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Howard Admits Mistakes But Defends Iraq Commitment

John Howard has defended his government’s commitment to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute tonight, the Prime Minister admitted mistakes had been made but said that Australia’s presence was essential to bringing stability to the region.

The speech was carefully calibrated to challenge the foreign policy stance of the Opposition Leader, Kevin Rudd. At one point, Howard said it was difficult to know whether Rudd was “auditioning for the editorial board of The Weekly Standard or as a successor to Michael Moore”.

Defending the commitment, Howard said: “Australia’s role in Iraq has evolved consistent with Coalition strategy and conditions on the ground. Our current contribution is heavily focused on helping to build the capability of the Iraqi Security Forces so that in time Iraq, as a sovereign independent state, can look after its own security.”

  • Listen to Howard’s Speech on Iraq (31m)

Text of John Howard’s Address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

I appreciate Peter Abigail and ASPI giving me the opportunity to address this distinguished group on the situation today in Iraq and the broader security implications.

In one sense, this quiet corner of Parliament House is a long way from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In another sense, it helps bring into focus much of what is at stake.

A hallmark of our free society is the ability to debate issues forcefully and to resolve inevitable differences peacefully. Our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan see this as a sign of weakness. We know it is our greatest strength.

This place is where political differences are aired and resolved in policy. I am well aware of the sharp political differences that exist in Australia today over Iraq, differences that have existed since the Government’s initial decision to commit forces four years ago.

I am not asking Australians to discount the enormous difficulties in Iraq or to change their views about the original decision. I am asking them to consider the situation we now face and the stakes involved.

What Iraq and her people now need is time, not a timetable. They seek our patience, not political positioning. They require our resolve, not our retreat.

This place also reminds us that our democratic processes, liberty and prosperity rest on a foundation of order and security. Without security, democratic politics and economic development are impossible.

That’s why the first duty of government is to protect and defend the nation’s security, its people, its borders, its interests and its values.

Sometimes that involves tough decisions which place Australian men and women in danger – no less today than in earlier times of war.

And notwithstanding our strong economy, a near record stockmarket and low unemployment, this is a time of war.

The long war against violent Islamic extremism goes on. It is a very different kind of war – a war without borders and with no clear frontlines; a war fought as much by our ideas and values as by our armies.

Terrorist cells are active today in between 30 and 40 countries plotting action based on a warped interpretation of Islam. Attacks have been planned in Australia.

Nor should we forget the essential lessons of 11 September 2001 – that failed states can quickly become havens and projecting grounds for global terror; and that terrorists can turn our openness and technological achievements against us to devastating strategic effect.

Globalisation is far from a universal solvent for ideologies of hate or old wounds – real and perceived.

The West faces a major disjunction today between political fragmentation and economic globalisation; between abundant opportunities created by liberal, democratic societies and reactionary forces bent on crippling them; between the relative comfort and normalcy of so many Western lives in 2007 and the risks and sacrifices of those striving to bring peace and stability to troubled lands.

There are about 3,300 Australian Defence Force personnel on operations overseas or undertaking security tasks in our maritime protection zone. They advance our nation’s interests and ideals with great courage.

I regard them as our finest patriots and our finest internationalists.

Roughly 2000 Australians are part of operations today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Afghanistan, our largest contingent – the Reconstruction Task Force in Oruzgan Province which I visited last week – is working in partnership with the Dutch on the reconstruction and improvement of infrastructure. It has made excellent progress rebuilding schools, roads and bridges and training the local population to ensure the benefits remain into the future.

Afghanistan is a highly dangerous theatre of war with 2006 the most violent year since the country was liberated. We can expect a revived Taliban to launch further waves of attack this year.

As winter in Afghanistan gives way to spring, coalition forces are again on the offensive to ensure that Afghanistan will never again be a safe-haven for terrorism – and to help the Afghan people surmount the many problems they face in building a secure, stable and democratic future.

This will take time and effort. I assured President Karzai when I met him that Australia remains committed to this task.

Last week, I also visited Australian troops in Iraq. I spoke with their commanding officers and men and women of all ranks; I spoke with Prime Minister Maliki; and I spoke with General Petraeus, the new US commander of the Multinational Force in Iraq.

It’s just over four years since I announced the commitment of Australian forces to the US-led military operation in Iraq. This was one of the most difficult and contentious decisions this government has taken.

I share the concern and distress of all Australians about the continued violence and suffering in Iraq – and their frustration that it is sometimes hard to see progress.

