Australia Should Fight Terror Regionally And Globally, Analyst Says

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - In the aftermath of the deadly bomb attack in Bali, Australia should not have to choose between fighting terror either in its backyard or globally, but could and should do both, a leading defense analyst has argued.

Canberra should become more engaged with the outside world, not retreat into isolationism as a result of the tragedy, said Prof. Paul Dibb, head of the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University.

Addressing an Asia-Pacific research institute, Dibb challenged the viewpoint voiced in recent days that the Oct. 12 Bali bombing should prompt Australia to focus on threats in its immediate region, rather than more distant ones.

"This is not, as far as I am concerned, an either/or argument," he said.

"In policy terms, it is rather an and/and argument. That is, our defense policy should be about the defense of Australia and its regional interests, and pursuing the war on terror where that is useful militarily.

"The latter will involve more frequent and distant coalition operations with our U.S. ally and sometimes this will involve demanding concurrent operations."

At the same time, he cautioned that Australia's limited military sources not be overstretched to leave it "vulnerable in our immediate neighborhood."

Up to 96 Australians were among the estimated 190 people killed in Bali, a popular resort island in Indonesia. It has been described as the worst peace-time tragedy in the country's history.

Government ministers have been facing hard questions about the wisdom of having Special Forces troops fighting in Afghanistan - and possibly in Iraq should the U.S. launch a strike against Baghdad - when Australians were clearly threatened by terrorism closer to home.

Defense Minister Robert Hill explained in a television interview that only about one-sixth of the Special Forces service was in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has led a post-Sept. 11 campaign against the Taliban militia and its al-Qaeda ally.

Australia had the capability, he said, "to tackle the threat both at source, and also where it is currently being implemented."

Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the southeast Asian group suspected in the Indonesia attack, has been found to have close links to al-Qaeda.

Hill did not discount the possibility that Australian forces could team up with their Indonesian counterparts to fight "this joint enemy" - as the U.S. has done this year in the Philippines.

Any such development will have its own complexities: Human rights violations at the hands of the Indonesian military in the late 1990s prompted both Australia and the U.S. to cut military ties with Jakarta.

Both Canberra and Washington have started to renew the contacts, but rights campaigners argue that the military remains abusive and unaccountable.

In a key speech Wednesday night, Hill said Australia was committed to rebuilding the defense relationship with its immediate northern neighbor.

Because of Islamic militants attempts to destabilize the region, he said, "we must avoid the instinct to turn inwards after the horror of Bali and must remain closely engaged with Indonesia and other threatened states."

Global, regional threats intertwined

Hill stressed the ties between terrorists in southeast Asia and those further afield.

"This is why ensuring that al-Qaeda is not allowed to regroup in Afghanistan and elsewhere is essential to the global war against terrorism."

Australia needed both to help tackle the terrorism at its source - which in turn would inhibit al-Qaeda's capacity to operate through regional surrogates - and tackle it in the region, he said.

In his address, Dibb also made it clear the two battles shouldn't be seen as distinct.

"While we need to concentrate much harder on getting on top of the terrorist threat in Indonesia, the fact is that as a member of the West we face a global threat from terrorism," he said.

And that global war, he added, could also not be separated from the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of regimes like Saddam Hussein's.

Prime Minister John Howard and other ministers have begun to raise publicly the issue of increased defense spending, while denying there were any plans to impose a "terror tax."

In Dibb's estimation, a range of needed new military, intelligence and homeland security capabilities would cost more than an additional one billion Australian dollars ($553 million) a year.

He acknowledged there would be resistance to the additional spending, but said "now is hardly the time for the Australian government to pretend that it can do defense on the cheap."

Australia currently spends 1.9 per cent of GDP on defense, compared to 2.8 per cent in Britain and more than three per cent in the U.S.

A national memorial service was held in Canberra Thursday for the victims of the Bali attacks.

Shortly afterwards, the country's federal and state governments signed an agreement to coordinate counter-terrorism responsibilities and strategies.

In other moves in recent days, Australia has passed emergency legislation enabling the immediate arrest of terrorist suspects in the country.

It has also lodged a request with a U.N. sanctions committee -- with the support of the U.S. and other countries in Asia and Europe -- to have JI added to a list of organizations subject to global penalties because of their terrorist activities.

Washington on Wednesday designated JI as a foreign terrorist organization.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow