If there are any Australians who think we have anything to celebrate on the 15th anniversary of our invasion of Iraq and the start of our longest war, they must know something the rest of us don’t. In fact, there’s a lot nobody knows.
We’re not certain even about the date on which we invaded Iraq. The Americans say 20 March 2003, but that was 19 March Baghdad time, and Australian Special Forces proudly claimed to have pre-empted the 48-hour pre-attack ultimatum by 30 hours on 18 March. (Tony Kevin. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1035771042000260101)
We don’t know when the Howard government committed Australia to go to war. Thanks to the Chilcot Inquiry, we know that Tony Blair told President Bush nearly a year in advance that Britain would support the invasion. With no such inquiry of our own, all Australians know is that John Howard visited Bush at his Texas ranch in May 2002. He repeatedly denied having any plans for Australia to go war, and then revealed them fully formed in March 2003.
We do know that the reasons Australia went to war were false. When no WMD were found, Howard said our aim was to rid Iraq of its tyrannical ruler. But his bottom line was to show support for the US alliance, and win the next election. Thousands of protesters realised this. I wrote it at the time (Howard’s War, March 2003) and others agreed (Garry Woodard, We now know about going to war in Iraq, 2007).
We knew the invasion was contrary to international law. More than 50 Australian lawyers and legal academics published a statement saying so. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan later told the BBC it was illegal (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3661134.stm). This means those who invaded could be accused of war crimes.
So why are Australian forces still in Iraq? Australia’s first withdrawal of its 2000 troops was completed in 2009. In 2014 the Abbott government used a humanitarian crisis to re-deploy members of the ARF, Special Forces, and RAAF to Iraq and then Syria. The Defence Strategic Outlook 2016 cited ‘Daesh and other terrorist groups’ as a continuing threat to Australia and our interests. (http://www.defence.gov.au/whitepaper/ataglance/strategic-outlook.asp) Malcolm Turnbull in 2016 extended aerial bombing raids into Syria, claiming they were to defend Iraq against IS (OKRA Home http://www.defence.gov.au/Operations/) These ceased in December 2017 but without explanation about why a RAAF refueller and a reconnaissance plane stay on.
It’s clear that the 2003 Iraq invasion set off an international chain reaction: from civil war, terrorism, mass emigration and the rise of the far right in several countries, to Brexit, and Trump’s ‘America first’. But we are still left with more questions than answers.
What is the legal status of Australian forces in Iraq? The Foreign Minister of Iraq has said foreign troops apart from those from Iran are not welcome, and that Australia was not invited to send them in 2014. Julie Bishop and other Ministers have repeatedly referred to Australia being invited to send troops to Iraq, but FOI requests to see Iraq’s invitation have been refused. Since IS has reportedly been defeated (by Russia and Syria) it is not clear why 750 Australians are still deployed in Iraq, nor do we know when their mission will be completed.
Does Australia have other deployments in the region? Australia contributes personnel to United Nations peace keeping operations in Iraq, Sudan, Syria and Lebanon that we know about (http://www.defence.gov.au/factsheets/04.pdf). In April ADF Major-General Jeff Sengelman told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, ‘I have forces deployed in many locations as we speak. Some you know about. Many you do not’ (https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/badge-face-and-attitude-why-we-shouldnt-shy-away-from-a-closer-look-at-our-special-forces-20160416-go7xgy.html). Questions about what Australian Special Forces are doing in the region are met with no informative response. A recent FOI request by Newcastle lawyer Kellie Tranter asking if Australian Special Forces are deployed in North Africa was rejected.
Bigger questions remain unanswered. What is the result of Australia’s invasion of Iraq? In fifteen years conflict and destruction have spread across the country and the region. Some governments were overthrown in the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ only to be replaced by equally oppressive and corrupt regimes. Devastated cities and infrastructure in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen will take many years and massive investment to recover. Has Australia made reparations for its invasion of Iraq and Syria? No. Is Australia safer? No. Terrorism has proliferated in response to the invasion and occupation of Muslim countries, where one terrorist group is defeated only to be replaced by another. Australia has made itself a target for terrorist attacks, as Saul Erslake said last November (P&I). We have spent large sums, lost many lives, damaged many more, and contributed to creating a generation of young people who know nothing but war. Our governments have lied to the world and to Australians, ignored public opinion, and enacted increasingly illiberal laws with the excuse of overcoming terrorism.
How can we do ourselves and others no further harm? It’s time to end the illegal operations of Australian forces in the Middle East. It’s imperative that an independent public inquiry should be set up to reveal the truth about our longest war. It’s urgent to democratise the war powers which allowed three prime ministers to deploy Australian forces in Iraq and Syria at will. It’s vital that the Australian Parliament legislate to prevent governments sending troops to future wars without a debate and vote in both Houses. The ALP should recall Simon Crean’s powerful speech on 18 March 2003, recognise the damage bipartisanship has since done to defence policy, and rise to the challenge at its National Conference this year.
Dr Alison Broinowski FAIIA is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform and Vice-President of Honest History.