Clearly there have been setbacks and mistakes on the way to Iraq taking full charge of its own affairs. The loss of life and injuries sustained by both Iraqis and coalition forces is tragic.

But I would hope even critics of our involvement in the original action recognise the need to honour our obligations to the Iraqis and to help them towards a more stable future.

Every time ordinary Iraqis are given the chance they say the same thing in overwhelming numbers: We want peace, stability and democracy.

I did come away from my visit to Iraq with a sense of cautious hope – about the new security plan and about the Iraqi government’s willingness to face the big challenges ahead.

Above all, I came away convinced that the Iraqi people want the same things we look for in our own lives – safety for their families, a chance to earn a living and a say in how they are governed.

In March 2003 I was very clear about the reasons for taking decisive action against Saddam Hussein. I simply remind people of the strategic realities we faced.

That Saddam’s regime was a real and growing threat to the stability of the Middle East. Containment was breaking down.

That Saddam had form, both as an aggressor against his neighbours and as a tyrannic ruler of his own people. And that his non-compliance with 17 UN Security Council resolutions over a period of 12 years was weakening the credibility of the United Nations.

That virtually all governments (including opponents of the war such as France and Germany) as well as the now Leader of the Opposition agreed that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons and had designs on developing nuclear weapons. Mr Rudd said that Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was “a matter of empirical fact”.

That the Middle East has always been very important to Australia’s security and broader national interests.

And that the strength of our alliance with the United States is based ultimately on the preparedness of each party to share risk and the overall security burden on behalf of the other.

Our alliance has never been stronger and has never brought greater benefits for Australia, including in our engagement with Asian countries. Our practical contribution and preparedness to stand with America in Iraq is of first order importance to its current strength and vitality.

Australia’s role in Iraq has evolved consistent with Coalition strategy and conditions on the ground. Our current contribution is heavily focused on helping to build the capability of the Iraqi Security Forces so that in time Iraq, as a sovereign independent state, can look after its own security.

This is central to the reordered security strategy in Iraq and to the prospects for political reconciliation.

Training and mentoring Iraqi forces has been a key element of Australian support for Iraq ever since 2003. The Australian Army has been involved in the basic training of more than 12,500 Iraqi soldiers. The Navy has helped train the Iraqi Navy and Marines as part of the Iraqi Coastal Defence Force Training Team.

Australia’s Overwatch Battle Group (West) is helping provide security to the Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces by engaging the provincial leadership, mentoring the Iraqi Security Forces and standing ready to intervene if required.

These are the first two Iraqi provinces where local forces have primacy for security. There have been attempts to destabilise the legitimate authorities, particularly in Al Muthanna where a government building was attacked in recent months. The Iraqi military and police were able to quash the violence with the assistance of tribal leaders and the local government.

Despite the dangers, this points to the progress that has been made in southern Iraq. The fact that the local authorities dealt with the violence themselves without requesting Battle Group support shows they are strengthening their grip on security.

At the same time, the Australian Army Training Team is working hard together with Iraqi Army Instructors to ensure Iraqi forces have the capacity to assume greater security responsibilities. I recently announced a strengthening of this training effort comprising a dedicated logistics team of roughly 50 personnel, together with about 20 extra Army training instructors to work with the Iraqi Army.

In addition, the Battle Group will be merged with the Australian Army Training Team to increase flexibility and improve training capability.

Along with our other commitments – including air reconnaissance, maritime security, and in the capital Baghdad – these Australians are helping the Iraqis build their security capacity against difficult odds. As I saw last week, they are performing their task with the skill, commitment and good humour that has always been the ADF trademark.

They have won the trust, confidence and respect of the Iraqis.

The fact that the training is occurring in Iraq itself is significant, both practically and symbolically. It ensures our trainers have greater credibility and develop stronger bonds of trust with Iraqi recruits.

Our commitment continues to adapt to prevailing demands on the ground. The ADF is training Iraqi officers and non-commissioned officers with programmes that emphasise professionalism, teamwork and leadership in a non-sectarian environment. Some of these units are now deploying to Baghdad to put these skills into effect as part of the Baghdad Security Plan.

Such training is absolutely vital to the Iraqi Army developing as a non-sectarian national institution capable of attracting the support of the Iraqi people.

It’s important not to see this noble work in narrow military terms. Despite the neat academic distinction, so-called ‘hard power’ security tasks are deeply intertwined with the efficacy of ‘soft power’ instruments like diplomacy, political dialogue, economic development and humanitarian aid.

