By Kathy Newnam
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and federal Liberal Party leader Brendan Nelson have shown their willingness to use the soldiers they claim to honour and respect to suit their own political ends, cynically using the emotions generated by the return of Australia’s Overwatch Battle Group from southern Iraq and the death in early July of the sixth Australian soldier in Afghanistan since 2002, to promote their bipartisan pro-war agenda.
On June 28, Rudd used a welcome home parade through Brisbane’s streets marking the return of the 500-member battle group from southern Iraq to give the impression that he had withdrawn Australia’s troops from the US-led war on Iraq. Hamish Chitts, a former Australian infantry soldier, East Timor veteran and spokesperson for Stand Fast, a group of veterans and former military personnel who oppose the current wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan, told Direct Action: “Stand Fast is glad that those soldiers are no longer being placed in harm’s way for the sake of the profits the Western oil corporations hope to get out of Iraq. But this so-called withdrawal is less than one third of the Australian military personnel deployed in Iraq. The other two thirds will continue to remain in harms way supporting this unpopular and unjustifiable occupation.”
Chitts went on to note that Canberra’s direct military commitment to the occupation of Iraq is now approximately 835 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel, including: a combat team of about 110 soldiers comprised of two infantry platoons, a cavalry troop, a military police detachment and some combat service logistic support personnel. “This continued commitment of direct support for the US-led war belies the claim, made by much of the media in Australia, that all Australian combat forces have been withdrawn”, said Chitts. He also noted that a Royal Australian Air Force detachment of about 160 personnel operates three C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and that about 110 ADF personnel are either part of the US-led Multi-National Force headquarters or serving on exchange in the militaries of other nations in Iraq. There is also an RAAF detachment of about 170 personnel conducting maritime patrol operations, with two AP-3C Orion aircraft.
“There is also a Royal Australian Navy ANZAC-class frigate with approximately 160 personnel patrolling the northern Persian Gulf as part of Operation Catalyst, which works with US and British warships to guard Iraq’s offshore oil assets, and to carry out provocations along Iran’s coastline”, said Chitts. He pointed out that 15 ADF personnel are employed with the Coalition Counter Improvised Explosive Device Task Force that coordinates efforts focused on intelligence collection, material solutions and training for the US-led occupation forces throughout Iraq, and that there is a tri-service (army, RAAF and RAN) grouping of 110 personnel that are responsible for a range of logistic, training and communications activities.
“The removal of some combat elements is far from a withdrawal of Australia’s involvement in the war against the Iraqi people. It is a re-shuffling. Most of the troops who have recently returned will soon be used to bolster Australian military efforts to defend the corrupt puppet government of Afghanistan and Western business interests in that country”, said Chitts. Australia currently has just over 1000 troops in Afghanistan, making Canberra the 10th-largest provider of foreign occupation personnel to the Central Asian country and the largest non-NATO occupation contingent.
The emotive atmosphere created by the relief of the battle group soldiers to be out of Iraq and the relief at their safe return by their relatives was too tempting a political opportunity for Rudd to pass up. At the June 28 ceremony he proclaimed: “Freedom is not for free. Freedom comes at a price and you are our front line in the defence of our freedom.” But, Chitts observed, “since the previous Iraqi government headed by Saddam Hussein, ousted through the US-British-Australian invasion of 2003, never had the means nor the aim of invading Australia (or the US or Britain), the ADF’s role in Iraq was not and isn’t to defend ordinary Australians’ freedoms. As the AWB scandal revealed, Australian troops were sent to invade and occupy Iraq to protect Australian business interests there. Labor has always claimed to have opposed the Iraq invasion, but now Rudd tells us it was to protect “our freedom”!
With 63% of Australians opposed to Australia’s involvement in the war in Iraq and just over 50% opposed to Australian involvement in the war in Afghanistan, Chitts asked: “How can Rudd claim to be acting for freedom and democracy when a majority in this country want all the troops bought home? And it is not just freedom and democracy here that is being ignored; the majority of Iraqis and the majority of Afghans don’t want foreign troops occupying their countries. That’s why the people of Iraq and Afghanistan will keep resisting the occupation forces. The only freedom being fought for by Australian troops in these countries is the freedom of the big corporations to exploit new markets and to secure control of Iraq’s oilfields. It only costs $1.50 to extract a barrel of oil out of the ground in Iraq. With oil now priced at around $140 a barrel, and predicted to go higher, the privatisation of Iraq’s nationalised oil resources will bring a profits bonanza to the big Western oil companies.”
In March this year, on the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Rudd denounced the Howard Coalition government’s decision to involve Australian troops in the Iraq war, telling the federal parliament: “Have further terrorist attacks been prevented? No, they have not been, as the victims of the Madrid train bombing will attest. Has any evidence of a link between weapons of mass destruction and the former Iraqi regime and terrorists been found? No. After five years, has the humanitarian crisis in Iraq been removed? No it has not.” Chitts told DA: “While opponents of the war in Iraq will agree with these comments, Rudd says one thing then does another. It’s complete hypocrisy for the Labor politicians to publicly oppose the war in Iraq, make a show of bringing some of the troops home and yet still provide nearly 1000 military personnel to support the US occupation of Iraq. The troops still in Iraq not only provide practical support for the occupation but also help legitimise the notion that the occupiers are a coalition of nations rather than essentially just the US. If Rudd really opposes the occupation of Iraq, he should withdraw all the ADF personnel.”
