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A misfired directive from the US Defence Department led to the Australian government’s unusual public refusal to contribute more in Iraq. By Karen Middleton.

US request for more Iraq support wrongfooted Australia

President Barack Obama meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull last month.
Credit: EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

In his retelling, one official leaps backwards and throws his hands in the air. “We looked at it and just said, ‘Whoa.’ ”

The response was to a letter from United States Defence Secretary Ash Carter, which landed in Defence Minister Marise Payne’s office in December, asking for an increased military contribution to the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

From there, it was forwarded swiftly to the prime minister’s suite. Advisers read it with a degree of disbelief.

It was a form letter, a generic “Dear Allies” missive sent to about 40 of the US’s closest international friends, urging them to consider upping their contributions to the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

But of at least equal concern as the contents was that the Australians hadn’t known it was coming.

With Paris reeling from the terrorism carnage of a fortnight earlier, the US sent out the request because it wanted some of its European and Middle Eastern allies in particular to realise they needed to do more.

But for Australia to also receive such an all-in request with no advance discussion, when it was already the second-largest contributor to the military effort after the US itself, was at best surprising. It seemed to lack acknowledgment of Australia’s efforts. It certainly wasn’t the way these things were usually done.

The US and Australia have protocols governing how such requests are made and this letter didn’t follow them.

The Saturday Paper has been told the unexpected letter prompted an Australian request for clarification. It also prompted some reflection on the Australian side that it was not being afforded the courtesies it might reasonably expect.

When it comes to seeking support in military operations, there is an understanding between Australia and the US: Australia won’t be asked for a contribution unless and until it is in a position to say yes.

If the US wants to ask, the issue will be discussed in a conversation between officials. If the Australians indicate the response will be positive, then a written request will be made – sometimes along with a leader-to-leader phone call – in very specific terms.

But if the answer is not going to be yes, then the request is never officially lodged.

And that’s how it usually is. Australian leaders can tell their constituents, hand on heart, that there has not been any formal US request for contribution – or an increased contribution – to whichever military conflict right up until the day they announce that forces are ready to go.

Saying no in public is awkward, so it rarely happens. But this time, it did.

Request confirmed

When the form letter arrived, Marise Payne was no longer able to say, honestly, that she had received no request to boost Australia’s contribution. She told the prime minister that, if asked, she would have to say she had indeed received a request.

Therefore, she would also say that Australia’s contribution was remaining basically as it was. He agreed that she should.

Within a week, the minister was asked exactly those questions, after secretary Ash Carter revealed in evidence before the US Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on December 9 that he had written to 40 allies, asking for more help.

Journalist Nick Butterly of The West Australian asked Payne’s office about Carter’s comments and was told Australia had received the request and that its contribution would not be substantially increasing. He reported that on December 12.

Butterly followed his report with another, quoting former defence minister Kevin Andrews – a strong supporter of the ousted former prime minister Tony Abbott, and dumped from the ministry when Turnbull took over – saying Australia should accede to the US request and do more in Iraq and Syria.

Suddenly, the issue had also become a public point of difference between Turnbull and Abbott.

On January 13, in response to another journalist’s question, Payne issued a statement saying exactly the same thing she had told Butterly a month earlier.

“The US has asked 40 or so other countries, including European countries, to consider expanded contributions to the coalition, following the attacks in Paris,” her statement said.

“Australia has considered the request from US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter in light of the substantial contributions we are already making to train Iraqi security forces and to the air campaign. The Government has advised Secretary Carter that our existing contributions will continue.”

Although she also flagged that Australia would provide some extra advisers, the answer was interpreted as was intended: No.

Her repeat statement came out on the eve of the prime minister’s unannounced visit to the Middle East and just a week before he was due in Washington. This time, Turnbull saying no to the US got a lot of coverage.

US emphasises strength of Australian commitment

In interviews, the US ambassador to Australia, John Berry, said there was “absolutely no disappointment whatsoever” to Australia’s response.

“Now is not the time to roll back, it’s the time to double down,” he told Sky News. “And so we’ve asked all of our allies to make their own sovereign decisions within their own capabilities as to how they can best take this fight… There’s been no expression of ‘No’. In fact, Australia has already stepped up and added additional leadership resources – more colonels, more generals.”

He was right. While saying no, Payne had indicated Australia would boost the number of ADF personnel in the coalition’s Middle East headquarters from 20 to 30; increase its humanitarian support for Iraq and Syria, which Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has outlined this week as $25 million; and make existing Australian aircraft available for more humanitarian airlifts.

Carter had been quite specific during his committee evidence about what he was seeking.

“The types of things I’ve requested from our partners include special operations forces, strike and reconnaissance aircraft, weapons and munitions, training assistance, and other items.”

He indicated he was urging America’s friends to contribute more “and in many cases, contribute much more”.

Ambassador Berry emphasised the US’s gratitude to Australia, as demonstrated during all of Turnbull’s meetings in Washington, including with the US’s top military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, at the Pentagon.

“The first words out of his mouth were ‘Thank you’,” Berry said. “…Australia is already the second force on the ground with us in Iraq and Syria and we are grateful for that.”