Security is the precondition for political and economic progress.

That’s why the international community must stay engaged at the hard end of the struggle in Iraq.

What the Iraqi people need most at this pivotal moment is not only our soft power, but also our sticking power on the ground.

To state the obvious, I do not want our forces to be in Iraq one day longer than necessary. But I believe strongly that to signal our departure now would be against Australia’s national interest.

The stakes are extraordinarily high – for Iraq, for the wider Middle East, for American power and prestige and, ultimately, for our region and our own national security.

The presence of Australian forces in southern Iraq is helping build the Iraqi people’s confidence in legitimate authority. These are people for whom a short time ago the word authority meant one thing: brutal dictatorship.

Ironically, last year the Government was being castigated by the Opposition for placing our troops in a dangerous and worsening security environment in southern Iraq. Then, the critique shifted. Our troops were themselves exacerbating the situation. Now it seems we are being told by the Opposition that the southern provinces of Iraq are not dangerous enough to justify Australia’s presence.

If it’s bad our troops shouldn’t be there. If it’s good our troops shouldn’t be there. When has a political party made so many worthless speeches about internationalism and ‘good international citizenship’ and done so little to support it?

The view that the job Australia is doing in southern Iraq is of little consequence is both wrong and insulting to those serving with great courage. Nor is it a view shared by those on the ground whose perspective is personal and practical rather than political.

Let me quote the commanding officer of Overwatch Battle Group West based in Dhi Qar from a recent Bulletin article:

“The strategy should be to reinforce success down in the south, rather than saying the job is done, because what that does is to serve as a model. Almost like a test case that the rest of the country can look at and say, ‘I want what they have down in the south’. You start from a secure base and then you have to expand out from there.”

One Australian reservist explains his motivation simply: “I’ve seen how people live here and I’ve seen how people live in Australia and I see the potential for them in the future. I’m happy to help.”

When I say they are our finest internationalists, you see what I mean.

On the contribution to the broader coalition commitment, let me quote the head of national co-ordination for Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the retired US General Eric Olson:

“The US has decided that they (sic) won’t operate in Dhi Qar anymore because it’s gone under provincial Iraqi control. If it weren’t for the Australian Army, I couldn’t have a provincial reconstruction team and we’d lose all influence and virtually all presence here.” A withdrawal, he says, would be “devastating for a province like Dhi Qar”.

At our joint press conference in Baghdad, Prime Minister Maliki welcomed Australia’s continuing commitment to supporting Iraq, including by providing training and overwatch. In his words: “The mission is still ongoing and we still have a desire for Australia to remain and to continue its support until we are completely confident that the operation, the planning, all the terrorist activities cease to exist.”

Rejecting artificial timelines, he went on to praise Australia’s troops for their behaviour, not only on the military front, but “on the way they deal with ordinary Iraqis”. That statement should be not only a source of great pride in this country but also provide reassurance that our strategy for building Iraq’s security capability is the right one.

Clearly the larger fate of Iraq hinges on Baghdad where violence has escalated, especially since the bombing of the Samarra Shrine in February last year.

As the battle for Baghdad has intensified and changed, new thinking has been called for.

The plan announced by President Bush in January has a stronger emphasis on securing areas cleared of terrorists and sectarian militias, on political reconciliation and on challenging states such as Syria and Iran to become part of a solution in Iraq rather than be part of a bloody, chaotic problem.

American and Iraqi forces are in the early stages of what will be a tough assignment. There have been some positive signs so far, but success is by no means assured.

The five additional US combat brigades for deployment to Baghdad will be in place by June. Importantly, Iraqi command of the Baghdad Security Plan puts an Iraqi face to security operations.

Iraq’s Government must live up to key security, political and economic responsibilities under the plan.

Prime Minister Maliki has shown his preparedness to take difficult steps, like authorising arrests of Shia supporters and Coalition operations against Shia militias. Moves to allow some former army personnel to return to the army are also welcome. The approval of a draft oil law which fairly distributes oil revenues – a key Sunni demand – is another step forward.

Robust diplomatic activity is supporting the Baghdad Security Plan.

The Iraqi Government’s initiative in hosting a conference earlier this month where the US and other permanent members of the Security Council sat down with Iraq’s neighbours – including Iran and Syria – was a positive development. It will be followed by a further meeting of foreign ministers.

