President Trump wants to get US troops out of Syria, and probably out of Iraq as well, and soon. The Pentagon however has said US forces will be out of Afghanistan in five years, a period estimated to allow successful negotiations with the Taliban, while reserving to themselves the right to initiate drone strikes. Five years will take the withdrawal into the next administration, which might decide against it.
In the meantime, the Pentagon is going to tell its allies what role they are to continue to play in the region. Has Prime Minister Morrison been briefed? Probably not. He apparently knew nothing about Trump’s announcement in December 2018 about intended US troop withdrawals from Syria, so he cannot be expected to know about the Pentagon’s thinking now.
That Australian forces would remain in the Middle East after an American withdrawal is in any event entirely unrealistic. However much our politicians seek to disguise the fact, Australian forces in combat overseas have always fought as part of, and under the command of larger contingents – first British, then American. The closest we came to independent action was against the Japanese in Papua New Guinea in 1942/3, when they were intent on capturing Port Moresby, which in turn opened the genuine possibility of an invasion of the Australian mainland. But even there we had the solid back-up of United States logistics and air power, and war in the Pacific was under America’s control.
If and when the Americans leave the Middle East, so will we. Given the way Australian military forces have embedded themselves throughout the region during the last 18 years, it will a complex and graduated withdrawal, probably carried out surreptitiously, without fanfare or media attention. According to the Department of Defence, Australia currently has 300 troops in Afghanistan, with the bulk of our ground forces (around 1350) now being in what is broadly referred to as ‘The Middle East region’, including Iraq, of course, where direct combat has given way to training Iraqi ground forces.
Since 2014 RAAF aircraft have been stationed at the Al Minhad Air Force base in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates – including until recently FA-18 Hornet and Super Hornet fighter bombers, AP-3C Orion surveillance aircraft, a Boeing E-7A Wedgetail electronic warfare aircraft and Airbus KC-30A tankers. The Hornets are now gone and the rest provide back-up for US surveillance and ground attacks in Iraq and Syria.
The Australian Navy has been present in the Arabian Gulf ever since Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, longer than either the Army or Air Force. Their main job was, and continues to be, to see off hostile forces attempting to disrupt the flow of oil, and foil ‘terrorist’ activities at ports or under the sea. Our naval force varied from one ship to three. One RAN ship is now part of Combined Task Force 158 which comprises warships from the United States (Navy and Coast Guard), Britain, Australia and Iraq, tasked with the protection of oil fields and keeping sea lanes clear for the uninterrupted delivery of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil to refineries in Europe, the US and Asia.
Trump’s motives are hard to analyse. Following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre, Congress gave the president ‘Authorisation for the Use of Military Support ‘(AUFM)against any country known to have supported or harboured terrorists involved in the attack. The extension of this licence has been increasingly questioned in Congress, and opinion polls are saying that a majority of Americans want the country to disengage from overseas military engagement. What the president has not said is whether he will not only withdraw ground forces, but stop the bombing which has caused so much suffering in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s assertion that it will negotiate the withdrawal from Afghanistan with the Taliban, but keep open the option of drone strikes, is not promising.
‘the Australian public knows little about our military operations’
In 1972, when the Australian government was kept in the dark about American intentions in Vietnam, the Coalition government fell. Now, the Australian public knows little about our military operations. We are not given details of so-called training exercises of Iraqi troops, particularly how our intervention improves the skills of soldiers that have been fighting their own wars for a long time. We are not told what casualties are incurred in such exercises. We are not told if our forces are active beyond Iraq, for example, in Yemen. We hear precious little about our ground forces in Afghanistan, including what casualties they are inflicting or sustaining. It is a case of the blind leading the blind, with no information about what our goals are, whether we can achieve them, or when our will come back to Australia.
One thing does seem certain: that leaving Afghanistan to the Taliban will simply return the country to the status quo ante. The Taliban will prevail, just as they would have done if the United States and its allies, and before them, the Soviet Union and the British, had not invaded the country in the first place.
Richard Broinowski is a former senior Australian diplomat