Sinking in the mire of a messy peace

by Anne Summers (Sydney Morning herald, July 21 2003)


Despite what we're told, the war in Iraq looks very much like it's turning into another Vietnam, writes Anne Summers.

We used to be a one-war-at-time kind of country, but the way things are shaping up Australia could soon have, in addition to our continuing engagement in East Timor, major military involvement on three fronts, each of them fraught with peril.

Later this week, the first half of our 2000-strong contingent of military and police is expected to leave for the Solomon Islands. Although we've been invited, that doesn't mean there won't be casualties.

If the United States decides to interdict North Korean ships suspected of carrying nuclear material, we are bound to be involved with the consequences. We have probably already committed, although John Howard's coyness on this point is very reminiscent of how he refused until the last minute to tell us we would be involved in the Iraq war.

And if you thought those television images of the 350 soldiers and sailors returning on the HMAS Kanimbla last Thursday meant that all our troops are now safely out of Iraq, think again. In fact, we are still there - with "approximately 1000 personnel" remaining, to quote the Defence Minister, Robert Hill. This is half the number we had at the height of the war.

Not much media attention was given to Hill's announcement last Tuesday of Operation Catalyst, which replaces Operation Falconer, the hostilities phase of the operation. Now that we've moved to "defensive" - as distinct from combat - rules of engagement, our troops' role is "to participate in coalition efforts to develop a secure environment in Iraq, assist national recovery and facilitate the transition to Iraqi self-government".

What this means is that we have in Iraq a 270-strong Australian naval component, 300 air crew to run C-130 Hercules and P-3C Orion operations, 80 air traffic controllers, a 70-strong security detachment plus logistics, communications and various other officers.

Operation Catalyst wasn't provided for in the May budget, so it's fair to assume that it wasn't exactly anticipated by the Government. A spokeswoman for Hill said yesterday that Operational Falconer's remaining funds would be rolled over and if additional funds were needed, they would be provided via supplementary estimates.

But the question begs to be asked: if we hadn't planned on staying this long in Iraq, when did we change our minds - and at whose behest? Did the US ask for an extended commitment, and could we be asked to send even more troops?

Hill dodged this question yesterday on Meet the Press but he did concede that our troops are operating under "warlike conditions" and that they are likely to be there for as long as four years.

So although the official status of allied troops in Iraq is now that of "peacekeepers", the reality is rather different.

Last week General John P. Abizaid, the US commander of allied forces in Iraq, admitted that there is now "a classical guerilla-type campaign against us".

"The level of resistance is getting more organised," he said, "and it is learning we've got to adapt to their tactics, techniques and procedures."

While Washington, from the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, down, insists that the present stage of the engagement is merely reconstruction and political transition, that's not how it's seen on the ground.

"It's low-intensity conflict, in our doctrinal terms," Abizaid said last week, "but it's war, however you describe it."

At least one US soldier a day is being killed, usually from sniper fire, with casualties already at 151. The way things are heading, more soldiers will die after the hostilities ended than during them. There have been two near-miss attacks on US transport planes. Eventually a US plane is likely to be brought down. How peacekeeper-like will the US response be?

US troops in Iraq have already had their tours extended to as long as a year - and they are not happy about it. Long gone are the "embedded" journalists who conferred public heroic status to their combat tasks. Now it is just plain slog, in shocking physical conditions, and more dangerous than ever. Several uniformed soldiers took the unprecedented step last week of appearing on national television to bag their boss, Donald Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld is suddenly copping a lot of flak for his handling of the postwar. The chaos and the organised resistance were not anticipated and it is now inconceivable that the US can leave until a governing structure is in place. How long will this take?

The war is now officially costing US$6 billion ($9.3 billion) a month (some in Washington insist it's more) and could increase. This will have adverse domestic political implications in the US - and here, too, if defence spending rises to levels that Australia has not known.

Rumsfeld said in Washington last week that the US will maintain the military at its current level but Abizaid took a different tack. "If the situation gets worse, I won't hesitate to ask for more," he said.

In other words, there is no end in sight. There is no exit strategy. Rumsfeld and his fellow cowboys in the Pentagon not only spurned the UN, insulted "old" Europe and generally wrought diplomatic mayhem in the lead-up to the war, they also ignored the (Colin) Powell Doctrine, articulated by the man who used to head the US Armed Forces, who supposedly learned the lessons of Vietnam and who is now Secretary of State.

The Powell doctrine says that a country should avoid intervening in international conflicts unless there is a vital interest and a clear, achievable goal.

If the clear goal in Iraq was to get rid of Suddam Hussein, that has only partially been achieved. His government is gone but he appears to be still around, distributing inflammatory tapes and, for all we know, orchestrating the guerilla resistance from a bunker somewhere.

When you look at the costs, the lack of end in sight and the likely need to bring in more and more troops, the war they said would never become "another Vietnam" has all the hallmarks of already being another Vietnam. The US has been desperate to increase the presence of soldiers from other nations, as only 13,000 of the 160,000 troops in Iraq are not American. It has tried to get India to commit 17,000 but they, like Russia, France and Germany, refuse to do so unless there is a new UN mandate.

Australia had no such inhibitions before the Iraq war, and as our thinking is unchanged this could clear the way to our troop commitment increasing further if the Prime Minister's good friend George Bush requests it.

It is a new and unsettling trend for this country to have so many military engagements of this scale and risk. Have we been adequately prepared for it? No. How much consensus is there that it's what we should be doing? Very little.

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