Ten years ago, then Australian Prime Minister John Howard sent 2000 Australian soldiers to join the US-led invasion of Iraq. Like US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Howard lied about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to justify an illegal war of aggression.
The Labor Party hoped to gain political advantage by opposing the unpopular war, but did so only on a technicality: the lack of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) authorisation for the invasion.
Instead of demanding a full withdrawal of Australian forces after the war had started, ALP leader Simon Crean said in March 2003: “We've got to be realistic about this, they are there, and what we've got to hope for in the current circumstances is that their task is completed quickly and successfully.”
US diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Canberra published by WikiLeaks show that, for both political parties, their alliance with the United States was their guiding principle.
There may be disagreements over policy and tactics, but commitment to the alliance means both parties will continue to send Australians to fight in US wars.
In 2005, Kim Beazley assumed the Labor leadership. Both Beazley and his successor, Kevin Rudd, pledged that, if elected to government, they would withdraw the Australian “combat” forces stationed in southern Iraq.
In the context of Labor’s consistent support for the US’s “war on terror”, this pledge can be seen largely as a public relations exercise, designed to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Iraq war and Bush.
For instance, a September 2006 cable reported that Beazley told the US ambassador to Australia that, while he would withdraw the “combat” forces, “Labor would not commit an act of vandalism ... Australian troops in Baghdad guarding Australian diplomats would remain, as would Australian naval forces protecting gulf oil terminals against terrorist attacks.”
In other words, Labor would leave more Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel in Iraq than it would withdraw. At this time, there were around 1400 ADF personnel in Iraq, about 500 of them were the “combat” forces known as the Overwatch Battle Group.
The distinction between “combat” troops and the soldiers Labor wanted to remain in Iraq is spurious, as all personnel were there to support the illegal occupation, and some of those that were to remain could be deployed in combat roles.
Beazley told the ambassador his concern with the Iraq war was that “it damaged, rather than strengthened, the overall war on terror”. Key to the “overall war on terror”, for Beazley, was the war in Afghanistan which, he told the ambassador, Labor would support “until hell freezes over”.
The ALP’s argument that it is necessary to fight the war in Afghanistan to ensure that “Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists”, ignores the evidence that shows wars waged against the Islamic world raise the risk of terrorist attacks against the West.
This point was made regularly by Beazley when railing against Howard for his commitment to the Iraq war, but neither he nor subsequent ALP leaders have applied the same logic to Afghanistan.
The ALP also claim that it was necessary for Australia to join the war in Afghanistan to defend the US following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The cable says Beazley told the ambassador that Australia’s actions in sending soldiers to join the US-led invasion in October 2001, “clearly fell under its ANZUS obligations to respond to the 9/11 attacks on the U.S”.
The cable reports that Beazley also applied his interpretation of the ANZUS Treaty to China, telling the US ambassador, “[i]n the event of a war between the United States and China, Australia would have absolutely no alternative but to line up militarily beside the U.S. … Otherwise, the alliance would be effectively dead and buried, something Australia could never afford to see happen.”
However, Australia was no more “obliged” to invade Afghanistan that it was obliged to join the US-led invasion of Iraq. The ANZUS treaty requires the parties to “act to meet the common danger” in the event of “armed attacks” in the “Pacific Area”.
Afghanistan is not in the Pacific, nor had the country launched, or was about to launch, an “armed attack” on the US. The 9/11 attacks were carried out by 19 suicide bombers who were mostly from Saudi Arabia, not by the nation of Afghanistan.
Moreover, the ongoing war in Afghanistan is no more “just”, and no less illegal, than the war on Iraq. Neither war was launched in self-defence nor with UNSC authorisation, and as such both were violations of the United Nations Charter.
Both were launched on phoney pretexts and fought for imperialist ends, with no regard for the civilian populations who have been killed, maimed and displaced in their millions.
The Iraq war became a key election issue in 2007, after Rudd had replaced Beazley as ALP leader. Opinion polls showed that a majority of Australians opposed the war, and in January 71% of voters in a Newspoll said it would affect how they voted in the November election.
Rudd campaigned on a promise to withdraw Australian combat forces by June 2008, while Howard promised they would stay. Both used the war to score political points against each other before the election.
In January, Howard accused Labor of giving in to terrorism and betraying the US alliance, saying "You either rat on the ally or you don’t.”
When Howard announced that his government was sending 70 more soldiers to Iraq in February 2007, Rudd said Howard had made Australia “a greater terrorist target”.
However, leaked cables from the US embassy show that the difference between the two parties’ positions was largely rhetorical. Howard was planning to withdraw the same combat forces that he’d castigated Rudd over, while Rudd planned to leave a substantial force in Iraq, including forces available for combat roles.
A November 2, 2007 cable sent a few weeks before the election described Howard as “solidly behind the mission in Iraq” but went on to say that, “[t]he PM has made clear, however, that he wishes to have combat troops in the Overwatch Battle Group succeeded by military trainers as soon as possible”.
Liberal MP Andrew Robb, who had been a minister in the Howard government, alluded to this publicly in 2008 when, as shadow minister for foreign affairs, he told the ABC, “no matter who had won government, that removal was going to take place … We'd already started discussions with the Americans on that front.”
In April 2007, several months before Rudd’s election victory, a cable reported that Rudd’s Foreign Policy Adviser, Peter Khalil, had reassured the US that Rudd was a “strong supporter of the [US] alliance”.
While Rudd would withdraw the “combat” troops, “Khalil stressed that the other Australian forces in the Gulf would remain and any troop withdrawal would be coordinated with the Coalition”. The same cable reported that Rudd was in “full agreement” with the US on Afghanistan.
During a meeting at Rudd’s home shortly after his election victory in November 2007, Rudd reassured the US Ambassador that he wanted the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq to cause “minimum grief” to the US. In a reference to the Spanish Prime Minister, who withdrew all the Spanish troops from Iraq within a month of his election in 2004, Rudd said, “we will not pull a Zapatero on you”.
The cable reported that Rudd was “flexible on the timing of the ‘mid-year’ withdrawal”, and said “We are leaving other (security, training, air and naval) stuff there”. It said that Rudd “took pains to emphasize the importance of Australia's alliance with the U.S. and his desire to carefully manage the relationship”.
Rudd reassured the ambassador that at an upcoming International Security Assistance Force ministerial conference, defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon would deliver a “robust” message that “Australia is in Afghanistan for the long haul”.
The cable reports that Rudd “thought such comments would be helpful in light of the reticence of certain European countries to continue their commitments to Afghanistan”.
The US, for their part, “would not publicly criticize the Rudd government's decision to withdraw combat troops from Iraq’, said a cable from December 19.
In June 2008, the Rudd government fulfilled its campaign pledge and withdrew the Overwatch Battle Group. Rudd used the occasion to slam Howard’s decision to join the war in a speech to the Australian Parliament.
He criticised Howard for distorting the intelligence on Iraq’s WMD, and for taking that view “that our alliance with the United States mandated our military participation in the invasion”.
Meanwhile, Rudd’s government was in the processes of negotiating with the US and Iraq to keep the remaining Australian forces in Iraq beyond the expiration of the multinational force’s UN mandate at the end of 2008.
It was opposition from within Iraq, not the actions of the ALP government, that would force the withdrawal of the majority of ADF forces from the Iraq war by the beginning of 2009.
[Part two of this article discusses the events that led to the withdrawal of these forces, which will be published in next week’s issue.]