section of the coalition is very influential, and its foundation is the News Corp media.” He found it hard to give the organisation “credit for something they haven’t done yet.”

The calculated change of heart within Murdoch’s non-news machine will do little to editorially rein in the likes of Bolt and his merry denialists, many of whom have promised to keep the cannons firing and the fires burning. As they do, climate change inactivism, code to preserve fossil fuel orthodoxy, promises to bloom.

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Bitcoin the Messiah: El Salvador Goes Crypto

In a particular deli store in South Melbourne, a tongue-and-cheek message is attached to the cash register. “Bitcoin accepted there,” it proclaims brightly. Naturally, it is nothing of the sort, a teasing ruse for the punters and those casting an eye in the direction of the store. Cold hard cash remains king, albeit one with a tarnished crown; pandemic times have driven consumers towards such non-intimate transactions as contactless payment.

One country has decided to make using cryptocurrency a reality, sticking its neck out in adopting bitcoin as something akin to an economic messiah. Few thought it would be El Salvador, whose government made the currency legal tender on September 7. To mark the occasion, each citizen signing up to Chivo, the national digital wallet, has received US$30. Foreigners adventurous enough to invest three bitcoins in the country are promised residency.

The introduction was far from spontaneous. The surf town of El Zonte, with its Bitcoin Beach project, began an experiment to adopt the currency in 2018, a venture aided by the Californian cryptocurrency zealot Michael Peterson. Through the Evangelical Christian church, Peterson combined God and crypto, proselytising the value of such currency. Each local family received US$50, and the currency came to be used for such projects as rubbish collecting and lifeguarding.

Leaving aside Bukule’s own wish to mark the history books, this move into the world of digital currency has various motivations. One is the portion of income received from international money transactions from citizens abroad, which amounts to something like a fifth of the country’s GDP. With such transactions come high fees which whittle away the value of the transfer. To this can be added the need for having a bank account. (Only 30% of Salvadorans have one.) Bitcoin alleviates any such need, while also facilitating cheap payments.

Then there is the prevalence of the US dollar, which is also accepted as legal tender. President Nayib Bukele has been keen to give his citizens another option, a move intended to encourage greater expenditure in the country. Over 200 bitcoin machines are being put in place across the country to convert cryptocurrency into dollars.

The introduction of such currency presents a paradox of mighty dimensions. A degree of technological literacy is required, a challenge, to say the least. The Bitcoin law stipulates that “the necessary training and mechanisms” will be supplied by the government to aid Salvadorans access bitcoin transactions. This promises to be a herculean venture, given how many people actually understand the currency works. A survey by the Central American University of 1,281 people found that a humbling 4.8% actually comprehended what the currency was and how it was used. Of those, 68% took issue with using it as a legal tender.

The process of mining bitcoin is also a headache for policymakers, as it requires vast reserves of electricity and poses an environmental challenge. (Elon Musk was at pains to emphasise the latter in reneging on his decision to permit customers to purchase Tesla cars using the cryptocurrency.) The Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, looking at figures generated last year, puts the amount of energy used by global bitcoin mining at 105 terawatt hours of electricity.

In June, the state-owned geothermal electric company was instructed by Bukele to come up with a plan to facilitate bitcoin mining “with very cheap, 100% clean, 100% renewable, 0 emissions energy from our volcanoes.”

 

 

Then comes that testy issue of its status as legal tender. Under general circumstances, currency deemed legal tender must be accepted as payment for a debt. In the absence of a debt, the store owner, retailer or company may accept some other form of payment (credit card, online transactions). El Salvador’s Bitcoin law, however, has muddied matters by stating that “every economic agent must accept bitcoin as payment when offered to him by whoever acquires a good or service.”

Such financial coercion did not sit well. It caused a flurry of protests. Economists squawked in alarm. President Bukele had to relent, issuing a grumpy clarification last month that businesses would not be compelled to accept bitcoin. In doing so, he could not resist a snarky remark that those not seeking to win over customers with the currency were essentially discouraging growth and continuing the daft practise of paying fees on remittances.

The forces of orthodoxy have also baulked. When asked for assistance by El Salvador to implement the bitcoin scheme, the World Bank was dismissive. “While the government did approach us for assistance on bitcoin,” a spokesperson revealed in June, “this is not something the World Bank can support given the environmental and transparency shortcomings.” The International Monetary Fund, severe as ever, disapproves of a currency that presents “macroeconomic, financial and legal issues that require very careful analysis”.

The response to the introduction has been fairly predictable. Bond prices have fallen and bitcoin’s value has fluctuated. The naysayers suggest that the general adoption by residents will be small, fearing the currency’s volatility. Protestors fear that the cryptocurrency will simply enable further corrupt practices to take place.

The converse may also be true: given Latin America’s long history of fiscal instability, banking collapses, and failed economic advisors, bitcoin promises an unorthodox form of insulation from shock. “With bitcoin, for the first time in a very long time, people in Latin America saw an asset appreciate in dollar terms,” Mauricio Di Bartolomeo, chief executive of the Toronto-based digital asset company Ledn remarked. The time for this experiment, on the surface a quixotic one, is nigh.

 

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Messianic Failure: Pursuing the GWOT Jabberwock

Anniversaries can provide occasions for reflection and deep consideration. Past errors and misjudgements can be considered soberly; historical distance provides perspective. Mature reflections may be permitted. But they can also serve the opposite purpose: to cake, cloak and mask the record.

The gooey name GWOT, otherwise known as the Global War on Terrorism, is some two decades old, and it has revealed little by way of benefit for anybody other than military industrialists, hate preachers and jingoes. For its progenitors in the administration of President George W. Bush, motivated by the attacks of September 11, 2001 on US soil, few of its aims were achieved.

The central feature to the war, which deserves its place of failure alongside such disastrously misguided concepts as the war on drugs, was its school boy incoherence. It remained, and to an extent remains, a war against tactics, a misguided search reminiscent of the hunt for Lewis Carroll’s nonsense beast, the Jabberwock. As with any such wars, it demands mendacity, flimsy evidence if, in fact, it needs any evidence at all.

This perception was critical in placing the US, and its allies, upon a military footing that demanded false connections (a fictitious link of cooperation between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and al-Qaeda), false capabilities (Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction) and an exaggeration of the threat to US security (all of the above).

With such evaluations of terroristic potential, a secular, domestic murderer such as Saddam could be transformed into a global threat armed with weapons of mass destruction, neither proposition being true as the attacks on 9/11 were executed. In this hot house fantasy, the Iraqi leader was merely another pilot willing to steer a plane into an American target.

This narrative was sold, and consumed, by a vast number of press houses and media outlets, who proved indispensable in promoting the GWOT-Jabberwock crusade. Calculated amnesia and hand washing has taken place since then, pinning blame on the standard crew of neoconservatives, various Republicans and New York Times reporter Judith Miller. “It’s been forgotten this was actually a business-wide consensus,” Matt Taibbi points out, “which included the enthusiastic participation of a blue-state intelligentsia.”

