Real Friends Know When It's Time To Go Home


On 24 May 2006, the Prime Minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, told the international media that, ‘Our forces will be able to take over the security file in all Iraqi provinces in a year and a half.’ The Guardian reports the Prime Minister as having stated that he expects Coalition troops to leave 16 of Iraq’s 18 provinces by the end of the year including those where Australian troops have been stationed.


Those statements effectively put the Howard Government on notice. It is not just the insurgents who now want foreign troops out, so too does the Government of Iraq.

The democratically elected Iraqi Prime Minister, whose election the Coalition has been pressing for, therefore wants Australian troops to leave the province where they are deployed by no later than the end of this year and all foreign troops out of Iraq by November 2007.

This leaves the Howard Government with a dilemma it can welcome the opportunity this presents and ask the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to develop a clear exit strategy, ensuring Australian troops are out before al-Maliki’s deadline expires or alternatively, it can continue to parrot the lines of George W Bush and Tony Blair (assuming it is logically possible for a person to parrot while sticking his head firmly in the sand).

Treating the al-Maliki deadline seriously means making preparations for withdrawal. It means facing up to the fact that Australian troops may have to leave Iraq despite the security situation on the ground remaining dire. It means having to accept that their staying beyond the end of the year may even escalate the insurgency. It means having to broker the least bad outcome involving a handover to Iraqi military and police.

Sticking with Bush and Blair may look the easier option. But is it?

It requires us to ignore facts in favour of the pretence that keeping foreign troops in Iraq on an indefinite timetable and against the wishes of its elected Prime Minister can somehow ‘stabilise’ that unfortunate country.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

Bush and Blair both say they will keep troops in Iraq until they are satisfied that sustainable ‘regime change’ has been achieved. However, as reaction to the death of al-Qaeda’s former leader in Iraq Abu Musab al-Zarqawi illustrates, much of the public has lost faith in optimistic predictions that that mission can be accomplished, or that the end is in sight. In both the United States and Britain, there is a growing opposition to their troops’ deployment. The continuing presence of Coalition forces after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has not brought peace and may not even prevent civil war. Sometime in the not distant future the Iraqi people will have to take charge of their own destiny.

Staying in the Bush/Blair conga line might seem to put off the hard decisions for the moment but it could backfire for both the Prime Minister and for our soldiers in the field.

First, it assumes that the public domestic pressure in Britain or the United States won’t force an unexpected withdrawal, the timing of which would be driven by political expedience in those Coalition countries and not necessarily the best interest of Iraqis or of our small contingent.

It is not beyond imagination that John Howard might get a phone call an hour or so before the rest of us discover that the United States has unilaterally declared ‘victory’ and their troops are going home particularly if the electoral plight of the Republican Party remains as grim going into the next election as polls show it currently is.

Second, staying the Bush/Blair course and keeping Australians on the ground in Iraq makes no sense at all if there is growing opposition to our presence which extends beyond the extremists. Already, that seems to be a reality. I accept that Islamic extremists have always opposed the Coalition presence. In fact, they get their oxygen from our, US and British troops being there. But no nation with a proud history such as Iraq possesses will tolerate indefinite military occupation by foreigners, irrespective of how well meaning we say we are.

If our troops stay past the deadline Prime Minister al-Maliki has set they risk being seen not just by foreign terrorists and local extremists but by the Iraqi population at large as part of an illegitimate army of occupation.

Such an outcome would be doubly dangerous risking not only our foreign policy objectives but also increasing the threats faced by our soldiers whose lives are on the line.

Either option will have its critics but there can be no stronger argument for beginning to plan for the withdrawal of our troops than has been provided by Prime Minister al-Maliki’s statements.

Dismissing those statements’ significance and digging in to stay beyond our welcome until some hazy concept of a rehabilitated Iraq is achieved could bog our troops down for years. Our defence forces have been blessed with both good miliary leadership and good luck. None have lost their lives as a result of enemy action. We must not take that good fortune for granted.

In addition, the ADF has admitted it is stretching to meet the demand placed on it by the Government. The recent events in East Timor and the Solomon Islands have added pressure on the ADF to work with constrained resources. We need the ADF to manage security conditions in our own region where the threat to peace resonates more strongly and clearly with the Australian public and where Australia has clear and objective national interests, as distinct from the political interests driving Howard’s decision to keep troops in Iraq.

It is clearly time to begin the serious planning for bringing our troops home.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.