Australians Divided Over P.M.’s Flip-Flop on Iraq Troop Increase

Australian Prime Minister John Howard (in New Zealand) in February

Australian Prime Minister John Howard visiting New Zealand in February. (Photo: Dean Treml / AFP-Getty Images)

Reneging on a election campaign commitment not to increase the number of Australian soldiers serving in Iraq, Prime Minister John Howard last week announced the deployment of a further 450 troops to the southern Iraqi province of Al-Muthanna. The new task force will guard Japanese military engineers engaged in reconstruction work in the area and more than doubles the current Australian troop commitment in the strife-torn land.

The decision has deeply divided the Australian public already uneasy with their country’s participation in the contentious invasion and continued occupation of the country and now angered over the change in policy despite the Prime Minister’s continued assurances to the contrary.

Announcing the decision in a press conference at Parliament House, Canberra, Howard warned that Iraq was at a vital stage of development and that a further commitment was necessary to support the nascent democracy.

“The Government believes that Iraq is very much at a tilting point,” Howard said, “and it’s very important that the opportunity of democracy, not only in Iraq but also in other parts of the Middle East, be seized and consolidated.

“This has not been, is not and will not be, an easy decision for the Government. I know it will be unpopular with many … I believe this is the right decision. It will make a significant contribution to the Coalition effort. It will make a significant contribution to the rebuilding of Iraq.”

Answering urgent requests from both Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Britain’s Tony Blair, Howard willingly agreed to the increased deployment despite the risk of domestic misgivings. Japan’s own 600-strong contingent of Self-Defense Forces in Iraq is prevented by its 1947 constitution from firing a bullet unless shot at first and have not engaged in any meaningful active service in Iraq since their deployment in December 2003.

The request for extra reinforcements came following the announced departure of the 1400 Dutch troop contingent currently guarding the Japanese engineers in Al-Muthanna. In November the Dutch government responded to domestic pressure of its own by announcing the withdrawal of its task force in Iraq following the deaths of two of its troops on active service in the province.

Though the requests for support came ostensibly from Japan and Britain, some commentators have pointed out that Australia’s chief coalition ally the United States has, for some time, been privately pushing the Australian Government to increase its commitment. Though one of the original members of the “coalition of the willing” Australia’s has maintained only a token presence since the overthrow of the Iraqi regime.

Professor Hugh White, Head of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University claims Howard has used the departure of the Dutch force as a pretext for increased involvement in line with United States wishes. Speaking to the ABC’s The World Today Professor White said, “There’s always been a very clear U.S. preference for Australia to increase its contribution and what I think has happened is that Howard’s chosen a tactical moment to make some concessions to that U.S. pressure.”

Although popular with coalition allies, the decision has divided Australian society and drawn heavy criticism from political opponents.

Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd has accused Howard of flagrant duplicity pointing to his assurances to the Australian public prior to the October 2004 election that his government would not increase its contingent in Iraq.

“ If [Howard’s] underlying argument is that particular changes in circumstances would have warranted a change in Australia’s force posture in Iraq, then he should have said so all along,” Rudd said in The Australian. “The reason he didn’t was to convey to the Australian people that our commitment was winding down. He knew precisely what he was doing.

In an official Greens press release, Minority Greens leader Senator Bob Brown was also scathing in his criticism of the Prime Minister’s decision:

“This is a massive mistake for Australia.

“This new troop commitment flies in the face of Australian election campaign expectations. Mr. Howard never told voters he would send more Australians to Iraq. He has misled the voters.

“While other countries are pulling out John Howard continues to subjugate Australia to President Bush.”

The decision has also attracted strong criticism from ecclesiastical sources with a national church umbrella group, the National Council of Churches, issuing a strongly worded statement accusing the Prime Minister of deception and calling the war in Iraq “a misconceived strategy.”

“This enhanced risk of lives and huge expense of millions of dollars in military action is but the latest example of the scandalous waste of money and human beings in the pursuit of a misconceived strategy,” the Council’s statement said.

“We further deplore that this decision has been taken so soon in the life of the re-elected Howard Government, when the Australian people gave no mandate for an escalation of such dangerous military adventurism.”

Defense Minister Senator Robert Hill has denied that Australian troops will be subjected to unnecessary risk saying the remote province is “calm” and that Australian troops would offer different tactics to those employed by the British and American soldiers to secure their defensive positions.

The Australian strategy is to patrol a wide area around the capital of Muthanna in an attempt to engage local people on friendly terms rather than fortifying themselves behind barricaded positions in the manner of American troops, Hill told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We won’t be predictable. Intelligence will be very important. I don’t think we’ll just stand there and guard the road. There are better ways of doing it.”

After successfully neutralizing the issue amongst voters during the election campaign the sudden about face in policy has damaged the government’s credibility. The Howard Government will be now be relying on strategies such as these and hoping for a general reduction of the Iraqi insurgency’s influence to minimize Australian casualties and prevent any further public backlash.