The failure of the Afghanistan intervention

This is the news that the war-mongering, tub-thumping politicians in Canberra need to pay really close attention to.

The Afghanistan province where Australian troops were stationed for eight years and suffered most of their casualties is in danger of sliding back into Taliban control, Afghan sources and experts say.

The deterioration appears to put at risk gains made during the nearly eight years that the ADF was stationed in the province. Of the 41 Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, 31 died in Oruzgan province. Australia has spent more than $7.5 billion on the war in Afghanistan

Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan,

Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan,

There is a quote that probably reflects most of the military endeavours by foreign powers in Afghanistan. It was written by British army chaplain G.R. Gleig in 1853.

It was  “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated”

Gandamuck During the Retreat From Kabul, 1841 (1898)

Gandamuck During the Retreat From Kabul, 1841 (1898)

In fact, the British have invaded Afghanistan in 1839, 1878, 1919, and 2001 to absolutely no effect.

Despite numerous military expeditions overseas, there appears to be very little accumulated wisdom about their effectiveness. One would be inclined to think that after Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan and now with experience in Iraq a second time around, politicians would have some idea of the likelihood of success.

Everyone’s had trouble in Afghanistan.

The Russians had as much success as the British. The problem is that the incredibly  inhospitable terrain serves to cancel out the technological superiority of Western forces. A man on a donkey with a rocket launcher is a match for Sikorski helicopter.  Irregular forces who have spent their lives involved in the internecine conflicts of the region are going to be a match for even the best trained of Western troops.

Mujahideen fighters in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan in 1987 during the Soviet-Afghan war

Mujahideen fighters in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan in 1987 during the Soviet-Afghan war

The sheer expense and logistical effort of maintaining an effective fighting force in a place like Afghanistan or in northern Iraq is huge. All the locals have to do is wait until the resolution and determination of the invaders flags in the face of mounting losses  and inconclusive success.

And that’s what the Taliban has been doing in Afghanistan: waiting. They know that history is on their side.

So we now left to ponder the benefit of Australiam intervention in conflicts that do not concern us and in countries that are not of immediate strategic importance to our security.

Barnaby Joyce: the Rinehart connection

Barnaby Joyce has been sticking his oar in the water in the dispute between Gina Rinehart and her children over $5 billion trust. It even involved him writing a letter offering advice to one of Hancock’s daughters, despite the fact it never met her.

Naturally the family wasn’t impressed.

The son of billionaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart has lashed out at cabinet minister Barnaby Joyce’s “dangerous” intervention in the court battle over a $5 billion trust and questioned whether the potential Nationals leader is fit to serve as a minister.

Joyce’s  actions have him being labelled a minion of Gina Rinehart in the press.

Is Barnaby Joyce too close to Gina Rinehart?

Is Barnaby Joyce too close to Gina Rinehart?

Given that he was intervening on the losing side and now that the judgement has been given with a round condemnation of Gina Rinehart’s behaviour by the judge presiding over the case, Joyce is beginning to look exceptionally foolish.

The  “minion” tag will stick and it will make it very difficult for Joyce to be involved in any decisions that might involve the interests of the powerful mining magnate.

It’s been a week of silliness for Barnaby.

First he was threatening to have Johnny Depp’s dogs put down (probably the first time a Minister of Agriculture has involved himself directly in the matters that would normally be handled by the local dog-catcher) and second getting involved in rather unpleasant family spat involving the richest woman in Australia and her rapacious children.

Neither of these indiscretions was going to end well and they haven’t.

Nonetheless, Barnaby has plenty of time to retire to his private suite in Parliament House and wash the egg from his face.

Returning jihadists and the prodigal son

The Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, was proposing that he should have the power, at his own discretion, to strip an Australian of his or her citizenship. Even if it’s the only citizenship they have.   It was not for any random reason, however, but specifically for use on people suspected of terrorism-related offences.

The proposal was supported by Tony Abbott and it’s a typical half-baked Abbott idea.  Abbott seems to think that every issue involving asylum seekers, terrorism or refugees  needs to be turned into a pissing contest.

The citizenship legislation is no exception. The reasons against the legislation are presented in the article but there is another reason why Tony Abbott is getting this wrong.

And it’s in the Bible: the parable of the prodigal son.

 Rembrandt: The return of the prodigal son

Rembrandt: The return of the prodigal son

Jesus explained the crux of the parable as:

Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. Luke 15:10

So should be with returning jihadists. We should rejoice when they wish to return to Australia.

There has been much handwringing over the problem of young Muslims being seduced by the message of ISIS and the need to find an alternative narrative.

So the return of jihadists presents a golden opportunity to shape that narrative. Here’s a group of people who have experienced the seductive world of Muslim extremism fighting for ISIS and now, deeply disillusioned, they wish to return to Australia.

It’s the same with the so-called Jehadi brides who find that they are not daughters of the revolution but rather  are likely t be living in sexual servitude and squalid conditions, often on rations.

A case in point is notorious Australian IS fighter Khaled Sharrouf’s wife, Tara Nettleton who is understood to be trying to return to Sydney with her five children because of the dire living conditions in Syria.

A recent study study identifies Ms Nettleton and her daughter Zaynab as occupying a “highly significant role” within the group of about 20 Australian women living in the caliphate.

So what do we do with them when they return?

We give them suspended sentences and community orders: five years full-time work in schools telling Muslim children of their experiences in the Middle East. If they don’t do the job well enough, we send them off to jail for the rest of their natural lives.

What a coup to have Tara Nettleton discrediting the ISIS message.

It’s a win-win situation for everybody.

It’s a ready-made narrative that counters the so-called seductive lure of the ISIS message.

But it is not an approach that anyone who is keen on pissing contests is likely to take.

Tornadoes in Texas

It’s too good an opportunity to pass up.

Recent weather conditions in Texas provide an opportunity to reflect on some of the fundamental aspects of climate change.

 Tornadoes in Texas (actually it was Kansas but I thought Dorothy and Toto would just confuse everybody)

Tornadoes in Texas (actually it was Kansas but I thought Dorothy and Toto would just confuse everybody)

Meteorologist Edward Lorenz  published a paper Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow which developed the work of Henri Poincaré and laid the foundation for chaos theory.

Edward Lorenz

Edward Lorenz

He later presented a paper based on his original work entitled Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?

The fundamental idea behind this  wonderfully poetic image is that small changes in weather systems can often trigger dramatic and catastrophic events many miles away.

There a number of important concepts underlying Lorenz’s idea.

The first is sensitivity to initial conditions.  Imagine the static charges in a thunder cloud just before you see the lightning. It takes just a very small change in the balance between the positive and negative charges in the cloud to create lightning.

It is helpful to think of sensitivity to initial conditions as a situation where conditions reach a tipping point and things change rapidly. While this term refers to the starting state of the system, it is easier to think of this as the state of a system at any point of time.

This brings us to the second important concept: closely coupled systems. These are systems where each individual element of the system is connected to many other elements and where the interactions between the elements are so numerous, they are difficult to predict.

Hence the butterflies wings in Brazil are part of the conditions that may produce tornadoes in any the part of world.

Earthquakes are another example of sensitivity to initial conditions and closely coupled systems. The tectonic plates that lie beneath the Earth’s surface represent closely linked systems.

 The world's tectonic plates

The world’s tectonic plates

Movements in one part of the structure will reverberate through the system. Every now and then a reverberation occurs at a point that is sensitive to initial conditions and then there is an earthquake. We know that certain areas are earthquake prone but beyond that prediction is exceptionally difficult.

Weather systems share these characteristics. Many of the more spectacular events are triggered by sensitivity to initial conditions: sudden downpours produce widespread flooding such as was seen in Queensland and Victoria.


While weather systems have always been sensitive to initial conditions, there is now an added component to the dynamics of weather systems:  the burning of fossil fuels.   The heat that is trapped as a result of this has resulted in a large number of systems which exhibit sensitivity to initial conditions being pushed to breaking point.

The polar ice caps are an excellent example of this.

 The melting of the Arctic ice has pushed many with systems to a critical point

The melting of the Arctic ice has pushed many with systems to a critical point

The critical and disastrous effect of this is that  the melting of the ice caps creates a  reinforcing feedback system.

Climate CLD

The loop on the right-hand side of the diagram is the reinforcing system. The more the ice caps melt, the greater the volume of the water in the oceans, the more heat is retained in the oceans, the more the polar ice caps melt.

The critical thing to understand about these positive feedback loops is that their effects do not increase in a linear fashion but exponentially. This means that things start getting bad but then after a while they get really bad really quickly.

And here’s why this happens.

Climate 2

The heat that is trapped in the oceans increases the heat trapped in the atmosphere. This in turn serves to accelerate the melting of the polar ice caps. So there are two impacts on the ice caps: the first is the temperature of the oceans and the second is the temperature of the atmosphere.

But there’s another effect in this closely coupled system.

As the temperature of the atmosphere increases, people use more energy to cool their houses. This in turn increases carbon emissions which increases the trapped heat in the atmosphere. So we now have three reinforcing feedback loops working in this closely  coupled system and all of them are serving to accelerate the rate at which our climate is being degraded.

 How things get worse very much more quickly.

How things get worse very much more quickly.

Our planet is reaching the really-bad-really-quickly state and eventually We will reach a point where nothing we can do will be of any use.

Getting the terrorist legislation right.

Notorious Australian Islamic State fighter Khaled Sharrouf’s wife and children, including the son who was photographed holding a severed head, are seeking to return to Australia.

The question that will be debated widely is “Should they be allowed to return?”

Had the events in Syria, that were widely reported in the media, occurred in Australia, this barbarian Khaled Sharrouf’ would not be allowed to have access to his children.  Child protection laws would not allow it.

Now the family wants to get away from their murderous father and husband. We should do everything we can to help them.

Which bit of “abusive relationship” don’t we understand?

Many people would say that 22-year-old Tara Nettleton has made her bed, now she must lie in it. But her three children deserve better than to be living in Syria with a barbarian father.

On that basis alone, they should be allowed back into Australia.