War sceptics such as Phil Donahue and Jesse Ventura were removed from MSNBC while war cheerleaders thickened the airwaves with ghoulish delight. The New York Times ran sympathetic columns and reviews for the war case, praising such absurd works as Kenneth M. Pollack’s The Threatening Storm. “The only prudent and realistic course of action left to the United States,” wrote the grave Pollack, “is to mount a full-scale invasion of Iraq to smash the Iraqi armed forces, depose Saddam’s regime and rid the country of weapons of mass destruction.”

The New Yorker also joined in the pro-war festivities. David Remnick made his case in “Making a Case” by praising Pollack and dismissing containment as “a hollow pursuit” that would be “the most dangerous option of all.” Jeffrey Goldberg, now at The Atlantic, was even more unequivocal in a staggeringly inexpert contribution headlined, “The Great Terror.” On his own hunt for the Jabberwock, Goldberg interviewed alleged terrorist detainees in a prison operated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, an anti-Saddam Kurdish group in Iraq’s northern Kurdish area. Having been permitted to interview the prisoners by the Union’s intelligence service (no conflict of interest there), Goldberg was informed that Saddam Hussein’s own spooks had “joint control, with al-Qaeda operatives, over Ansar al-Islam [a local jihadist group]”; that the Iraqi leader “hosted a senior leader of Al Qaeda in Baghdad in 1992”; that members of Al Qaeda escaping Afghanistan had “been secretly brought into the territory controlled by Ansar al-Islam” and that Iraq’s intelligence service had “smuggled conventional weapons, and possibly even chemical and biological weapons, into Afghanistan.” And so rests the case for the prosecution.

In March 2003, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting examined 393 on-camera sources who featured in nightly news stories on Iraq across a range of programs – ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Of those 267 were from the United States; of the US official sources, only Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy from Massachusetts, registered his doubts. Even then, he could hardly be said to be a firebrand contrarian, telling NBC Nightly News that he worried about exit plans, the extent of US troop losses and “how long we’re going to be stationed there.”

Many of these outlets would be the same who obsessed about President Donald Trump’s attacks upon them as peddlers of “fake news” during his time in office. Trump, drip-fed on conspiracy theories and fictions, knew who he was talking to.

The security propagandists have not done much better. With pious conviction, the vast security apparatus put in place to monitor threats, the warrantless surveillance regime exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013, and the persistent interventions in the Middle East, have all been seen as beneficial. “Terrorism of many sots continues domestically and internationally,” claims Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, “but the data is unmistakable that in most cases – and especially in the United States – it is both manageable and not nearly of the scale feared in 2001.”

A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner advance a rather different proposition. “Even if one believes American efforts have made the nation marginally safer, the United States could have achieved far greater improvements in safety and security at far less cost through other means.”

The issue of what is marginal is a point of contention. Former chiefs of the Department of Homeland Security, a monster created in direct response to the 9/11 attacks, are guarded in their assessments. Bush’s Secretary Michael Chertoff admits to being “hesitant” in saying “we are safer, or less.” He prefers focusing on scale. “We haven’t had an attack of that scale since 9/11, and we’ve also been very good about keeping dangerous people out of the country.” Alas, domestic threats had emerged, notably on the Right, while jihadi sympathisers lurk.

Janet Napolitano, who occupied the office under the Obama administration, waffles in her reading. “Are there some things that we’re safer on now than we were on 9/11? Absolutely. Are there new risks that have evolved or multiplied or grown since 9/11? Absolutely. To put it shortly, on some things, we’re definitely safer.” Napolitano is up with a jargon that says nothing at all: “risks are not static”; the environment is “constantly changing.” “DHS needs to continue to be agile and to adapt.”

The smorgasbord of modern terrorism, a good deal of it nourished by cataclysmic US-led interventions, is richer than ever. “We have more terrorists today than we did on 9/11,” Elizabeth Neumann, DHS assistant secretary for counterterrorism during the Trump administration, told a Senate panel last month. “That’s very sobering, as a counterterrorism person.” Preparing the grounds for the imminent exit from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden reasoned that keeping US troops in the country as a permanent counter-terrorist force was no longer a tenable proposition. Terrorism as a threat had “become more dispersed, metastasising around the globe.” The folly of pursuing the GWOT jabberwock shows no sign of abating.

 

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Paul Wolfowitz: Deluded and At Liberty

It was all marvellous for Paul Wolfowitz to get on Australian television (why bother?) to brusquely discuss those attacks on US soil in September 2001 and criticism of the invasion of Iraq by US-led forces. After two decades, the former US deputy secretary of defense has not mellowed.

With each show, interview and podium performance Wolfowitz gives, there is a sense that the hole he has dug for himself has become an oasis of reassuring delusion. Iraq’s despot Saddam Hussein, executed at the behest of authorities sponsored and propped by the US, gave Wolfowitz an ecstatic excuse to explain the rationale of American power: he was a threat, and worldly threat at that. In 2003, there was little evidence to suggest that, but neoconservatism has always been a doctrine in search of cartoonish myths.

The fact that Weapons of Mass Destruction featured prominently as the reason for overthrowing Saddam became the necessitous outcome of bureaucratic sensibility: “for reasons that have a lot to do with the US government bureaucracy,” he told Vanity Fair in 2003, “we settled on the one issue everyone could agree on: weapons of mass destruction.”

When those elusive WMDs proved stubbornly elusive, PW shifted his emphasis from security rationales to one of liberation. Along the way he blamed the “consensus judgment of the intelligence community” for not getting it right in the first place, an assessment verging on the mendacious.

While Saddam Hussein was a high grade butcher and villain to many of his people, it is hard to credit him with the Bond villain, pulp view Wolfowitz gives him. Evidence chasers such as Ben Bonk at the Central Intelligence Agency were frustrated in being thrown at the fruitless effort to link Saddam to al-Qaeda. Intelligence operatives were effectively being leaned upon to confect the record and find justifications.

In 2013, Wolfowitz was still insisting on uncertainty as a principle. “We still don’t know how all of this is going to end.” He accepted that the decapitation of the Iraqi leadership without an immediate substitute might have been unwise. The “idea that we’re going to come in like [General Douglas] MacArthur in Japan and write the constitution for them” was erroneous.

That did not matter. The threat was there and present, growing like a stimulated bacillus. Depraved and disoriented, he takes the argument that invading Iraq at the time was appropriate because it would have had to happen in any case. Saddam was street store vendor, sponsor and patron of terrorism (he never defines the dimension of this, nor adduces evidence) and needed to be dealt with. The sword would eventually have to be unsheathed. “We would very likely either have had to go through this whole scenario all over but probably with higher costs for having delayed, or we’d be in a situation today where not only Iran was edging towards nuclear weapons but so was Iraq and also Libya.”

In 2003, the aptly named Jeffrey Record reflected his surname’s worth by taking a hatchet to the Wolfowitz view in a scathing assessment for the Strategic Studies Institute. In declaring a global war on terrorism (GWOT), the Bush administration had identified a range of states, weapons of danger, terrorists and terrorism while conflating “them into a monolithic threat, and in so doing has subordinated strategic clarity to the moral clarity it strives for in foreign policy and may have set the United States on a course of open-ended gratuitous conflict with states and nonstate entities that pose no serious threat to the United States.” Not sloppy, is Record.

He goes on to note, relevantly, the conflation premise: that al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein was seen, amateurishly, “as a single, undifferentiated terrorist threat.” This “strategic error of the first order” ignored “critical differences between the two in character, threat level, and susceptibility to US deterrence and military action” led to “an unnecessary preventive war of choice against a deterred Iraq. The result: “a new front in the Middle East for Islamic terrorism” and the diversion of “attention and resources away from securing the American homeland against further assault by an undeterrable al-Qaeda.”

The 9/11 Commission Report, despite noting “friendly contacts” between Osama bin Laden and Iraqi officials at various points, similarly found “no evidence that these or the earlier contacts ever developed into a collaborative personal relationship.” Nor was there “evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”

Critics suggest incompetence and bungling in the invasion of Iraq. They exclude venality and calculation. Wolfowitz, as if anticipating a prosecution in some faraway court, has been busy covering his tracks and pointing the finger at other decision makers further up the greased pole. The top suspect: current retiree amateur painter President George W. Bush. “I don’t think I ever met the president alone. I didn’t meet him very often. [Secretary of State Colin] Powell had access to him whenever he wanted it. And if he was so sure it was a mistake why didn’t he say so?” What a merry band they make.

Wolfowitz, for the defence, always has to play some useful (or useless) idiot card, proffered from the surrounds of the tired lecture circuit or the American Enterprise Institute. He is ideologically inclined, evidentially challenged, and keen to accept material that confirms his prejudice rather than contradicts it. When found wanting about his decisions on accepting, for instance, the bargain basement material of Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, he returned to common cultural themes. “I don’t think anybody in that part of the world was completely straight with us.”

Perhaps, after two decades, it is time to sort the books, order the records and call forth those architects of war who, dismally deluded and acting with criminal intent and incompetence, plunged a good part of the globe into conflict, leaving a legacy that continues to pollute with tenacious determination. Along the way, we can mourn the dead of 9/11 and all the dead that followed.

 

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Weaponised Refugees and Hybrid Attacks

Refugees and asylum seekers provide rich pickings for demagogues and political opportunists. The Australian approach politicises their plight by arguing that they are illegitimate depending on the way they arrive, namely, by boat. The twentieth anniversary of the MV Tampa’s attempt to dock at Christmas Island with over 400 such individuals inaugurated a particularly vicious regime. Intercepted by Australia’s SAS forces in August 2001, it presented the Howard government with a stupendously cruel chance to garner votes. And my, did that government garner them with gusto.

Various European countries have also adopted an approach akin to this: naval arrivals from the Middle East and Africa are to be contained, detained, and preferably processed in third countries through a range of agreements. The common theme to all: firm border controls and deterrence.

Belarus has added another option to the armoury of refugee use and abuse. The country, under Alexander Lukashenko, has hit upon a shoddy plan to harry countries sympathetic to his opponents and responsible for imposing sanctions upon his regime: swamp them. First: entice refugees and migrants from a number of countries – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria and Cameroon – to arrive on tourist visas. Mobilise said people to move across the Polish, Lithuanian and Latvian borders.

Descriptions have been offered for the strategy. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis considered the acts on the part of Belarus as a “hybrid war operation” that threatened, he claimed with dramatic effect, “the entire European Union.” In July, he told Deutsche Welle that the refugees concerned were being used as “human shields” and a type of “hybrid weapon.” Lithuanian Deputy Interior Minister Arnoldas Abramavičius resented his country’s border guards “acting as a kind of hotel reception for the migrants for a long time. That had to stop.”

Member states have been sharing experiences on how best to deal with the surge in these Lukashenko arrivals. In a meeting between Landsbergis and his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in June, much solidarity was felt in discussing how to combat a common threat. Human rights proved to be less important than territorial integrity and European defence. As the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry stated, both ministers “underscored the importance of European solidarity and the need to pay attention to the processes in the EU neighbourhood, as well as to be ready to respond to dangerous threats emerging from the EU’s neighbourhood.”

Guards along the Lithuanian border had, up till August, intercepted approximately 4,100 refugees and asylum seekers this year alone. Last year, that number was a mere 81. The numbers prompted the Baltic state to declare a state of emergency in July. The resources of Frontex, that less than transparent body otherwise known as the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, deployed personnel with haste that same month to aid policing the border with Lithuania and Latvia.

According to Frontex, the initial support would involve “border surveillance and other border management functions. The operation will start with the deployment of 10 officers with patrol cars, and their numbers will be gradually increased.”

The agency’s executive director Fabrice Leggeri was brimming with praise for the organisation’s military-styled prowess, suggesting aid in the face of threatening barbarians at the frontier of Europe. “The quick deployment in support of Lithuania and Latvia highlights the value of the Frontex standing troops, which allows the Agency to quickly react to unexpected challenges, bringing European solidarity to support Member States at the external borders.”

Humanitarianism is the last thing on Leggeri’s mind as he speaks about the role of “additional border guards and patrol guards by Frontex” as they “work side-by-side with their Latvian and Lithuanian colleagues” to “protect our external borders” in common cause.

Earlier this month Poland joined Lithuania with alarmist fervour, declaring a state of emergency. It served the purpose of needlessly militarising the situation even as it appealed to the inner jingo. Tellingly, it is the first such order since the country’s communist era, proscribing mass gatherings and limiting people’s movements within a 3 km strip of land along the frontier for 30 days. Marta Anna Kurzyniec, resident of the Polish border town of Krynki, described an atmosphere that was “generally violent.” There were “uniformed, armed servicemen everywhere … it reminds me of war.”

To the use of troops can be added such inhospitable barriers as the construction of a 508 km razor-wire fence by the Lithuanian authorities. Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte considered it an essential part of her country’s strategy of repelling unwanted arrivals. “The physical barrier is vital to repel this hybrid attack, which the Belarus regime is undertaking against Lithuania.”

Political figures such as Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Lithuania’s Landsbergis have also encouraged disseminating stern messages of disapproval to those trying to enter their countries. “We need to inform the people that they are being lied to,” huffed Landsbergis. “They are being promised an easy passage to Europe, a very free life in Europe. This is not going to happen.” Morawiecki, despite claiming some sympathy for “the migrants who have been in an extremely difficult situation” felt that “it should be clearly stated that they are a political instrument.”

The situation has also seen the European Court of Human Rights make a much needed appearance in its request that both Poland and Latvia “provide all the applicants with food, water, clothing, adequate medical care and, if possible, temporary shelter.” The Court, however, wanted it known “that this measure should not be understood as requiring that Poland or Latvia let the applicants enter their territories.”

The Polish government, for its part, insists that their hearts have not hardened, dabbling in its own bit of dissembling for the press. As a spokeswoman for the interior ministry claimed, “These people are on the Belarusian side of the border.”

The manipulation of such human traffic created its fair share of bestial realities ignoring the fundamentals of the UN Refugee Convention and an assortment of international instruments, including the Geneva Convention. This is particularly so regarding a number of Afghan refugees who find themselves stuck at Usnarz Gorny, 55 km east of Bialystok. “They’re the victims of the political game between countries,” came the accurate assessment from Amnesty International Poland’s Aleksandra Fertlinska. “But what is the most important is that it doesn’t matter what is the source of this political game. They are refugees, and they are protected by [the] Geneva Convention what we need to do is accept them.”

One Iraqi refugee by the name of Slemen, finding himself in the drenched environs of Rūdninki, some 38 kilometres from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, offers his own relevant observation. “Just because we came through Belarus doesn’t make us bad people,” he explained to Der Spiegel. But bad he, and his fellow travellers, are being made out to be by states who overlook the compassion of processing claims in favour of an instinctive politics stressing deluge and threat rather than salvation and hope.

 

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Blinken Says No to Greenland Real Estate

In May, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a visit to Greenland. In a rather unedifying way, he was called ‘Tony’ by his hosts, a disarming point that was bound to open the floodgates of insincerity. For all the convivial stuffing, there was a certain sting to the occasion: the previous Trump administration had revisited a fantasy long nurtured in the corridors of Washington and power crazed pundits. Greenland, went the dreamers, might someday become a part of the US imperium.

President Donald Trump, in reigniting the issue with a businessman’s bumbling delight, noted in 2019 that Denmark “essentially” owned it. “We’re very good allies with Denmark, we protect Denmark like we protect large portions of the world. So the concept came up and I said, ‘Certainly I’d be [interested in purchasing Greenland].’ Strategically it’s interesting and we’d be interested but we’ll talk to them a little bit.” The Danish response to his appraisal – that Greenland was potentially part of “a large real estate deal,” was dismissive. Trump harrumphed.

So what has happened to Trump’s ideas regarding this icy territory? The press conference began cordially enough. Blinken was welcomed by the autonomous territory’s premier Mute Egede who reminded him that celebrations would be held commemorating Kangerlussuaq’s 80-years anniversary, built by the US Air Force in 1941. “What began as a military base is now an important civilian airport for Greenland.” From a world at war, the relationship with the US had “evolved to a cooperation in science and mutual interest and understanding the health of our planet.”

This was laying it on a bit thick, but Blinken obliged with due soppiness. “I’m in Greenland because the United States deeply values our partnership and wants to make it even stronger.” The consulate in Nuuk, after a seven-decade hiatus, had been reopened for that reason.

To the press members gathered, he explained how the US was willing to part with cash in developing the island (“about $12 million in programming in the first year, and plans for additional funding”). This covered sustainable tourism, fishing, land management, and cooperation between universities. But then came the question: “Can you definitely say that the United States does not seek to buy Greenland?” To this question posed by John Hudson of the Washington Post, Blinken could only assert its accuracy.

Greenland’s Minister for Trade, Foreign Affairs and Climate, Pele Broberg, was also clear that Greenland, while significant in terms of “geo-location” and of “utmost importance for the defence of the United States,” was not part of any “real estate deal” with Washington. But Broberg’s interpretation as to what constituted real estate was curious enough. “Real estate means land with nothing on it, nobody on it.” This observation was a prelude to something less than convincing. “Secretary Blinken has made it clear that he is here for the people living in the Arctic, for the people living in Greenland.”

Over various periods of history, that grand cold expanse of Greenland has interested US prospectors of political realty. The US imperium had grown rich through a combination of purchases and predatory conquest, repudiating those warnings made by George Washington about the perils of an enlarged empire.

During the administration of Andrew Jackson, the territorially-minded expansionist William Seward went on a bidding spree, pursuing that old coveted goal of acquiring Canada from the British Empire and naval assets in the Caribbean. Returns followed for the US Secretary of State. The Alaska purchase, with the Russians imprudently parting with land they thought was of little value, was truly something of a steal. In the summer of 1867, Seward also commissioned former treasury secretary Robert J. Walker to look into the issue of whether Denmark might be willing to part with both Greenland and Iceland. Walker had already made good progress in acquiring the Danish possessions of St. Thomas and St. John through treaty.

In his introduction to a report for the State Department, compiled by the superintendent of the United States Coast Survey, Benjamin Peirce, Walker is eye-popping with praise for this “largest island in the world.” (The Trump vernacular is all too present.) You can sense the aggrandising inner voice: “Its area, thus elongated, would be about 1,800,000 square miles, or largely more than half the size of all Europe, but with a far greater shoreline.” He acknowledges those “vast fisheries and extensive coasts and numerous harbors, especially with abundant good coal there [which] must greatly antedate the period when the United States will command the commerce of the World.” Acquire Greenland today, and a rich tomorrow is assured.

The Truman administration, eyeing strategic advantages in its Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union, was another bidder, offering $100 million for the island territory in 1946. As John Hickerson of the State Department noted in a memo, “practically every member” of the planning and strategy committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed that a purchase should take place. It was also “indispensable to the safety of the United States” while being “completely worthless to Denmark.” The Danish Foreign Minister Gustav Rasmussen was less than impressed with this imperial imposition when approached by Secretary of State James Byrnes in December 1946.

Happily for Copenhagen, the advent of NATO alleviated any pressing need to show the Danes the money. US military planners got what they wanted: a defence treaty in 1951 permitting the building of the Thule Air Base. To facilitate this agreement, the Danish government relocated the indigenous Inughuit community with assured callousness. It was all a crude demonstration of empire by concealment and obfuscation, a point made with some force by Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.

With the Biden administration looking inwards, expressions of interest for Greenland, at least from the US, have closed. This is unlikely to be a permanent state of affairs. The ice is melting; global warming is a terror for the environment but a delicious commercial boon for strategists hoping for easier access to the Arctic. Russia is proving a more than formidable player. China, along with Russia, dream of the Ice Silk Road. US officials fret that Beijing might get a military foothold on the island. This real estate story is far from over.

 

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Droning Disasters: A US Strike on Kabul

No more profoundly disturbing statement was needed. In the dying days of the official US departure from Kabul, a US drone etched its butcher’s legacy with a strike supposedly intended for the blood-lusty terrorist group ISIS-K, an abbreviation of Islamic State in Khorasan Province. Its members had taken responsibility for blasts outside Harmid Karzai International Airport that had cost the lives of at least 175 individuals and 13 US service personnel. Suicide bombers had intended to target “translators and collaborators with the American army.”

President Joe Biden promised swift retribution. “To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” American “interests and our people” would be defended “with every measure at my command.”

In his sights was ISIS-K. “I’ve also ordered my commanders to develop operational plans to strike ISIS-K assets, leadership and facilities.” A response “with force and precision” would take place “at our time, at the place we choose and a moment of our choosing.”

On August 28, an announcement by the Pentagon was made that two “high-profile” members of the group had been killed in a drone strike in Khorasan Province. That same day, the President warned that the group was likely to conduct another attack. The US military was readying itself.

The following day, to demonstrate such precision and choice, a vehicle supposedly carrying an unspecified number of suicide bombers linked to ISIS-K and speeding towards Kabul airport was struck in a second drone attack. The site of the attack, being a residential neighbourhood in the city, should have given room for pause to those precisionists in the military.

