As US installations in Iraq come under increasing attack, the message that they are no longer needed is clear. Camp Taji near Baghdad, where a few hundred Australians are still based, has been hit by missiles in recent days. How much longer before they get out?
A founding American myth is that the US is not an imperial power. But it has an empire, in 80 countries, of 800 or so military, naval, air, and intelligence bases which, once established, are very hard for host governments to dislodge. Afghanistan and Iran have discovered that Australians deployed in those countries are much the same.
During the Cold War, Gough Whitlam withdrew Australia’s remaining forces from Vietnam well before the US did. During the ‘war on terror’, Australians have been deployed on and off in Afghanistan since 2001, and in Iraq since 2003, but they are still there, waiting for the US to say they can leave. It is the longest war Australia has fought, longer than Vietnam, and no more successful.
Under Operation Highroad, the ADF still has some 200 people in Afghanistan, even after Australia gave up in Oruzgan province. Under Task Force Taji, Australia still has nearly 400 personnel deployed in Iraq. The withdrawal of 125 of them which Australia announced in November 2019, when the Iraqi military announced that it would train its own army brigades, left more behind.
In January 2020 the Parliament of Iraq voted for all foreign troops to leave, and interim Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi asked the US for a timetable for withdrawal of its 5000 military personnel. Typically, a US General said they would leave, then Trump’s advisers said they wouldn’t.
Playing it safe, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said that constant vigilance was required to ‘contain terrorism’ and that Australia’s focus was on ‘defeating Daesh’. That hardly serves to explain why Australian forces stay where they’re unwelcome and serve no purpose.
Australia and the US are inter-operational, and we are ‘joined at the hip’ by our foreign and defence policies. So Australia continues watching Iran from Iraq in the west, from Afghanistan in the east, and from the Strait of Hormuz in the south, waiting for Trump and Pompeo to say the word.
For reasons that have nothing to do with Australia, Iran’s government is the last in the region on the US destabilisation agenda. It’s hardly necessary to retrace events back to 1953 when the US overthrew Prime Minister Mossadeq who wanted to nationalise Iran’s oil, nor to 1979 when the Islamic Revolution ended diplomatic relations with the US and sanctions began. As we know, in 1980 Israel bombed an Iranian nuclear reactor site, and in 1988 USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger plane. The US backed Iraq in the war against Iran, and in 2015 the US and Israel used the Stuxnet virus to destroy 1000 centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site.
The latest vengeful push against Iran began in 2018 when Trump, urged on by Israel, abrogated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that restricted Iran’s enrichment of uranium. Hoping for support from the European co-signatories, Iran threatened to increase enrichment step by step, and did so. Then in 2019 Trump designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’. The Muhajedin-e-Khalk (MEK, which the US took off its terrorist list in 2011) became US proxy fighters and confronted the Quds force in the Persian Gulf.
The drumbeat of provocation and response became louder.
· May 2019: Trump sends a carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East, and deploys 120 000 more US troops.
· June 2019: attacks on a Japanese tanker and a Norwegian tanker in the Gulf of Oman are blamed on Iran, without robust evidence. Iran shoots down a US Navy drone over Iranian airspace.
· August 2019: a Saudi petrochemical facility is disabled by a missile strike, blamed either on Houthi rebels in Yemen or on Iran.
· August-September 2019: Britain detains an Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar and Iran holds a British tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Both are later released. The US dispatches an aircraft carrier strike group to the region.
· December 2019: Iranian-backed Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah militants kill an American contractor in Kirkuk.
· December 2019: US strikes kill 25 at Kataib Hezbollah bases. Crowds blockade the US Embassy in Baghdad.
· January 2020: A US drone assassinates General Soleimani, head of Quds force, and nine senior Iraqi and Iranian military officers, including the commander of Kataib Hezbollah.
· January 2020: A Ukrainian passenger plane crashes near Tehran, apparently shot down by Iran in error.
· February 2020: Australia commits HMAS Toowoomba for six months to the Strait of Hormuz to protect ‘freedom of navigation’ against piracy and terrorism, ‘among other issues’.
Iran is one of the nations worst affected by COVID-19. Its capacity to provide medical services to more than 81 million people has been limited by years of US trade embargoes. Trump will no doubt claim votes for having brought Iran to its knees with sanctions or for waging a proxy war from Iraq.
If this is a process Australia approves, the government should spell out its reasons in Parliament’s current session. Marise Payne should be asked to explain how she squares her support for the ‘international rules-based order’ with saying of the Soleimani assassination that the US ‘has a right to decide what to do in its national security interests’ (ABC, ‘AM’, 9 January 2020).
If so, why do not Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran have that right? Why doesn’t Australia decide what’s in its own interests before we are dragged into another war?
Dr Alison Broinowski AM is an Australian former diplomat, academic and author.