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A blog on terrorism, democracy and international politics

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Labor's Defence Plan 

Both shadow attorney general Robert McClelland and Opposition Leader Kim Beazley have recently spoken about Labor's current policy in relation to Australian troop commitments.

My discomfort with the policy approach of the previous Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, is on record. Under Latham, Labor policy changed regularly, and seemed to be aimed at appeasing terrorists after Madrid. Consequently, I found it unsurprising that the Australian Embassy in Indonesia was attacked during the Australian election campaign.

I had hoped that the Beazley leadership would dispel some of these concerns, and indeed the flamboyant policy swings associated with Latham are a thing of the past. However, the new policy line still gives cause for concern.

McClelland has stated that Australian troops should be drawn out of Iraq and moved into Afghanistan. Beazley has made slightly different statements, saying simply that Australian troops should be taken out of Iraq, whether they are redeployed to Afghanistan or not. The rationale for this proposed redeployment is that Afghanistan is more relevant to specific Australian national interests because of its role in the international narcotics trade, which funds terrorism.

From the outset, I agree that Afghanistan is an important and possibly neglected theatre in the War on Terror. However, beyond this fact, there are serious problems with Labor's policy.

First, the inconsistency between the statements of Beazley and McClelland suggest that there is either division or simply a lack of detail in the ALP's policy. This is dangerous in such an important policy area.

Second, there is the timing of the announcements, which makes it seem as if the ALP is responding to the London attacks with a commitment to withdraw Australia from Iraq. Whether the timing was intentionally or unintentionally linked to the London blasts, this looks dangerously like appeasement, and a win for the terrorists.

Third, there is the continued emphasis on specific national interests, which ignores the global nature of terrorism. Yes, the narcotics trade is important to funding terrorism, and yes many terrorists were trained in Afghanistan. But most of these terrorists have now moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, Europe and our own region. It is likely that the terrorist attacks in London were carried out by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's wing of al-Qaeda, which departed Afghanistan in 2001 and now operates primarily out of Iraq. Troops in Afghanistan could not have stopped the terrorists who committed the London attacks, and by extension they would be unlikely to stop attacks on Australia - the primary front in the War on Terror is now clearly Iraq.

Withdrawing the international force from Iraq will not change that fact. If the international coalition abandons Iraq in the near future, al-Qaeda will move onto the next phase in their revolutionary model, the wholesale destruction of the fledgeling Iraqi Government. Terrorists will then fill the vacuum in Iraq and begin 'exporting the revolution', with terrorist attacks across both the West and the Middle East.

If Labor is incapable of seeing the relevance to Australian interests of Iraq's status as either a terrorist state or a democracy, perhaps the party should consider the relevance to our interests of the most oil-rich parts of the world being a haven for terrorist operatives. Drugs may be a lucrative source of terrorist funding, but their relevance is peripheral when placed alongside the importance of oil to the world economy, or the geostrategic importance of Iraq in world stability. More than ever, we live in a world where events on the other side of the world impact directly on our interests.

Finally, the policy of shifting our military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan is actually superficial. While Afghanistan would certainly benefit from the re-commitment of the SAS to counter-insurgency operations, and our defence force's well known strengths in the area of peace keeping and reconstruction, around half of our personnel in the Middle East are actually stationed in the Persian Gulf. Our naval and air resources in the region are already relevant to both Iraq and Afghanistan. What would a shift of focus from Iraq to Afghanistan mean for these forces - that Australian ships would turn a blind eye to terrorists or smugglers plying the waters in the Gulf?

Labor's policy seems to be a largely cosmetic attempt to play to a domestic audience and differentiate itself from the Government. Coming straight after the London bombings, the policy announcements are irresponsible.

The ALP must change if it is to become fit for Government.
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