Tony Abbott is ramping up the rhetoric on homeland security, the war against ISIS and antiterrorism. Australia is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to keep Australians safe. The total result of this expenditure so far is the arrest of two stupid teenagers. This is not to say that they didn’t present a risk, they certainly did. But a couple of big fish have got away.

Authorities really did drop the ball over Khaled Sharrouf’.

They had Khaled Sharrouf’ convicted and jailed for terrorism offences in Australia. And he was let out of jail. And then he went to fight in Syria.

untitled 7

Why wasn’t he left to rot in jail? How did he get out of the country?

We also seem to have dropped the ball on Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis.

These seem to be a couple of signature failures of the policy of making Australians safe. It certainly didn’t make Tara Nettleton’s children, who must now be deeply traumatised, safe. Nor did it help the victims of the Lindt cafe siege.

Should we let Khaled Sharrouf’  back into the country?

Yes, of course we should and let him be judged by the full force of the law and serve as an example to other would-be terrorist’s for the rest of his natural life.

A day of very bad ideas (iii)

It has been suggested we need a plebiscite on gay marriage in Australia.

The same article also cites a Crosby Textor poll that suggest that 70% of The Australian population supports gay marriage.

 The Abbott family: around 90% of this family supports gay marriage

The Abbott family: around 90% of this family supports gay marriage

We know there is widespread popular support for this measure just as there is for legalising euthanasia. We don’t need referenda or plebiscites to confirm this.

What we need is some political courage in Canberra and Spring Street.

And what we need even more than that is political leaders who are prepared to implement the will of the people rather than saying “I don’t believe in it, so it’s not going to happen.”

Particularly when they are total at the touch of the bulk of the Australian people.

A day of very bad ideas (ii)

Christopher Pyne really doesn’t understand much about education despite being the Minister responsible.

Maths or science would become compulsory for all year 11 and 12 students under a plan being pushed by federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne.

This is not the way to improve the standard of mathematics and science education in Australia. Forcing unwilling children to study the subject will be a total waste of resources. Some kids are just not good at maths and forcing them to do it in year 11 and 12 will be a waste of time.

Another gormless idea from Christopher Pyne

Another gormless idea from Christopher Pyne

My brother Steve, has just been appointed to a Chair in Statistics at ANU. He was one of those bright kids who was really good at maths and his experience is worth considering. When he was in Year 10 he had an inspiring maths teacher, Dave Thompson, who opened the window on mathematics  for him and set his career path.

If we want to improve the standard of maths and science education, what we need to do is develop resources to producing brilliant teachers (they probably broke the mould after Dave Thompson was born) but that is where the secret to success lies. It is about putting great teachers in front of kids to have a real talent, and passion for mathematics.

Not forcing everyone to do it.

A day of very bad ideas (i)

Six members of the Abbott cabinet have risen up against an extraordinary proposal to give a minister the power to strip an Australian of their sole citizenship.

The idea was proposed by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton  (who would have this power) and supported by the Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

This would effectively render people, suspected by the immigration minister of being terrorists, stateless.

 Peter Dutton wishes to give  himself the power to  strip Australians of their citizenship

Peter Dutton wishes to give himself the power to strip Australians of their citizenship

This comes into the category of ideas that are so bad it is almost impossible to start explaining what is wrong with them.

In Australian politics, the beginning of this explanation is rapidly becoming:” Well, Tony Abbott supports it.”

We have a legal system in Australia that is perfectly capable of dealing with people accused of terrorism.  We don’t need to hand that responsibility to politicians.

A practical step in dealing with domestic violence.

The highly innovative Neighbourhood Justice Centre in Collingwood is using online applications to streamline court processes. Here is the latest example:

Victims of family violence will be able to apply for intervention orders on their mobile phones using an app designed to make it safer for them to leave their partners.

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre, a division of the Magistrates’ Court, is trialling the app for smartphones, tablets and their website, which can be used by adults in the city of Yarra for the next six months.

Director of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre, Kerry Walker said the form was “full of legalese” and that filling it out was a “torturous” process. “We wanted to change the emotional logic of the form … (so that the applicant) has a choice of where she fills it out, in a place where she feels safest.”

NJC Director Kerry Walker

NJC Director Kerry Walker

The Neighbourhood Justice Centre, is the first Community Justice Centre in Australia and  works in partnership with local organisations and community members to tackle local justice, crime and safety issues, and come up with lasting, local solutions.

Established while Rob Hulls was Attorney General in the previous Labor government, the NJC is dedicated to innovative approaches to justice and works towards finding alternatives to incarceration for a range of offenders. While funding was uncertain under the previous Liberal government, the Andrew’s government has assured the future of this innovative justice centre.

John Forbes Nash, Jr. is dead

In celebrating his life, let us remember his achievements in mathematics, in game theory, differential geometry, and partial differential equations that have provided insight into the factors that govern chance and events inside complex systems in daily life.

His theories are used in economics, computing, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, accounting, politics and military theory.

In 1994, he shared the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with game theorists Reinhard Selten and John Harsanyi.

John Forbes Nash, Jr

John Forbes Nash, Jr

Let us also be cognisant of Russell Crowe’s portrayal in “A Beautiful Mind.” But let’s keep it in prospective.