He said it had not been a request for more troops but a request for more “assistance”.

An embassy spokeswoman declined to comment on diplomatic discussions, but said combatting Daesh was a global challenge “and Australia has been a strong partner in addressing this shared threat”.

“The United States deeply appreciates Australia’s tremendous support to the Counter-ISIL Coalition, the effectiveness of which was well demonstrated by recent progress against ISIL in Ramadi,” she told The Saturday Paper. “Indeed, Australia is the second largest contributor of troops on the ground after the United States. While we co-ordinate closely in our military operations, each coalition partner determines their own role and contributions in degrading and defeating ISIL.”

Asked about the generic request, Marise Payne told The Saturday Paper: “My approach is to just deal with these things as they come in and respond appropriately in a measured and considered way.”

She said having met with Ash Carter a number of times she was “very confident we have a productive relationship within the coalition and more broadly”. The form of the letter did not especially concern her.

However, Australian officials told The Saturday Paper that they expected requests from the US to be specific and to come only after dialogue.

They said if Australia received another such generic, written request, it would respond publicly along the same lines – and that point had been made to the US.

“Stop asking us”

Outside the political process, another observation is being made: that it may have been useful for the defence minister to make a statement interpreted as declining the request.

Former chief of army, retired lieutenant-general Peter Leahy, confirmed it was unusual to receive a mass-addressed letter such as the one in December. But he said it had presented an opportunity.

“I think it actually did us a bit of a favour,” Leahy, who is now director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, said. “It allowed us to say no and allowed us to practise saying no. The question is, in what form will the request come in the future?”

Increasingly, Australian security experts are suggesting that however the next request comes, the US should be told Australia cannot forever contribute to Middle East operations.

Dr John Blaxland, senior fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, and author of The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard, said Australia couldn’t provide in its own region what the US really needed if it was constantly asked to do more on the other side of the world.

“Stop asking us,” was how he said Australia should respond. “You don’t want us in the Middle East. You want us in Asia.”

He continued: “The US has for decades – for generations – looked to Australia to be more plugged in, more able to provide advice and support, particularly in South-East Asia. But for the past 15 years, we have been distracted by operations in [the Middle East]. Ask any senior-ranking Australian military officer how long they’ve spent in Asia in the past 15 years and you’ll be lucky if they’ve spent more than a couple of weeks.”

Peter Leahy agreed, saying the Australian Defence Force had focused far more on developing language specialists in Farsi and Arabic than in Chinese or Bahasa.

“I spent much of my time as chief of army flying over Asia and the region to get to the Middle East,” Leahy said. “I’d look down, and I always thought: ‘Why am I doing this? Our priorities should be down there.’ ”

After talks on the Middle East conflict in Rome this week, Julie Bishop confirmed the Australian government had no appetite for increasing its Middle East contribution beyond what had been foreshadowed. She said no further request for assistance had been received.

“Absolutely not. We are the second-largest contributor of military troops in Iraq. We are also taking part in air strikes over Syria and Iraq.”

Turnbull told parliament he had been thanked extensively on his recent visits to Iraq, Afghanistan and Washington for that contribution.

“The prime minister of Iraq expressed his very sincere thanks for the critical role Australian advisers played in supporting the retaking of Ramadi, which has been a critical boost of confidence for the Iraqi government in the battle against Daesh,” Turnbull said on Tuesday. “Driving Daesh out of that city – it is maybe too soon to say it is a turning point; history may record in the future that it was – but it is a very important step.”

Strategy debated

The Saturday Paper has been told that senior Australian military officers based in the Middle East are warning that without a concerted humanitarian effort to rebuild essential services in Ramadi and make it habitable again for those who have fled, that victory will be short-lived.

Coalition military planners believe the rebuilding effort has to come from the Iraqi government – but they say there’s no sign of a strategy. Government officials dispute that, but acknowledge it is “a challenge”.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young recently visited Australian forces in the Middle East on a parliamentary embed program.

“Reclaiming cities like Ramadi in a military sense is futile, unless you have the capacity to rebuild the hospitals, schools and infrastructure required to make the city liveable again,” she said.

“Of course, the situation in the Middle East is extremely complex. Australia should be focusing its efforts on diplomatic outcomes that move the region towards a sustainable peace, however far off that is, and the humanitarian rebuild that will need to come with that.”

But there is concern the Iraqi forces are not yet capable of holding territory on their own, which is essential in order to create the stability necessary for rebuilding.

The US continues to urge those countries that have not offered much assistance to do more, particularly Iraq’s regional neighbours Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states – the real targets of the “Dear Allies” letter. It was also aimed at some European countries that developed a reputation during the Afghanistan conflict of leaving the heaviest lifting to others.

US officials are now going out of their way to express how much Australia’s contribution is appreciated.

“Our voice is heard and understood by the United States government,” Turnbull told parliament, “with whom we continue to work in the closest and tightest collaboration.”

The Australian government is confident it has made its point about how it would prefer to be treated. As one observer put it: “Next time, there’ll be a conversation.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2016 as "How Obama’s war cable jilted Turnbull". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.