Monday, April 23, 2007

"A quiet corner of Parliament House"

John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia:

Why our troops must stay [excerpts]

In one sense, this quiet corner of Parliament House is a long way from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In another sense, it helps bring into focus much of what is at stake.

A hallmark of our free society is the ability to debate issues forcefully and to resolve inevitable differences peacefully. Our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan see this as a sign of weakness. We know it is our greatest strength.

A tough road still lies ahead

I am not asking Australians to discount the enormous difficulties in Iraq or to change their views about the original decision. I am asking them to consider the situation we now face and the stakes involved.

What Iraq and her people need now is time, not a timetable. They seek our patience, not political positioning. They require our resolve, not our retreat.

The Long War

The long war against violent Islamic extremism goes on. It is a very different kind of war – a war without borders and with no clear frontlines; a war fought as much by our ideas and values as by our armies.

Terrorist cells are active today in between 30 and 40 countries plotting action based on a warped interpretation of Islam. Attacks have been planned in Australia.

Nor should we forget the essential lessons of 11 September 2001 – that failed states can quickly become havens and projecting grounds for global terror; and that terrorists can turn our openness and technological achievements against us to devastating strategic effect.

Patriots and Internationalists

There are about 3,300 Australian Defence Force personnel on operations overseas or undertaking security tasks in our maritime protection zone. They advance our nation's interests and ideals with great courage.

I regard them as our finest patriots and our finest internationalists.

Roughly 2000 Australians are part of operations today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Afghanistan, our largest contingent – the Reconstruction Task Force in Oruzgan Province which I visited last week – is working in partnership with the Dutch on the reconstruction and improvement of infrastructure. It has made excellent progress rebuilding schools, roads and bridges and training the local population to ensure the benefits remain into the future.

No Timetable for withdrawal

For the record, let me state clearly why I believe a timetable for premature withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq would invite disastrous strategic and humanitarian consequences.

First, it would undercut the forces of moderation in Iraq at the precise moment when they have a chance – perhaps the last chance – to stabilise their country. Sectarian violence would escalate, with the Sunnis abandoning the unity government and parliament.

Second, it would lead to more widespread and extreme human rights abuses, more internally displaced Iraqi civilians and further outflow of refugees to neighbouring states.

Third, a precipitate withdrawal would give a green light to those looking to make Iraq a platform for global terror. With Al Qaeda and other extremists claiming withdrawal as a victory, this would likely inspire more terrorism outside Iraq, including in South East Asia.

Iraq is undeniably a frontline in the fight against international terrorism. The terrorists view it as such.

Fourth, it would further destabilise what is already the world's most unstable region, perhaps igniting a wider war in the Middle East. Any prospect of resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict would lie in tatters.

And fifth, it would be a crushing blow to America's global leadership, emboldening those who, like Osama Bin Laden, have argued all along that America is a "weak horse" on which no one should depend.

Security first

We recognise that in Iraq as well as in Afghanistan political progress and security are inextricably linked.

Labor seems to believe that Iraq can achieve reconciliation without security – essentially, that if the coalition leaves the Iraqis will sort out their differences.

Let's be clear. Labor supports setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq irrespective of the situation on the ground. It would pull out Australia's combat forces as soon as it can. And it opposes stepping up our effort to train the Iraqi Army – even though the Iraqi government, the US government, Tony Blair and the Baker-Hamilton report all agree that training is a critical priority.

Our position could not be more sharply different.

We believe that restoring security in Iraq is critical to creating the space and time Iraqis need to find a lasting political solution. This means that we are opposed to a precipitate withdrawal. It means we are opposed to setting timetables for withdrawal.

And it means we strongly support training – which is why the government has decided to step up our training effort.

We will be able to leave Iraq. But we cannot do so responsibly until we have some confidence that the Iraqi security forces are in a position to defend Iraq's democratically-elected government and the Iraqi people, whether from terrorists, insurgents or sectarian strife.

There might be few good alternatives in Iraq. But that does not absolve those of us in positions of political responsibility from facing up to the alternatives that exist.

The right thing to do

The question to be confronted now is this: what do we do to maximise the chances of future stability in Iraq?

That means supporting the Iraqis and our coalition partners in their security operations and continuing to strengthen the capacity of Iraq's security forces. Then, as Iraq moves forward, we can draw back.

I believe this course is in Australia's long-term national interest. And it happens to be the right thing to do.

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