The strike was meant to leave a lasting impression upon ISIS-K fighters. Initially, US officials were pleased to inform the Associated Press that “multiple suicide bombers” had perished in the attack. “US military forces conducted a self-defence unmanned over-the-horizon airstrike today on a vehicle in Kabul, eliminating an imminent ISIS-K threat to Harmid Karzai International Airport,” stated US Central Command spokesperson Capt. Bill Urban.

The outcome of the strike was apparently something to be proud of. “Significant secondary explosions from the vehicle indicated the presence of a substantial amount of explosive material.” But this came with a rounding caveat. “We’re assessing the possibilities of civilian casualties, although we have no indications at this time.”

The story started to congeal over interviews, discussions and threads. A dribble of information suggested loss of civilian life. A number quickly emerged in the flood that followed: ten family members had lost their lives. From the New York Times, there was Matthieu Aikins patching things together. Bodies were named: Somaya, daughter of Zemari. Farzard, Zemari’s son, also killed. The narrative twists, inverts and disturbs more: Zemari’s nephew, Naser, was an Afghan army officer, former guard of the US military. He had applied for an SIV (Special Immigrant Visa), hoping to flee Afghanistan for the United States.

 

 

To the BBC, Ramin Yousufi, a relative of the victims, could only tearfully despair. “It’s wrong, it’s a brutal attack, and it’s happened based on wrong information.” Questions followed. “Why have they killed our family? Our children? They are so burned out we cannot identify their bodies, their faces.”

At a press briefing on August 30, Army Maj. Gen. William “Hank” Taylor of the Joint Staff tried to make something of yet another messy bungle in the annals of the US military. “We are aware of reports of civilian casualties. We take these reports extremely seriously.” John F. Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, was “not going to get ahead of it. But if we have significant – verifiable information that we did take innocent life here, then we will be transparent about that, too. Nobody wants to see that happen.” Urban also stated that the Pentagon was aware of civilian casualties “following our strike on a vehicle in Kabul today.”

The attack had that sheen of atrocious incompetence (Kirby preferred the term “dynamic”), but that would be a misreading. Killing remotely is, by its nature, inaccurate, though it has a disturbing fan club deluded into thinking otherwise. The death of civilians, subsumed under the euphemism of collateral damage, is often put down to shonky intelligence rather than the machinery itself. As Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Centre is a case in point. “These are precise weapons,” she erroneously observed in 2016. “The failure is in the intelligence about who it is that we are killing.”

Drone strikes have demonstrated, time and again, to lack the mythical precision with which they are billed. Those in proximity to the target will be slain. Whole families have been, and will continue, to be pulverised. “Gradually,” the New York Times observed with stunning obviousness in 2015, “it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.”

In 2016, research conducted by the Bureau of Investigative journalism found that the lethal returns from the US-UAV program proved to be overwhelmingly civilian. A mere 3.5% could be said, with any certainty, to be terrorists.

The use of drones in combat is also politically baffling, self-defeating and contradictory. As Michael Boyle has explained, referring to the use of UAV warfare in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, such a counterterrorism strategy was distinctly at odds in providing, on the one hand, a flow of arms and financial resource to the very governments whose legitimacy they undermined through the use of such strikes. By all means, we supply you, but have no trust in your competence.

A mere month after the conviction of whistleblower Daniel Hale, who did more than any other to reveal the grotesque illusion of reliability behind the US drone program, UAV warfare was again shown to be a butchering enterprise praised by the precisionists and found politically wanting. Those attending the funerals of the slain family members, an event taking place in the shadow of US power in retreat, needed little convincing who their enemy was.

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Abandoned and Alone: Lamenting the US-Australian Alliance

Listening to Australian pundits talk about the relationship of their country with the US – at least from a strategic perspective – can be a trying exercise. It is filled with angst, Freudian fears of abandonment, the strident megalomania of Australian self-importance. Critics of this complex are shouted down as Sinophiles or in the pay of some foreign power.

This unequal and distinctly unhealthy relationship has been marked by a certain outsourcing tendency. Australian foreign policy is a model example of expectation: that other powers will carry its weight: processing refugees; aiding Australians stranded or persecuted overseas; reliance on that fiction known as the extended nuclear deterrent. Self-reliance is discouraged in favour of what Barry Posen calls a “cheap ride.”

In recent years, the Australian security-military apparatus has been more than ingratiating regarding its alliance with Washington, despite such sombre warnings as those from the late Malcom Fraser. In 2014, the former prime minister argued that Australia, at the end of the Cold War, was presented with an opportunity to pursue a policy of “peace, cooperation, and trust” in the region. Instead, Canberra opted to cling on to a foreign war machine that found itself bloodied and bruised in the Middle East. Now, Australia risked needlessly going to war against China on the side of the US. Best to, he suggested, shut down US training bases in the Northern Territory and close the Pine Gap signals centre as soon as feasible.

During the Trump administration, a more than usually cringe worthy effort was made to be Washington’s stalking horse in the Asia-Pacific region. Poking China on such matters as COVID-19 was seen as very sensible fare, as it might invite a more solid commitment of the United States to the region. But the momentum for an easing of some US global commitments was impossible to reverse. The country was looking inward (the ravages of the COVID contagion, a country riven by protest and the toxic and intoxicating drug of identity politics). Those in Canberra were left worried.

This state of affairs has prompted the glum lament from the veteran strategist Hugh White that Australia’s politicians lack imagination in the face of the most significant change in its foreign relations since British settlement. They refuse to accept that China is there, not to be contained but to be accommodated in some form. The Pacific pond will have to accept two hegemons rather than one, a point the Washington-hugging types in Canberra find, not only impermissible but terrifying.

The fall of Kabul offered further stimulus for panic. The Western war adventurers had been defeated and instead of asking why Australians were ever in Afghanistan, the focus shifted to the umbilical cord with Washington. In conducting interviews with four former Australian Prime Ministers, Paul Kelly of The Australian, being more woolly-headed than usual, saw Biden’s withdrawal as “so devoid of judgment and courage that it raises a fog of doubt about Biden himself and about America’s democratic sustenance as a reliable great power.”

Of the former prime ministers interviewed, the undying pugilist Tony Abbott wondered what “fight” was left in “Biden’s America.” There might well be some in the reserves, he speculated, but US allies had to adjust. Australia had to show “more spine” in the alliance.

Kevin Rudd, himself an old China hand, wanted to impress upon the Australian public and body politic that “we are in the midst of a profound paradigm shift in global and regional geopolitics.” The US continued to question itself about what strategic role it would play in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of China’s inexorable rise. Australia had to plan for the “best” and the “worst”: the former entailing “a robust regionally and globally engaged America”; the latter, “an America that begins to retreat.” On August 14, Rudd had urged the Biden administration to “reverse the course of its final military withdrawal.”

Malcolm Turnbull opted for the small troop thesis: “America should have retained a garrison force in Afghanistan.” Doing so might have provided sufficient assurance for Afghan national forces and prevented a Taliban victory. “It was not palatable to have kept forces there, but what we have seen now is even less palatable.” The US, he noted, had retained forces across European states, Japan and South Korea “for decades.” (Turnbull misses a beat here on such shaky comparisons, given that the Taliban would have never tolerated the presence of such a garrison.)

