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Joel Fitzgibbon Has it Almost Right on Afghanistan

One time Defence Minister and now Chief Government Whip, Joel Fitzgibbon today uttered the awkward but necessary reality that some Australian troops, probably special forces, may and should remain in Afghanistan well after the already stated withdrawl date of 2014. These comments come less than a day after Taliban militants struck urban areas across Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, attacking government buildings and diplomatic missions as well as a NATO facility.

The government have already stated that the majority of Australian troops will be coming home within the next two years, but that there is a real possibility that elite soldiers may remain well after the planned withdrawal date.

Mr Fitzgibbon, on his return from visiting the NATO headquarters in Brussels, stated that the attacks which were quelled today after more than half a day of fighting proved that “the peace in Afghanistan is at best a fragile one”. This is very true, whilst the attacks  in the major urban cities of Afghanistan have been rare in recent years, aside from a similar one last year, the fact that they are still occurring and not being smothered, or even discovered beforehand is a cause for major concern regarding the real level of readiness of Afghan security services post combat troop withdrawal.

At the outset it is important to note that the ongoing effort in Afghanistan will be one more of harm minimisation as opposed to the ideal outcome of crushing Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The events over the last 24 hours or so provide some evidence that a greater level return of troops to the major cities is a necessity both to train and supplement Afghan police and army stationed in these cities.

The attacks also point to the need for greater border security, particularly around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas where, in the worst kept secret of the conflict, many Taliban fighters are known to have fled and to have even been welcomed by elements of the military and intelligence community in the neighbouring country.

Greater intelligence efforts of both the Afghan and international community need to be deployed into these border regions to help identify, prosecute or eliminate border crossings by known Taliban fighters and this kind of intelligence building and effort cannot occur overnight as many members of the Taliban may just wait out international forces before returning to the country when it is safer for them to do so. In the case of intelligence cooperation, an ongoing cooperation between Afghanistan and particularly US intelligence services is a necessity.

Where Fitzgibbon starts going wrong is suggesting that, in his view the mentoring task force would have returned home by the end of 2014, like the artificial timetable created suggests. If any part of the Australian commitment had to remain in Afghanistan post 2014, it predominantly should be those tasked with mentoring the Afghan National Army and police. It is the security forces that we as a nation have been partially responsible for mentoring that weren’t ready yesterday wasn’t it?

It is certain that the security situation in Afghanistan is tense and that the threat of combatants returning from Pakistan through the porous borders is a certainty, regardless of the timing of an exit and needs to be responded to with continued security and intelligence cooperation between nations. The question is, will a war weary and debt-ridden international community be able to stomach continued commitment to peace and security in Afghanistan? Equally so, will the Afghan Government, increasingly weary of the international presence and occasional misadventure be happy for this to continue to occur? That is far from definite.

Men In Black, Suits

For some months now we have been hearing reports that the Gillard Government have asked the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, better know as ASIO, to send agents out into the field to spy on coal protesters around the country. These revelations have drawn the ire of the Australian Greens, with whom anti-coal protesters would in many cases have a close allegiance or at least some of the same political aims at least as far as environmental protection goes.

These revelations appeared in Fairfax newspapers this morning following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the media  outlet which was directed to the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. The application was said to be rejected because it involved a confidential document from an “intelligence agency”.

Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens has called on the minister responsible for the department, Martin Ferguson to agree to the release of the documents so that the extent of the involvement of Mr Ferguson in organising the surveillance of the protesters can be brought to light.

Revelations of security agencies, be they state or federal police or higher spying on protesters have been around a long time in Australia and indeed many states, notably Queensland in the mid-to-late 1900’s have been clearly observed to have actively participated in the surveillance of protesters. Queensland too came down hard on protesters who marched the streets in contravention of draconian laws during the Bjelke-Petersen era in Queensland,   arresting and charging many.

At university, it was also said that ASIO were involved in spying on certain protesters, particularly those of the loopy left who are supporters of groups like S0cialist Alliance and the like, the sort of groups against any use of intelligence services in the first place, be it for peaceful purposes or otherwise.

On occasion when observing protests during my student days, aside from the boys and girls in blue coming onto campus to ensure that protests didn’t get too rowdy and that the targets of protests and university property didn’t have damage inflicted upon them I could have sworn I saw besuited men snapping the protesters getting rowdy.

These were men adorned in black suits, with tell-tale sunglasses with mobile phones raised every now taking happy snaps of the not so happy revolutionaries engaging in chanting incantations, sometimes into the atmosphere and sometimes at the objects of their collective ire, university administrators, public figures and even the police. But then I could just be paranoid with an overactive imagination.

Is it really such a bad thing to have security services engaged in spying on groups in society that are causing a bit of noise, sometimes a bit of damage or even a lot or perhaps even engaged in acts as serious as eco-terrorism?

Perhaps if ASIO are engaged in observing your everyday kind of protest gig where a bunch of people are just getting loud and boisterous and not really causing harm to anyone or property then their attendance would be complete overkill. This is relevant if there is no particular person or group that is being targeted and it is just an issue is being prosecuted by a march of a small group with a few signs.

That all changes when there is someone or a group of people who police or intelligence agencies have identified as being a direct threat to a particular person or persons or the interests of an organisation. In that case, it is entirely justifiable for high-level intelligence agencies to be involved in the investigation and oversight of such militant people or groups.

In all other cases the men and women of our state police would more than suffice as security and surveillance, with the ability to arrest protesters disregarding lawful directions or committing criminal acts.

Surveillance of people in most cases is not a necessary evil, but it is a reality that we have to get used to in some situations, particularly if we have been a bit on the naughty side.

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