Nearly a year ago, on 25, 26, and 27 February 2017, Fairfax media published extracts from an official report obtained under FOI by David Wroe about the army’s role in Iraq from 2003 to 2010. Tom Hyland of the Age later summarised for readers what it said, and showed how little we knew about the war (Inside story, a dangerous game, 5 April 2017). But why did our troops go back in 2014? And why are they still there?
Albert Palazzo, a senior historian in the Directorate of Army Research & Analysis, interviewed more than 70 service people over four years, and compiled the report. Heavily redacted though the published version is, it includes scathing comments from a Brigadier and an SAS Commander about the blatantly political motives for which they were ordered to endanger Australian lives in Iraq.
It confirms what readers of Pearls & Irritations know, that Prime Minister Howard and Foreign Minister Alexander Downer falsely claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which threatened Australia and other countries. Downer said anyone who thought otherwise was “a fool”.
Howard warned that Iraq might pass WMD on to terrorists, asserted that Saddam Hussein had defied resolutions of the UN Security Council, and argued that a resolution dating back to Gulf War I in Kuwait justified Australia invading Iraq in 2003. None of it was true. Howard, who had denied that Australia sought regime change, claimed after the invasion that we were ridding the world of a tyrant. Amazingly, he has not been accused of misleading the Parliament, let alone of war crimes. Successive Australian governments have never held an inquiry, as other coalition-member countries did.
In The Australian Army & the War in Iraq 2002-2010, Dr Palazzo shows that the government’s commitment of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) had nothing to do with Australia’s security or with international law, and was instead intended – like all our wars since Korea – to pay our insurance premium and win the support of the United States. Fundamentally, though, the government wanted to reverse the decline in its political prospects and win a ‘khaki election’ as cheaply as it could.
The Americans sought an ADF reconnaissance battle group of about 2000 personnel, but the Chief of the Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove, limited the deployment to a cavalry unit of 600 soldiers, whose small size meant it had to be integrated with the American forces and support their regime change objectives. Needing minimum casualties, the government kept the ADF out of high-risk areas, but gave them no clear strategy or legal authority for their presence in Iraq. Australia lost two men. The coalition killed and wounded many thousands more.
Although the released version of Dr Palazzo’s report does not mention it, Howard knew about American plans for Iraq before Bush took office. He and Prime Minister Blair each met privately with President Bush in 2002, when Blair discussed the invasion, giving Bush a commitment four months later to be with him “whatever”. Australians had to wait until 2015 to read this about Blair in Britain’s Chilcot Report, still having had no such independent inquiry of our own.
The scope of Palazzo’s report does not include the years from 2014 to the present. It does not cover Australia’s re-deployment of forces to Iraq and our bombing of Syria, which are illegal and as poorly defined as in 2003. In Iraq, for example, we are told Australia is supporting the government against IS, while in Syria we are apparently on the side of IS and other groups opposing Bashar al-Assad. Or we were, until IS was defeated: but our troops and aircraft have not come home. Why not?
It is therefore for our elected representatives urgently to demand answers to these questions from the government, and if those are unsatisfactory, to call for a full independent inquiry on the deployment in Afghanistan in 2001 to the present. That should include a cost-benefit analysis of the billions we have spent, the lives we have lost and destroyed, and it should evaluate the results. Such a report should give pause to any who still want the US to identify who we should fight, arguing, for example, that terrorists in the Philippines or Kim Jong-un in North Korea pose the next existential threats to Australia.
It should also make politicians hesitant about allowing a prime minister, virtually alone, to commit Australian forces to another expeditionary war. As President Trump seems disinclined to defend America’s allies, we may soon have to realise that relying on the US to defend us was always, as he would say, “a bad deal”.
Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA, formerly an Australian diplomat, wrote Howard’s War (2003), and Allied & Addicted (2007). She is Vice-President of Australians For War Powers Reform. Republished from John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations.