Halifax International Security Forum (part II): contemporary trouble spots and modern warfare
12 Dec 2012|

Afghanistan National Army Sgts. Bashir Allahmurrad and Abdul Ahad, both assigned to 1st Kandak, 1st Brigade, 215th Corps, wait for their rifles to be cleaned and inspected before firing at Range Juarez near Forward Operating Base Geronimo, 25 May 2010.

Last week, I presented my thoughts on the leadership challenges discussed at the Halifax International Security Forum which I attended last month. While not entirely abandoning the leadership theme, the Forum also took up a couple of enduring trouble spots—Afghanistan and Iran. Both seem to be nearing something of a tipping or end point, where the outcomes of the international community’s exertions give little reason for much optimism. But, in fact, the panel on Afghanistan was not all pessimism: the increase in Afghan literacy, degrading of the Taliban, and the size and growing competence of the Afghan National Army were all seen as encouraging signs. There is a strategy in place for Afghanistan and while events will probably unfold in some unexpected ways, Afghans have a window of opportunity to seize their future. Next door, in Pakistan, however, the picture could hardly be bleaker. For many, Pakistan presents a picture not too far distant from that which once applied to Afghanistan, with broken political institutions, high levels of domestic insecurity and chronic economic breakdown. Whatever future might exist for Afghanistan, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the greatest regional challenge in South Asia is the manifest instability in Pakistan. Despite the obvious need for change, there are few signs either in Pakistan itself or from the outside that anyone has any serious plans to affect the reforms desperately needed there. Consequently, the security situation seems only destined to deteriorate, notwithstanding the promise of the forthcoming elections.

Iran, of course, presents a very different set of challenges, though hardly less serious. Yet as the discussion on this panel unfolded there was perhaps a greater measure of optimism that solutions might be found and that comprises might be possible. The internationally-imposed sanctions might be causing hardship in Iran, but there were few convincing signs that they were changing regime behaviour or significantly undermining its credibility. But here, perhaps, is the key to finding some solutions to the stand-off over Iran’s nuclear program. On the one hand, if the religious and secular leadership in Iran believes that it has time on its side and can survive, it will have limited incentive to compromise and it will resist serious negotiations. On the other hand, if convinced of a serious threat to its existence, it might be forced to shift ground. If the re-elected Obama administration could persuade Tehran that it doesn’t seek its government’s destruction, it might also give it confidence to negotiate. Like much of the politics of the Middle East these days, this is a high stakes game. And, as we know from Saddam Hussein’s fatal miscalculations over Washington’s intentions, it can so easily lead to missteps with disastrous consequences.

Taking a rather different perspective on contemporary security, the Forum examined the impact of new technologies—the transformative nature of drones on modern warfare, the complexities of trying to manage cyberspace and, in another field completely, the implications of America’s growing energy independence. Here, in ways barely conceived of not much more than a decade ago, the geostrategic environment is being transformed by technological innovation. The implications of this technology for national security strategies are only dimly perceived, yet they proliferate a lengthy list of complex uncertainties. How much of a role can remotely piloted vehicles play on the modern battlefield and what implications, if any, do they have for the conduct, indeed, the laws of war? And, coming at the issue slightly differently, one can’t ignore the privacy issues around such intrusive capabilities. If cyberspace is the new security domain, we are forced to confront the complexities of deciding where the new battlefield space might be and how much of the old remains.

No less vexing are the questions around the management of intelligence, alliance trust and confidence and the territorialisation of cyberspace. Elsewhere, technology has almost unexpectedly delivered a strategic payoff to the United States in the form of a growing freedom from oil dependence. It’s not clear how much of a long-term benefit this will prove to be. However, the implications are profound and not just for the US. As one of the Forum participants reminded us, one of the questions that emerges is, what consequences can we expect it to have on US strategic policy, especially in the Middle East?

The Halifax Forum wasn’t a large meeting, but it packed a serious punch in the quality of the attendees and the high level of informed debate. Few opportunities were lost to explore themes and ideas and to confront global security challenges. Accordingly, one evening was devoted to break out dinners at which participants could select from a range of topics as diverse as Korea, the social media and diplomacy, Russia, Mexico, technology transfer, sanctions and transnational crime, and many others. The forum undoubtedly has a bright future. The organisers deserve considerable credit for creating a first class venue for exploring some of the most challenging issues on the contemporary international security agenda.

Russell Trood is professor of International Relations at Griffith University, adjunct professor at the US Studies Centre at Sydney University and an ASPI Council member. Image courtesy of Flickr user United States Marine Corps Official Page.