For the discerning reader the Palazzo Report, the classified internal report on how we got into Iraq and how we fared, prepared by Army Historian Dr Albert Palazzo and now released in redacted form, is a remarkable document. Although heavily redacted in places, it offers a rich store of information about how the Howard Government conducted itself in the lead up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Government’s intent, and the state of the Army it sent to war.
Having been prepared for internal consumption by a professional researcher with access to the key players and to classified documents, it is a very difficult document to dismiss as a source. It deserves to be taken seriously, very seriously indeed.
What the document shows is that John Howard’s decision to involve us in the illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003 had very little to do with any threat to Australia’s national security, and had as its prime intent the winning of plaudits from the Americans.
There was no strategy, no end-state that the Australian Government wished the ADF to achieve – it was all about “being there”. In Dr Palazzo’s words, “From a political policy angle Australia’s participation was an alliance issue, not a military one”, and later, “From the Howard Government’s perspective … the war’s effect on the domestic political situation took precedence over the country’s international relationship with the United States”.
This shaped the Government’s attitude to the composition of the force, the assets it was prepared to release, the amount of money it was prepared to spend, and the extent to which it was prepared to risk incurring casualties.
The fact that the whole exercise was contoured around the political interests of the Howard Government meant that the preparations were conducted in extraordinary secrecy – presumably because the Government wanted to keep its political options open until the last moment. In pursuing its essentially domestic political intent the Government dealt less than honestly not only with the Australian public and the Parliament, but also with our American allies.
Right up to the eve of the invasion the Government maintained not only to the Australian public but to the Americans that the Government was not yet committed to join in the invasion – palpable nonsense because we had a significant contingent participating in the detailed planning at Central Command (CENTCOM) Headquarters in Tampa, Florida. Nevertheless, the Americans had to conduct themselves throughout on the basis of the fiction that we had yet to make a decision.
The politics of the situation meant we were unhelpful to the Americans in more substantive ways. One of the force elements that the ADF planners examined in the greatest depth was a reconnaissance battle group, apparently because it was one of the ADF assets that senior US officers and CENTCOM planners consistently expressed a keen interest in. US planners had identified a capability gap in their force structure – the security of the western flank of the 1st Marine Division during its drive on Baghdad – and they looked to the Australian Army to remedy the problem. This was a task for which our light cavalry had been designed, and Army Headquarters pushed for the deployment of an ASLAV-based contingent. This would have involved the deployment of about 2000 personnel.
CDF Cosgrove had formed the view, however, that in order to receive the Government’s assent the deployed unit’s establishment would have to be of the order of 600 soldiers. At this size the AHQ planners had concerns over the unit’s ability to protect itself, and we made our excuses to the Americans. We played hard ball on that, making it clear that if the Americans wanted the cavalry unit it would have to be the subject of a formal request from President Bush to Prime Minister Howard. We declined other requests that we could have fulfilled.
On the size of what we ultimately contributed to this exercise in saving humanity from Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMD, Dr Palazzo commented:
‘In the end, due to the political requirements of the Bush Administration, it probably did not matter what Australia brought to the table, which allowed Howard to offer only niche capabilities and to take steps to minimise the risk to the personnel the ADF did send to the [Middle East Area of Operations]. There were some consequences in the Australian attitude, however. Some US officers began to make the derisive comment that the ADF’s commitment was ‘a series of headquarters’.
Perhaps the greatest deceit was the way the Government misrepresented to the people and the Parliament the reasons for the deployment. In announcing Australia’s commitment to the war Howard highlighted Iraq’s WMD and the likelihood that these weapons would make their way into the hands of international terrorists, but did not commit to the objective of regime change. He knew, however, from a very early stage (I suspect as early as 1998 when Dick Cheney visited Canberra) that the Bush Administration was committed to the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, he committed such a small Australian force that it had necessarily to be integrated into the US force, with regime change a fundamental objective. As Palazzo put it:
‘Once the war began, ADF forces who engaged Iraqi forces did so under US operational command and by default in support of their ally’s desire to overthrow Saddam, no matter the sophistry of the more limited Australian intent.’
Two key conclusions stand out from Dr Pallazo’s report. First, it strengthens the case for an independent inquiry, along the lines of the UK’s Chilcot Inquiry, into how we came to be involved in the invasion of Iraq. There is enough in the report to demonstrate that there were all sorts of goings on of which the Australian public should be made aware, but not enough to write the definitive history from which we can draw and benefit from the lessons to be learned.
Second, that we cannot afford to have Executive Government (Cabinet) play such games with us in the future. Going to war is a serious business, and we must reform the way we make our decisions so that our elected representatives in the Parliament are fully involved and fully accountable.
Paul Barratt is a former Secretary to the Department of Defence, and is President of Australians for War Powers Reform (www.warpowersreform.org.au)