Iraq’s neighbours must recognise that greater stability in Iraq is fundamental to their national security. Iran in particular must end the transfer of arms to radical Shiite groups attacking coalition forces and Iraqi Sunni civilians.

In parallel, there must also be a more concerted attempt to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For the record, let me state clearly why I believe a timetable for premature withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq would invite disastrous strategic and humanitarian consequences.

First, it would undercut the forces of moderation in Iraq at the precise moment when they have a chance – perhaps the last chance – to stabilise their country. Sectarian violence would escalate, with the Sunnis abandoning the unity government and parliament.

Second, it would lead to more widespread and extreme human rights abuses, more internally displaced Iraqi civilians and further outflow of refugees to neighbouring states.

Third, a precipitate withdrawal would give a green light to those looking to make Iraq a platform for global terror. With Al Qaeda and other extremists claiming withdrawal as a victory, this would likely inspire more terrorism outside Iraq, including in South East Asia.

Iraq is undeniably a frontline in the fight against international terrorism. The terrorists view it as such.

Fourth, it would further destabilise what is already the world’s most unstable region, perhaps igniting a wider war in the Middle East. Any prospect of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict would lie in tatters.

And fifth, it would be a crushing blow to America’s global leadership, emboldening those who, like Osama Bin Laden, have argued all along that America is a “weak horse” on which no one should depend.

The consequences for our own region should not be underestimated. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasised to me last week the negative strategic implications for East Asia of a US defeat in Iraq.

As such, it may be clever politics to portray Afghanistan as the ‘good war’ and Iraq as the ‘bad war’, but it is a position cloaked in folly.

Why is it right that Australia and its allies prevail in Afghanistan but fail in Iraq? Why is it okay for Iraq to become a safe haven for global terror but not Afghanistan?

Why is building Afghanistan’s security capability more compelling than building Iraq’s? And why is a massive setback to American global leadership fine in one place but not in another?

I am prepared to accept constructive criticism of the Government’s position on Iraq. But our opponents also have to take responsibility for their position.

In Mr Rudd’s case, it’s been unclear at times whether he is auditioning for the editorial board of the Weekly Standard or to be Australia’s answer to Michael Moore.

The Opposition’s current position on Iraq is that the conflict is a civil war, requiring solely a political solution. Labor argues that the key to that political solution is a ‘staged’ withdrawal of Australian and US military forces to create pressure for the Sunni and the Shia to reach a political accommodation.

In my view, both the analysis and the policy prescription are fundamentally flawed. Success in Iraq requires both a military and a political strategy, each reinforcing the other.

Sectarian violence in Iraq is clearly a major problem. But despite being put under enormous pressure neither the Iraqi Army nor the national government have split along sectarian lines.

That really would be a disaster, and it is this disaster that our strategy seeks to avert.

We recognise that in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan political progress and security are inextricably linked.

Labor seems to believe that Iraq can achieve reconciliation without security – essentially, that if the coalition leaves the Iraqis will sort out their differences.

Let’s be clear. Labor supports setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq irrespective of the situation on the ground. It would pull out Australia’s combat forces as soon as it can. And it opposes stepping up our effort to train the Iraqi Army – even though the Iraqi government, the US government, Tony Blair and the Baker-Hamilton report all agree that training is a critical priority.

Our position could not be more sharply different.

We believe that restoring security in Iraq is critical to creating the space and time Iraqis need to find a lasting political solution. This means that we are opposed to a precipitate withdrawal. It means we are opposed to setting timetables for withdrawal.

And it means we strongly support training – which is why the government has decided to step up our training effort.

We will be able to leave Iraq. But we cannot do so responsibly until we have some confidence that the Iraqi security forces are in a position to defend Iraq’s democratically-elected government and the Iraqi people, whether from terrorists, insurgents or sectarian strife.

I found Mr Rudd’s comments about Labor’s policy instructive when he said he would not leave the Iraqis and the Americans “immediately in the lurch”. The pirouetting around lurch and immediate lurch strikes a pose I hadn’t encountered before.

For mine, a lurch delayed is still a lurch.

There might be few good alternatives in Iraq. But that does not absolve those of us in positions of political responsibility from facing up to the alternatives that exist.

The question to be confronted now is this: what do we do to maximise the chances of future stability in Iraq?

That means supporting the Iraqis and our coalition partners in their security operations and continuing to strengthen the capacity of Iraq’s security forces. Then, as Iraq moves forward, we can draw back.

I believe this course is in Australia’s long-term national interest. And it happens to be the right thing to do.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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