Wroe, David: The secret Iraq dossier: inside Australia’s flawed war

David Wroe

The secret Iraq dossier: inside Australia’s flawed war’, The Age, 25 February 2017 updated

Long article, with illustrations and video, on Australia’s Iraq involvement, the key point being that the motivation – why we fought – was to make a downpayment on the American alliance. The author is defence and national security correspondent with Fairfax and he is writing here about a report done by Albert Palazzo of Defence’s Directorate of Army Research and Analysis. The report was completed in 2011 and has now been released under FOI in a heavily redacted form. (It was originally classified ‘Secret’; the full redacted report is linked from Wroe’s article.) Its main conclusions are still clear.

The report concludes that Howard joined US president George W. Bush in invading Iraq solely to strengthen Australia’s alliance with the US. Howard’s – and later Kevin Rudd’s – claims of enforcing UN resolutions, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction and global terrorism, even rebuilding Iraq after the invasion, are dismissed as “mandatory rhetoric”.

Howard and [General Peter Cosgrove, then Chief of the Defence Force, now Governor-General] facing domestic political pressure, ensured that Australian lives were exposed to as little risk as possible. The result was a contribution that was of only modest military use and, in many cases, made little sense. Politically, delivering the right force was “secondary to the vital requirement of it just being there” but it led some American military officers to grumble that Australia was providing “a series of headquarters”.

It was managed from the top with a keen eye for the politics and the public relations, yet frustrated commanders often asked what they were doing in Iraq and many took to writing their own mission statements. One commander wryly summed up his time in Iraq thus: “We did some shit for a while and things didn’t get any worse.”

Because the ‘downpayment’ motivation was uppermost, along with a political desire to reduce the prospect of electorally damaging casualties, it was not possible for Australian forces on the ground to perform to their full potential. This is rather ironic, given the Australian obsession in past conflicts with how well we fought, rather than why.

The Iraq adventure cost $A2.36 billion from 2003 to 2010 and the last two Australian soldiers left Iraq in 2013. The following year, Australian personnel returned to the region to take on ISIS.

Wroe’s concluding paragraphs, quoting Palazzo, are worth repeating in the era of Trump.

Howard … secured “a victory, albeit a tainted one” in a narrow strategic sense by deepening the alliance at a relatively low cost, Palazzo concludes. But this was because Bush was prepared to settle for the low price Howard offered. That won’t always be the case.

With considerable prescience, Palazzo writes that “Australian leaders, both political and military, should understand that in a different conflict US leaders may or may not be so accommodating.”

That could almost have been written with a certain self-proclaimed “deal-maker” in mind who might demand a higher price. But whether it is Donald Trump or a future US leader who puts greater demands on allies, Australians will need to weigh up very carefully how to best manage this crucial relationship.

Palazzo concludes that we strengthened the alliance but helped enable our giant and powerful friend to deliver themselves a self-inflicted wound, given “the war’s only strategic winners are Iran and China” – an observation that has only been further vindicated in the six years since Palazzo finished the report.

Also on Sydney Morning Herald and other Fairfax. SBS report. James O’Neill in Pearls and Irritations. Paul Barratt, former secretary of the Department of Defence, in Pearls and Irritations. Karen Middleton in May in The Saturday Paper on a conference that covered similar territory.

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