Trump comes in for a lecturing: “The [US-Taliban] talks should never have occurred in the absence of the Afghan government and their effect was to delegitimise that government.” In all fairness to the Trump administration, there was little by way of legitimacy in the Afghan national government to begin with. Negotiating with the Taliban was simply an admission as to where the bullets and bombs were actually coming from, not to mention how untenable the existence of the Kabul regime had become.

As for John Howard, the man who sent Australian forces to Afghanistan to begin with, the garrison thesis held even greater merit. Again, the false analogy of other US imperial footprints was drawn: if Washington can station 30,000 troops in South Korea for seven decades after the end of hostilities, why not Afghanistan? Hopefully, this “bungle” would remain confined to the handling of Afghanistan and not affect the US-Australian alliance. “I believe if it were put to the test, the Americans would honour the ANZUS treaty.”

Such reflections, part moaning, part regret, should provide brickwork for a more independent foreign policy. Alison Broinowski, former diplomat and Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform, offers some level-headed advice. “If Australians ignore the change in the global power balance that is happening before our eyes,” she writes, “we will suffer the consequences. If we can’t defeat the Taliban, how will we prevail in a war against China?” Such a question, given the terrifying answer that follows, is not even worth asking.

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The Neocons Speak: Afghanistan as Political Real Estate

When the tears dry, it is worth considering why there is so much upset about the fall of Kabul (or reconquest) by the Taliban and the messy withdrawal of US-led forces. A large shield is employed: women, rights of the subject, education. Remove the shield, and we are left with a simple equation of power gone wrong in the name of paternalistic warmongering.

The noisiest group of Afghanistan stayers are the neoconservatives resentful because their bit of political real estate is getting away. In being defeated, they are left with the task of explaining to the soldiery that blood was not expended in vain against a foe they failed to defeat. “You took out a brutal enemy,” goes a statement from US President George W. Bush and his wife Laura, “and denied Al Qaeda a safe haven while building schools, sending supplies, and providing medical care.” The couple throw in the contribution of Dr. Sakena Yacoobi of the Afghan Institute of Learning, behind the opening of “schools for girls and women around the nation.”

Paul Wolfowitz, who served as Bush’s deputy defence secretary, is less sentimental in his assessment of the Afghanistan fiasco. To Australia’s Radio National, he was unsparing in calling the victors “a terrorist mob that has been hating the United States for the last 20 years.” They had provided the launching ground for “one of history’s worst attacks on the United States” and were now “going to be running that bit of hostile territory.”

Being in Afghanistan, he asserted, was not costly for the occupiers – at least to the US. It made good sense in preventing it from “once again becoming a haven for terrorists.” For the last year and a half, there had not been a single American death. He chided the simpletons at the Chicago Council of Global Affairs who dared survey Americans with the question, “Would you like to leave [Afghanistan] and get out?” They would have been far better framing it differently: “Do you support withdrawal if it means the country is going to be overrun by the same people who hated us 20 years ago and from where an attack that killed 3,000 Americans took place.”

To talk about “endless wars” was also something to avoid. In a reminder that the US imperial footprint remains global, Wolfowitz drew attention to the fact that Washington was hardly going to withdraw from South Korea, where it was still officially at war with the North. It kept troops in countries it had previously been at war with: Germany and Japan. Americans, he lamented, had not “been told the facts” by their politicians.

Boiled down to its essentials, such a view has little time for Afghans with a country “more or less ungovernable for long periods of time.” (What uncooperative savages.) The Obama administration’s deployment of 100,000 soldiers had been an “overreach” with unclear intention. It was far better to treat Afghanistan as a state to contain with “a limited commitment” of US forces rather than “extending to the idea that Afghanistan would become a latter-day Switzerland.” Ringing the real estate, not advancing the people, mattered.

Former US National Security Advisor John Bolton, a caricature of US interventionist policies, never had much time for the withdrawal argument, either. Earlier in August, with the Taliban humming along with speed in capturing a swag of provincial cities, Bolton warned that it was “literally [President Joe] Biden’s last chance to reverse his and Trump’s erroneous withdrawal policy. When the Taliban wins, it compromises the security of all Americans.”

 

 

Another voice from the neoconservative stable advocating the need for a continued boot print of US power was Max Boot, who thought it nonsensical to keep US troops in Iraq while withdrawing them from Afghanistan. US forces needed, he wrote in the Irish Independent (Jul 29) “to stay in both countries to prevent a resurgence of the terrorist threat to the US and its allies.” The “imperative” to prevent both countries from becoming “international terrorist bases” remained, but only one had an adequate military presence to provide insurance. Decent of Boot to show such candour.

The British, long wedded to the idea of empire as gift and necessity, have also piled onto the wagon of stayers, saying less about the merits of protecting Afghan citizens than keeping trouble boxed and localised. “We will run the risk of terrorist entities re-establishing in Afghanistan, to bring harm in Europe and elsewhere,” feared General Sir Richard Barrons. “I think this is a very poor strategic outcome.”

British Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, a former captain in the Royal Green Jackets, went further by suggesting that plucky Britain best go it alone in the face of foolhardy US withdrawal. “Just because the US chose to depart does not mean we should slavishly follow suit,” he exhorted. “Would it not make sense to stay close to the Afghan people given the importance of this bit of real estate?”

The one who tops all of this off must be former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, always one given to evangelising wars waged in the name of a sinister, tinfoil humanitarianism. As executive of an institute bearing his name (modest to a fault), he railed against a withdrawal executed “in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending ‘forever wars’.” Like Wolfowitz, he dismissed the use of such terms and comparisons, noting the diminishing troop deployment on Afghan soil and the fact that “no allied soldier had lost their life in combat for 18 months.”

Despite the withdrawal, Blair suggested that options were available to “the West” which needed some “tangible demonstration” that it was not in “retreat.” A “list of incentives, sanctions and actions” had to be drawn up against the Taliban. In doing so, his motivation was simple: that these turbaned fanatics represented a strategic risk, part of “Radical Islam” that had been “almost 100 years in gestation.”

Far from ditching the prospect for future interventions, the high priest of illegal war is all-embracing of the formula. “Intervention,” he opines, “can take many forms. We need to do it learning the proper lessons of the past 20 years according not to our short-term politics, but our long-term strategic interests.” Be fearful for Afghanistan’s sovereignty, and woe to those lessons.

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Amazon’s Drive into Africa

Since 2004, Amazon has been building a foothold on the African continent. In Cape Town, it already employs thousands in a global call centre and a range of data hubs. Its South African career portal is a busy place, with the vast majority of advertised jobs located in Cape Town. In April, as part of its aggrandising drive into the continent, the company announced that it would be opening its African headquarters as part of a new, multipurpose development.

The Cape Town development, worth R4 billion (US$284 million), is part of a broader enterprise spanning 15 hectares along a riverside area that promises a range of uses: a hotel, offices, shops, a gym, a number of restaurants, a conference space and affordable housing. Amazon is intended as the main tenant, with its headquarters covering 70,000 square metres (17.3 acres).

