Fresh Taliban threat; US looks to do deal with Pakistan; Jokowi’s first year. By Hamish McDonald.

Conservatives reel as Justin Trudeau wins Canadian election

Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau kisses his wife, Sophie Grégoire, after securing victory in Canada’s federal election this week.
Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau kisses his wife, Sophie Grégoire, after securing victory in Canada’s federal election this week.

It was, as our counterpart Greg Sheridan informed us in The Australian on Wednesday, “a telling blow against conservative politics in all Western societies”. He was lamenting the sweeping defeat of Canada’s Tony Abbott–John Howard counterpart Stephen Harper at the hands of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in Monday’s general election. 

Indeed, only last Saturday his senior colleague Paul Kelly had intoned that with a Trudeau victory “the line-up of progressive liberal leaders across the Anglo democracies will be unbroken and suggest that conservatism faces another moment of crisis”. Perhaps the duo were pointing out to their proprietor that the ReaganThatcher era is truly over and won’t come back.

Harper pulled every trick in the book to extend his nine years in office: an extra-long two-month campaign to make the best use of his funding advantage, tough anti-terrorism laws after a lone gunman attacked his parliament building last October, and whipping up of sentiment about the wearing of the niqab by Muslim women. It didn’t work.

Now Canada reverts to the sort of warm, fuzzy policies it used to be respected for. In domestic policy, Trudeau is switching to deficit spending to boost the post-resources boom economy and giving more government attention to new infrastructure. The anti-terrorism laws will be amended. He pledged to pull Canada’s aircraft out of the bombing campaign against Daesh and generally drop Harper’s emphasis on military solutions to foreign conflicts in favour of the more traditional involvement in United Nations peace operations.

For Australia, the implication is more isolation on climate change ahead of the UN conference in Paris in early December. Canada will take another look at the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade and investment deal, recently signed with 11 other nations including Australia but not yet ratified. Trudeau also promised to scrap Canada’s $US44 billion planned order for the F-35 strike fighter, meaning less spreading of the development costs and possibly higher prices for the remaining buyers such as Australia.

1 . Fresh Taliban threat

Remember Uruzgan? This is the province in Afghanistan that from 2006 to 2013 was the focus of Australia’s military commitment to the fight against the Taliban. 

In the campaign 41 Australian soldiers were killed and 256 wounded. At the exit ceremony, Abbott told the troops: “Australia’s longest war is ending. Not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that is better for our presence here.”

Maybe not for much longer. In The New York Review of Books, the Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid reports that Afghan officials tell him the Taliban are a grave threat in 17 of the 34 provinces. “Of those, a half dozen are in danger of falling completely into Taliban control, including Helmand and Uruzgan in the south.” The fall of any one of those provinces before winter would cause panic in Kabul, Rashid says. The Taliban’s brief seizure of Kunduz, a city of 300,000 people, and the American strafing of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the retaking of it, has added to the nervousness.

Barack Obama has now abandoned his promise to pull United States combat troops out of Afghanistan by the end of his term, leaving only 1000 specialists for training and technical support. Instead, the existing force of 9800 troops will reduce to 5500 through 2017 and possibly beyond. Several NATO allies − Germany, Italy and Turkey − have a similar combined number of soldiers and seem ready to keep them there. Australia still has 250 personnel based at Kabul’s airport, to train and assist the Afghans.

Obama is hoping the continued commitment will encourage “an Afghan-led reconciliation process” that leads to a “lasting political settlement”. But Rashid thinks Obama’s commitment won’t hold the military balance. “Nor will it be able to end the acute economic and political paralysis of the leadership in Kabul, which has already caused tens of thousands of Afghans to flee to Europe, and a steady erosion of support for President Ashraf Ghani,” he writes. At best, it would keep Western capitals interested in Afghanistan.

2 . US looks to do deal with Pakistan

The awkward side of the Afghan conflict for the US and its allies has been Pakistan’s patronage of the Afghan Taliban. The lingering ties of the Cold War, when Pakistan was a valued chess piece against the Soviets, meant Washington has overlooked all sorts of bad behaviour such as this.

Now it seems the Americans propose a very big sweetener if Islamabad cleans up its act. Obama is reported to be thinking of “mainstreaming” Pakistan’s sometimes rogue nuclear program, by relaxing controls on the country’s access to civilian nuclear technology, equipment and fuel. 

In return, Pakistan would have to slow or stop the rapid expansion of its nuclear weapons arsenal and make it more secure, and help out more in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went to Washington to meet Obama this week, with his officials furiously denying any such deal was being negotiated.

Pakistan is already estimated to have 110 to 130 nuclear bombs or warheads to India’s 90 to 110, and is racing ahead, producing enough fissile material for 16 to 20 more each year while India makes enough for five weapons a year. Pakistan also has some worrying war-fighting doctrines. It deploys tactical nuclear weapons, meaning the threshold for nuclear escalation is lower. The Pakistanis are frank about it as a counter to India’s growing conventional force preponderance. 

3 . A year on, Jokowi still underwhelms

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, known as “Jokowi”, marked his first year in office on Tuesday with his government still showing a shambolic approach to policy and maverick ministers taking bizarre initiatives on their own.

There was the murky episode of the fast-train project linking the capital Jakarta with the highland city of Bandung in West Java. Japan spent millions of dollars in detailed planning over several years. In September, Jokowi announced the project was abandoned: with eight stops on a 150-kilometre route through mountainous terrain it was hardly going to be high-speed rail. Then, in mid-October, the government suddenly announced a Chinese consortium would build the line.

Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, meanwhile, came out with a plan to train up to 100 million Indonesian civilians over 10 years to “defend the state”. This would not be “military service” but would include military exercises including marching drill. Those who refuse to take part, and “don’t love the homeland … [should] get out of here”, Ryacudu was quoted as saying.

Dismayingly, Jokowi is not proving the break from the dark side of Indonesia’s history many hoped for. With the 50th anniversary of the 1965 coup attempt in Jakarta that sparked a massacre of an estimated one million communists on many minds, the president ruled out an official apology.

Meanwhile, police in Central Java seized and burnt copies of a student magazine at Satya Wacana Christian University that ran an extensive report on the anti-communist purge of 1965-66, carried out mostly by Muslim and other civilian groups with Indonesian Army encouragement. Officials arrested and deported Tom Iljas, 77, who had been studying in China when the purge happened, and stayed abroad eventually taking up residency and citizenship in Sweden. Iljas had come back to try to find his father’s burial site in a reported mass grave of executed PKI suspects near their old village in West Sumatra.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 24, 2015 as "Justin time as world’s conservatives reeling".

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