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Australian troops leaving Iraq in June

By Paul Wallis     Dec 21, 2007 in World
Australia, which was involved in both Gulf wars from the start, will withdraw its ground forces in Iraq in accordance with the new government’s election pledge. The incoming Labor government had made no secret of its intentions regarding Iraq.
Prime Minister Rudd, in a visit to Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki in Baghdad, personally informed Mr. Maliki of the decision.
Australian combat troops are stationed in a relatively quiet part of Iraq in the south. They’ve been mainly involved in training Iraqi troops and local security since the invasion, although they spent some time in the hot spots. Australian police and naval forces will remain in the region. Australia will continue its training role for the Iraqi police and military.
Politically, this move comes with a few positional considerations, as the Sydney Morning Herald explains:
Australia has about 1,500 troops involved in Iraqi operations, although most are outside the country. Only the 550 combat troops deployed in the south are subject to Mr Rudd's withdrawal plan.
President Bush has warned that withdrawing from Iraq would encourage militants opposing his "war on terror''.
Mr Rudd has sought to allay fears that the withdrawal will hurt Canberra's strong links with its most important strategic ally in Washington
At the moment, things are pretty quiet in Iraq, and the withdrawal won’t have any significant impact on operations. The intention to withdraw the combat troops was flagged well in advance by Mr. Rudd. It’s longstanding Labor Party policy. In normal practice the Americans would have been notified prior to the official announcement. So nobody’s likely to be taken by surprise by the move or the date.
Australia will continue its commitment to operations in Afghanistan, where troops are involved in combat operations regularly. In that case they also have the unusual historical distinction of being the only foreign forces ever actually invited into Afghanistan since Afghan politics first entered history during the time of Alexander the Great, who had to marry a local princess to end one of his wars.
The issue raised about allied force withdrawals in Iraq is interesting, but the Bush administration may have missed a trick.
British forces have also withdrawn, under a cloud of criticism in some quarters. The original British force was 50,000, which was scaled down relatively quickly after the end of the Hussein regime. Their withdrawal was considered a “defeat”, although in practice there are things you can do with 50,000 men that you can’t do with 4500. It’s a matter of interpretation, and it would be nice for some consideration of actual conditions on the ground to drop in occasionally.
The alternative perspective, and this isn’t entirely a sophism, is that in some areas, troops aren’t really required any more. The areas are different. Basra was always going to be warm, if not hot, as an occupation zone. Hindsight hasn’t been too kind to the British occupation policies, but it was tough assignment.
The Australians, in contrast, were on reasonably good terms with the locals in their areas. The locals would occasionally open fire on them from two miles away with rifles, hopelessly out of range, just going through the motions for the benefit of whatever species of militants happened to be in the area. Neither they nor the Aussies took any casualties.
(Generally speaking, the Australian experience is that both Iraqis and the Afghanis are thoroughly sick of wars and foreigners generally, and if the troops can keep the peace, they’re tolerated on that basis. Australian troops sometimes help out with getting the local infrastructure back into working order, so that helps, too.)
It would be better to say that the occupation roles for the allied forces are phasing themselves out, as conditions in Iraq settle.
There’s also a military consideration. Australian forces have now been on some form of active combat deployment since Cambodia in the 90s, and continuously since East Timor in 1999. It is necessary to keep these deployments organized, and get them home for upgrades, etc, and do the housekeeping properly. The relatively minor Iraq role doesn’t justify their continuing deployment, in the absence of any pressing combat operational needs.
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