The project is not going ahead unopposed. The site had previously been given a two-year interim heritage designation, which expired in April 2020. It is distinguished by riverside, verdant space and the confluence of the Black and Liesbeek Rivers, considered of cultural significance to some descendants of the Khoi and San. To them historical parallels of this enterprise appear with ominous significance. The Khoi did valiant battle with cattle-raiding Portuguese in a famous encounter half a millennium ago, leaving Francis de Almeida, the first viceroy of the Portuguese Indies, dead.

In 1659, the Dutch followed, though on this occasion, the tribes were unable to prevail. The colonial administrator Jan Van Riebeeck had little time for a culture with no written title deeds for land or written records. An all too familiar pattern of conduct by a European power followed: appropriation, dispossession, a spate of armed uprisings. “You can trace the origins of our identity here, it is the footprint of our resistance against colonialism,” suggests Tauriq Jenkins of the Goringhaicona Khoi Khoin Indigenous Traditional Council (GKKITC). The development showed “a lack of sensitivity to our heritage.”

The Observatory Civic Association, a body representing residents from a nearby community, claims that upwards of 50,000 objections to the development have been lodged with city and provincial authorities.

This month, the GKKITC and the Observatory Civic Association filed an interdict in the Western Cape High Court seeking to halt the development upon the River Club site. The broader object of the campaign is to ultimately have the riverside area listed as a World Heritage Site.

A petition opposing the development has also attracted, to date, almost 57,000 names. Comprising “unique heritage and environmentally sensitive riverine area”, the development would negate “the history of resistance by indigenous Khoi peoples in the area and the deep cultural and spiritual links that they hold with the valley.” The petitioners also claim that flooding risks will be aggravated and destroy the means by which the aquifer on the site can be recharged, an essential part of Cape Town’s resilience before the effects of climate change.

Amazon, for its part, has left the task of answering any searching questions on the development to Zenprop, the main developer. Zenprop, in turn, has referred those queries to the Liesbeek Leisure Properties Trust, who claim, predictably, that milk honey will flow: jobs will follow (6,000 direct, 19,000 indirect), as will foreign investment and an improvement in Cape Town’s quality of life. It is also hoping that local support for the project will remain sufficiently strong.

LLTP’s blinkered Jody Aufrichtig finds little in the way of dissatisfaction. The appropriate approvals process was pursued, and the public consulted. “There is no groundswell of unhappiness,” she asserts. “The handful of vocal objectors who remain, who were given fair opportunity to participate, simply do not like the outcome.” As for cultural sensitivities, Aufrichtig outlined a few proposed measures, including designs for a heritage centre, an Indigenous medicinal garden, and a hiking trail. Descendants of the Khoi and San would also be involved in the project as educators and operators.

One of the groups cheering Amazon and the impending development is the First Nations Collective, which is also drawn from members of the Khoi and San. Its spokesperson, Zenzile Khoisan, felt that their various cultural needs had been addressed. “We have secured a place to memorialise and celebrate our cultural agency and belonging, where we can articulate our narrative in our own voice to the world.” He also approved of plans that “put First Nations at the centre of the project, right across the street from that building everyone is talking about, the Amazon building.”

Cape Town Mayer Dan Plato has also given his nod of approval. “We are acutely aware of the need to balance investment and job creation, along with heritage and planning considerations.” On this occasion, the balance overwhelmingly favoured tourism and jobs. The application, he claimed in a May statement skimpy on environmental impacts, “does not adversely affect the rights of surrounding properties and appropriate design mitigation will be required in the conditions of approval.”

Such an accommodating tone to Amazon should come as a worry, not only to those in South Africa, but farther afield on the continent. The company’s ruthlessness is a grand rebuke for all who think certain markets, as a rule, encourage diversity and healthy competition. The Amazon effect, as it is termed, has seen the company firmly, if not brutally, assert its kingly role in the e-commerce marketplace. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) has drawn attention to a tendency the company has made famous over the years: eliminating competition, absorbing industries and killing innovation.

In June 2021, the ILSR released a factsheet documenting the various sins of the company. The list is ugly and extensive including, among many things, the company’s policy of impairing the means small businesses have “to operate independently and blocking them from having direct relationships with their customers.” Amazon has also made a habit of pinching the “best ideas and innovations” from independent businesses. It blocks independent businesses from offering lower prices available on other sites. It shuns due process in eliminating small businesses and sells goods and services below cost “to harm rivals and take market share.”

Lawmakers in the United States have also shown interest in the company’s predatory practices. The US House Judiciary Committee, after a 15-month investigation, found that Amazon “has monopoly power over many small and medium size businesses that do not have a viable alternative to Amazon for reaching online consumers.” Amazon, for its part, insists through lobbying and public relations efforts that its presence is a tonic for small businesses in what it calls “a mutually beneficial relationship.” The company, the claim goes, provides a valuable platform to enable them to thrive. “As many independent businesses across the country have struggled and even shuttered, smaller companies have continued to grow with Amazon.”

Small business owners in South Africa and beyond, including independent retailers, small consumer product manufacturers, and publishers, have been warned. As the great plundering founder Jeff Bezos himself observed, “When you are small, someone else that is bigger can always come along and take away what you have.” The door to a continent is being opened, and, with fitting darkness, it is taking place upon historically dispossessed land.

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Lingering Peculiarities: Slavery and Manumission in the Roman Empire

The question does not bear asking, but in a global economy greased by what has been termed disposable people, the past’s previous examples of the same may be a country worth visiting. The prod along for such a journey came with the discovery of yet another gem from the ruins of Pompeii. The news headlines were ravenous in consuming the details about the history of an individual who, having been a slave, obviously went on to do rather well for himself. It read like a tale of social mobility, and would have sent the likes of those who spoke about the paralysis of social death spinning in the grave.

First, the fanfare. The skull of one Marcus Venerius Secundio was praised as “the best-preserved human remains ever discovered in Pompeii.” They were found in an ancient tomb in the necropolis of Porta Sarno. The marble slab found at the pediment of his tomb had an inscription that sent the news outlets into states of excitement.

The Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, was so enthusiastic as to be insufferable. “Pompeii never ceases to amaze, and has confirmed her place as a story of redemption, as an international role model, and a place where research and new archaeological excavations are taking place once more, thanks to the many professionals in the field of cultural heritage, who with their work never cease to produce extraordinary results for the world which are a source of pride for Italy.”

Then, the career aspect of Secundio. The gravestone’s inscription, in the nature of such etchings, is filled with many achievements. He had been a slave. Post-liberation, he became a custodian of the Temple of Venus. He was admitted to a college of priests, the Augustales, and organised ludi, entertainment events run in Greek and Latin.

 

Skeleton of freed slave (Image from timesofisrael.com – Photo by Alfio Giannotti/Pompeii Archeological Park via AP)

 

The director of Pompeii’s archaeological park, Gabriel Zuchtriegel drew the logical conclusion from the finding. “So here we see evidence of a transformation of social ranking … he is showing that he became a different person, that he made it in life.” Admittedly, the status of the slave was “humiliating” but it was clear that Secundio had come good.