On July 8, SAS Signaller Sean McCarthy became the sixth Australian soldier to die as part of the occupation of Afghanistan when a roadside improvised explosive device was detonated as the vehicle he was in passed by. Two other soldiers and a “coalition national” were injured by the blast. The soldiers were based at Tarin Kowt military base in Oruzgan province in the south-east of Afghanistan. Rudd’s response, said Chitts: “highlighted his commitment to keeping Australian troops in Afghanistan, propping up the US-installed puppet regime” of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Rudd said: “We’ve had losses before, my fear is we will lose them again.”
Brendan Nelson, seeing an opportunity to use McCarthy’s death to try to turn public opinion to support the war in Afghanistan, claimed that: “Signaller McCarthy has given his life in our name, in the cause of fighting extremism and the Taliban in particular. It’s essential that we continue to fight these terrorists in their own backyard so they do not get into ours, here in Australia.” Chitts pointed out that the Taliban is not, and never has been, officially listed by either Washington or Canberra as a “terrorist” organisation. He said Stand Fast was disgusted by Nelson’s patronising rhetoric. “To hide this war under the cloak of a war against terrorists is ridiculous. As veterans and ex-service personnel, we reject this attempt to say that anyone in Afghanistan has died in our name. We think Dr Nelson is looking after the interests of Australian big business and trying to justify it up by claiming the people of Afghanistan have the capability and desire to invade Australia. That’s absurd. Stand Fast would like to ask Dr Nelson and Mr Rudd, did the bride and 22 other members of her wedding party who were killed by US bombs in Nangarhar province on July 6 also give their lives in our name? Were they terrorists, plotting to invade Australians’ backyards? Have the thousands of other civilians who have already died as part a result of the occupation of Afghanistan also given their lives in our name?”
Not to be outdone by Nelson’s comments on McCarthy’s death, Labor war minister Joel Fitzgibbon told July 14 Australian newspaper, Australians have a “quite robust” tolerance for battlefield casualties in Afghanistan, and “Australians understood the national interest was under direct threat in Afghanistan, and accepted the risks facing the Diggers”. Chitts told DA: “If both Australian soldiers and civilians think the Canberra politicians are really risking the lives of the troops for them, they wouldn’t think it acceptable. Fitzgibbon’s, Nelson’s and Rudd’s comments are that of butchers preparing the Australian people for the bill in lives that ordinary Australians will have to pay as the resistance to foreign occupation in Afghanistan escalates.”
Chitts explained that before the US-led invasion, production of opium, the key ingredient in heroin, had virtually been wiped out from Afghanistan by the Taliban regime. “Since then Afghanistan, one of poorest countries in the world, has re-emerged as the world’s main opium supplier. The UN estimates that Afghanistan now accounts for 93% of the global market in illegal opiates. The total area used for opium cultivation increased by 59% in 2006 and by a further 17% last year, according to a UN report released on March 5. The US bribed and continues to bribe Afghan warlords, who profit from the opium trade, to gain their support, which has not only allowed the rapid growth of opium production but has also created a culture of corruption in Afghanistan. In 2001 alone, Afghan warlords were given US$70 million in bribes by the CIA to turn against the Taliban government.
“The US-backed government of Afghanistan controls little more than the capital, Kabul, with the warlords ruling the rest with an iron fist. Corruption among police and local authorities is worst in southern Afghanistan, where drug profits are highest. Despite his repeated public denials, President Karzai’s half-brother Wali, head of Kandahar’s provincial council, continues to be accused by senior government sources, as well as foreign analysts and officials, as having a key role in orchestrating the movement of heroin from Kandahar westward through Helmand province and out across the Iranian border.” Chitts explained that the continued occupation of Afghanistan is aimed at securing US oil corporations’ access to the huge gasfields in Turkmenistan and the oilfields in Kazakhstan, to the north of Afghanistan, including a possible pipeline from these fields through Afghanistan to lucrative markets in Pakistan and India.”
Chitts said that the war in Afghanistan was initiated to use the shock of Al Qaeda’s terrorist attack on New York’s World Trade Centre to prepare public opinion for an already planned attack on oil-rich Iraq. “Soldiers are sacrificing their lives and civilians are being killed so that big-business interests in the West will be able to earn huge profits from controlling the energy resources of Central Asia. Of course we in Stand Fast don’t support the politics and religious fanaticism of the Taliban. Initially the Taliban was easily defeated because they didn’t have the support of most Afghans. Now their ranks are being swelled, not by people who have suddenly been won over to the Taliban’s view of the world, but by people who oppose US-backed Karzai regime of warlords and opium barons whose rule our troops help impose.
“The Labor and Liberal politicians in Australia are vying with each other to be more `the Digger’s friend’ than the other. Most of these politicians have never served in ADF, and would be mortified if their children served. These politicians betray the criminal disregard they have for the soldiers in sending them to risk their lives to impose Western business interests on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Whether it is the use of a welcome home parade to hide the continual participation in the bloody US-led occupation of Iraq or the disgusting use of a soldier’s death to sell the unpopular and unjustifiable war in Afghanistan, these politicians must be exposed, condemned and publicly challenged. We can write letters to these politicians and send out media releases but these will not change anything if there isn’t visible public pressure on them in the first place. We need to get people back onto the streets in protest. No more blood should be shed for the corporate profiteers and their political servants. Those who truly support our troops should support Stand Fast’s call to bring all the military personnel, from all the foreign countries involved, home from Iraq and Afghanistan.”
For more information about Stand Fast or if you are a veteran, currently serving or have served in the armed forces and would like to get involved, phone 0401 586 923, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.stand-fast.webs.com/
From Direct Action. Sydney, Australia