Sidekick Howard's Iraq War dooms Afghan peace hopes


22 November 2002

Our troops are pulling out, headed for Iraq, leaving Osama bin Laden mightily pleased writes CHRISTOPHER KREMMER

THERE are few politicians who could at one stroke please both Osama bin Laden and George Bush. In fact, there is probably only one: John Winston Howard.

With his decision to withdraw Australia's small squadron of Special Air Services troops from Afghanistan, the Prime Minister has once again demonstrated his political cunning.

The United States President will be pleased because Howard has made it crystal clear that Australian special forces are being released for a possible role in any future war in Iraq.

Their number may be small, but a deployment of Australian SAS would free up US special forces for the nasty work of fighting and bribing their way to Baghdad when the curtain falls on the latest episode of the Weapons Inspections Follies.

While Bush will be pleased, bin Laden will be positively delirious.

The decision serves his interests in three ways.

First, it weakens the hold of the Afghan government on areas outside Kabul.

Al-Qaeda, since the collapse of its Taliban allies' government in the capital, has been lying low in the lawless tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It is waiting for US and allied forces to vacate the battlefield.

Australia now leads the retreat, but Washington too has signalled that its focus is shifting from military to reconstruction and humanitarian assistance to the Government of President Hamid Karzai.

Unless the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) the small force of 5000 peacekeepers now confined to Kabul is expanded to cover areas outside the capital, significant parts of Afghanistan may soon once more become a happy hunting ground for al-Qaeda.

Second, the timing of the Australian withdrawal, little more than a month after the Bali bombings, will enthuse bin Laden's legion of fanatics.

They will spread the message across the Muslim world that Australia has been sent packing from Afghanistan thanks to the al-Qaeda/Jemaah Islamiah-sponsored Bali bombings.

Third, a full-scale US-led invasion of Iraq is precisely what bin Laden needs to fuel the flames of hatred and suspicion among Muslims, on which his movement feeds.

For the families of the 150 Australian soldiers based at Bagram airbase north of Kabul, there will be understandable relief.

One SAS trooper, Andrew Knox, was killed and another was seriously injured, both in landmine explosions while on duty in Afghanistan.

Those who know the SAS, such as the former head of the Defence Department's strategic and international policy division, Dr Allan Behm, have argued persuasively that the regiment is not being used to full advantage in Afghanistan.

SAS troops are trained to provide long-range surveillance to help with the delivery of precise and lethal force against unsuspecting enemies. This often involves being inserted behind enemy lines to direct laser-guided ordnance fired from fighter aircraft on to their targets.

But in Afghanistan they have found themselves engaged in a frustrating hunt for elusive Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants, the sort of job, as Behm points out, that could be done by infantry forces.

The onset of the harsh Afghan winter would also have limited their effectiveness.

But arguments about their appropriate role fail to explain the move. Had the Government wanted to address the misallocation of a scarce and highly trained military resource it could simply have sent a different unit.

In their polite way, the Afghans have pointed out the dangers in opening a new front in the fight against terrorism in Iraq, while Afghanistan remains without a national army or police force, and facing resurgent fundamentalist forces across the border in Pakistan.

At the very least, they hope, Australia will not walk away from them altogether, perhaps contributing to the ISAF peacekeeping force, or helping train their fledgling army.

To the rest of us, the redeployment looks suspiciously like political sleight of hand.

In the aftermath of Bali, and with Australia itself facing an unprecedented level-three terrorism alert, the question remains: "If not in Afghanistan, why not here?"

The answer, of course, is Iraq.

Whatever it may say, Canberra is gearing up for Baghdad.

The argument our Prime Minister has yet to make convincingly is that removing a recalcitrant, but boxed-in, Saddam Hussein is a more pressing priority than eliminating the direct threat to Australia posed by al-Qaeda.

Unless and until he can do that, Howard's political wiles may yet prove to be the death of us.

-- The Sydney Morning Herald