Australia's increased commitment to Iraq

An air of inevitability surrounded our increased commitment in Al Muthanna Province.

The 22 February 2005 announcement of an increase in our military support to the rebuilding of Iraq has somewhat of an air of inevitability about it.

Six months ago the Dutch advised they would not be rotating their contingent again.

Since then there has been an increasingly desperate quest to find another country willing to protect the Japanese Ground Self Defence Force engineering contingent.

While armed, the Japanese cannot fully defend themselves because the JGSDF is constitutionally forbidden to engage in hostilities outside Japanese territory (although there is much debate in Tokyo about changing this).

In the early 1990s we protected their virtually unarmed engineers in the Cambodia peacekeeping force for similar reasons.

Without someone willing to protect them the Japanese would probably have had to withdraw.

This would have obvious consequences on the ground in Iraq, for maintenance of the US-led coalition, for US-Japan relations overall, and for the domestic political debate in Japan about modifying the peace provisions of the Japanese constitution.

These latter two aspects have considerable and direct potential to adversely affect Australia’s strategic situation in the Asia-Pacific region.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s direct appeal to John Howard and our, however reluctant, agreement to shoulder these additional responsibilities demonstrate the implications extend far further than Iraq.

Given that the Japanese needed to be protected by a professionally capable force this effectively meant a Western country rather than contract security personnel or the third-world contributors relied on for infantry in many UN peacekeeping operations.

It is probable that Australia was long ago identified by the US, UK and Japan (and probably ourselves) as the option of last resort.

This perhaps explains the surprise announcement and its apparent reversal of previous assurances concerning increases to our commitment.

Many of those who were opposed to the 2003 collective intervention in Iraq will criticise this decision.

The essential point, however, is that the validity of the original intervention is now largely peripheral to the issue of consolidating Iraq as a free and stable country, and one not prone to threatening its neighbours or otherwise undermining international peace and security.

This year, following the recent constituent assembly elections, there will be a crucial series of referenda and elections in Iraq to decide a new constitution and then freely elect a permanent government.

The process cannot be unduly hurried without threatening its success. Conversely everyone recognises the need to withdraw foreign forces as soon as possible — when the new Iraqi government can effectively assume responsibility for security.

Given our previous and continuing involvement in Iraq it therefore makes sense to beef up the military and diplomatic effort over the next year or so.

There is an identifiable and achievable strategic goal in sight and therefore little risk of an open-ended commitment.

This will not, of course, stop some critics some from suggesting polemical and erroneous analogies with the Vietnam "quagmire" of the 1960s.

It is fortunate that the predominantly Shi’ite area in southern Iraq where the new force will be deployed has not suffered the intensity of fighting of areas further north.

A general point worth making is that a primary reason we have not deployed conventional ground combat forces to Iraq (apart from the Embassy Security Detachment) is that our Army largely lacks the equipment types, numbers and hardened logistic capacity to sustain such a commitment in a medium to high intensity warfare environment.

These deficiencies reinforce the urgency of the current initiative to modernise and harden the Army after decades of comparative neglect.

Finally, no matter when or how the Saddam Hussein dictatorship eventually fell there has long been a high probability that this would result in a civil war between Iraq’s Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs.

No minority ascendancy class gives up power willingly, especially where their power has been largely underwritten by violent repression of the majority over a long period.

The insurgency in Iraq is mainly fuelled by Sunni fears of what will happen to them when the Shiites take charge and perhaps revenge.

Even critics of the US-led intervention in Iraq should be willing to admit that it is better that such civil strife is supervised and ameliorated by the international community rather than the Iraqis just being left alone to a bloody civil war.

From both a humanitarian and an international order and stability viewpoint, the bloodshed will obviously be a lot less, and the risk of the situation escalating to involve neighbouring countries much reduced.

It also maximises the chances that Iraq will emerge as a comparatively stable and democratic country in the region.

Our best wishes go with the troops, both for their safety and for the success of their mission.