Such finds are impressive, but stories about manumitted slaves who went on to become social climbers and society achievers in the Roman Empire are far from unusual. Mary Beard has made a habit of reading Roman gravestones full of conversational detail, many showing an empire filled with go-getting types and bounders. Indeed, she has made referring to tombstones fundamental to understanding an empire not interpreted purely through the records of the great, foolish and sadistic.

The institution of Roman slavery was, more broadly, a strange beast. The living standards of those in bondage ranged from the atrocious and vulnerable to luxurious and cosseted. Ethnically, they hailed from all corners of the imperium.

During periods of the empire, notably the Imperial phase, slaves were in shorter supply given fewer wars. Wars presented opportunities for enslavement and an addition to the labour pool. The diminished supply meant an appreciation in value and a focus on “home breeding.” Excessively cruel treatment was discouraged, even prohibited by some regulations. None of this ever overcame that most evident of realities: that a slave lacked self-possession, subject to an owner who could exercise violence when he chose to do so.

Beard notes that most baffling of tendencies in Ancient Rome: to generously manumit those in bondage. Such individuals were granted citizenship, a point grandly illustrated by the emperor Caracalla’s decision in AD 212 to grant Roman citizenship to all free persons in the empire. This was in stark opposition to other powers such as Athens, which could never be accused of that same tendency, let alone dolling out citizenships. The result was a political entity of stunning ethnic diversity that served to cause a good deal of anxiety and self-questioning.

The reasons for such emancipation are not clear. Doing so might have arisen from “coldly practical considerations,” as Beard calls them. Older slaves would be granted freedom because of a lack of productivity and cost of retention. Slaves might also purchase their own freedom through their savings. For those working in domestic conditions rather than the harsher conditions of agriculture, slavery would not be a station for life.

In Pompeii, Secundio’s body proved enthralling for its preserved state, with skeleton generally intact, white hair and even some remains of an ear. Unusually for adult Pompeiians, he was not cremated but partially mummified and entombed. Zuchtriegel speculates that, as tomb burial was reserved for children and infants, Secundio’s importance must have been quite something though Llorenç Alapont, an archaeologist based at Universidad Europea de Valencia advances a hypothesis: that Pompeii, at that time, permitted a certain freedom in such matters. The list of questions merely grows.

 

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Reluctant Acceptance: Responding to Afghanistan’s Refugees

Do not for a minute think that this is a kind, heart-felt thing in the aftermath of Kabul’s fall. True, a number of Afghans will find their way to Germany, to Canada, to the UK, US and a much smaller number to Australia. But this will be part of the curtain act that, in time, will pass into memory and enable countries to return to their harsh refugee policies.

Britain’s Home Secretary, Priti Patel, is none too enthused about welcoming high numbers of Afghan refugees. “We have to be realistic in terms of those that we can bring to the country and resettle in a safe and secure way while giving them the right opportunities going forward in resettlement.”

This waffly formulation has yielded the following formula: the UK will accept a mere 20,000 staggered over five years. Only 5,000 will be admitted in the next year, after which, presumably, the situation will resolve itself. “What are the 15,000 meant to do,” asked Labour’s Chris Bryant, “hang around and wait to be executed?”

However inadequate Britain’s response has proven, Australia’s approach remains without peer. Every excuse has been made to delay, to obstruct, to prevent an orderly transfer of Afghan interpreters and former security personnel out of the country. The Morrison government has become a specialist prevaricator, waiting for the horse to bolt before even finding the barn. Instead of bothering to use strategic common sense and see the writing on the wall for the Afghan government based in Kabul, it waited months before deciding, abruptly, to close the embassy at the end of May only to then suggest it would need to put in Australian personnel to assist in the evacuation.

The number of humanitarian visas currently being offered is a paltry 3,000. This is sharply lower than the number of Vietnamese accepted by the Fraser government after the fall of Saigon in 1975, which one estimate puts at 60,000. In 2015, 12,000 places were offered for Syrians fleeing their country. The Morrison government, in contrast, finds expanding Australia’s resettlement program beyond the current 13,750 places something of a heresy.

 

 

Behind the compassion argument, one constipated at best, is a marked reluctance to actually open the doors to the Afghans. A good deal of this can be put down to the fact that Afghans have made up a sizeable complement of those maritime arrivals Australian politicians so detest as “illegals” deserving of indefinite detention in its system of Pacific concentration camps. Many actually fled the Taliban to begin with, but that did not make immigration authorities any softer.

As the Saturday Newspaper appropriately described it, Australia’s antipathetic refugee policy has induced “a kind of moral numbness that puts decisions outside the reach of logic or decency.” Prime Minister Scott Morrison could never be said to have been taken by surprise: “he was already in the grip of indifference,” one “necessary to live with the refugee policy he has spent years shaping.”

Despite the fall of the coalition-backed Afghan national government, Australian government officials did little to reassure the 4,200 Afghans already in Australia on precarious temporary protection visas that they would not be sent back when the time came. Australian foreign minister Marise Payne offered an assessment on national radio that was far from reassuring. “All the Afghan citizens who currently are in Australia on a temporary visa will be supported by the Australian government and no Afghan visa holders will be asked to return to Afghanistan at this stage.”

One dark reminder of the brutal, and distinctly non-honeyed approach of Australia’s authorities to Afghan refugees comes in the form of a refugee and former member of an Afghan government security agency who aided coalition forces. For doing so, he was attacked by the Taliban. He arrived in Australia by boat in 2013 after having suffered a grenade attack on his home and being the recipient of various warning letters from the militants. For his efforts, he was sent to Manus Island, where he was formally found to be a refugee in 2015. In 2019, he was moved to Australia for treatment during that brief window of opportunity under the now repealed medevac legislation.

In total, he has spent eight years in detention, desperate to help his family out of the country. He had previously asked no fewer than three times to be returned to Papua New Guinea. “Every day Afghanistan is getting worse,” he writes in an email to his case manager from the behemoth that is the Department of Home Affairs. “My family is in a dangerous place and I need help now please. If you wait I will lose my family. Why do you wait? The Taliban want to kill my family.”

The email, read in open court, forms part of a case the plaintiff, given the pseudonym F, has taken against the Australian government, seeking his release. He argues that his detention prevents him from “moving my family out of Afghanistan to a safe country to save them from the Taliban.” The nature of his detention prevented him “from doing anything to help” his family.

On August 3, 2021, the Federal Court judge Rolf Driver dismissed F’s claims that his detention was unlawful and refused an order “in the nature of the writ of habeas corpus requiring his release from detention forthwith.” Judge Driver did find that the man was “a refugee and requires resettlement,” ordering mediation between him and the home affairs minister. While Australia was not an option for resettlement, the applicant should have his request to return to PNG “acted upon”.

Morrison’s ministers are full of excuses about Australia’s unimpressive effort. Defence minister, Peter Dutton, has constantly reiterated the idea that processing the paperwork is a difficult thing indeed, because some of the visa applicants cannot be trusted. Having aided Australian and other coalition forces in the past, they had proved flexible with shifting allegiances. “I’m not bringing people to Australia that pose a threat to us or that have done us harm in Afghanistan.” With such an attitude, shutting the door to the suffering, even to those who were part of the coalition’s absurd state building project in Afghanistan, will do little to trouble an unformed, unimaginative conscience.

 

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