Thursday, June 15, 2006

(East Timor Problems) Australia withdrew too early

"John Howard failed the East Timorese, argues Australia's Labor Party's foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd.

THE fresh commitment of Australian troops to East Timor in late May has the bipartisan support of the Australian Labor Party. The troops have been doing a first-class job in a difficult and dangerous operating environment. They have been unjustifiably criticised for not restoring immediate order to the streets of Dili.

But the mission the ADF was sent to perform was to prevent a civil war between the warring elements of an armed, dangerous and disintegrating East Timorese defence force and police force. To date, the ADF has been remarkably successful in this task. They were not sent to Dili to prevent hooliganism. But the Howard Government should have dispatched sufficient police resources from the outset - something they have belatedly sought to do with the impending arrival of approximately 500 police from Australia and the region.

The question that now arises is how we managed to get into this mess. Because East Timor has now become another full-blown member of the arc of instability to Australia's north.

The Prime Minister says East Timor became independent too early. It is amazing how he reinvents political history by press statement. This is the same Prime Minister who in reflecting on his 10 years in office said in March that East Timor had "all turned out fantastically".

Claim the credit when it's all going fine; but when it's not, run a thousand miles an hour from accepting the responsibility. A large reason why East Timor is now a security mess is because the Howard Government decided to cut and run from East Timor in 2003 in order to meet its new military commitments in Iraq.

UN Security Council Resolution 1410 was passed in May 2002, establishing the UN Mission in Support of East Timor. UNMISET consisted of civilian advisers, 1250 police officers and up to 5000 international peacekeeping troops. Australia was a large contributor to that force.

In early 2003 the East Timorese Government made a plea for increased international military assistance to help combat reported border incursions. Unfortunately for the East Timorese, however, the Australian Government had other plans for its troops: the invasion of Iraq.

Labor was critical of the Government's position at the time saying: "At a time when John Howard is forward deploying 1500 troops to Iraq, we face an emerging security crisis in East Timor where Australia's 1000 peacekeepers are already stretched to the limit." And with the support of the Australian Government, the UN Security Council authorised the downsizing
of the military and police components of the UN mission. A year later in May 2004 the UN Security Council met and announced that the military and police components of its mission in East Timor were again to be significantly reduced to a core force of 157 police advisers, 42 military liaison officers, 310 troops and a 125-person international response unit.

In advance of the Security Council meeting, The Australian reported on February 20, 2004, that the Australian Government had been actively lobbying the US and Britain for an even greater reduction in the military component. East Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, for one, was confused by the Australian Government's position, saying: "We are all quite puzzled as to why Canberra, London and Washington want to differ from everybody else on this issue."

Once again Alexander Downer, the man who on East Timorese independence pledged that Australia would not let East Timor down, described the East Timorese request for assistance as just "a security blanket for East Timor".

In the end Australia was not able to win sufficient support at the UN Security Council in 2004 for its position. But a year later in early 2005, Australia again took a strong position advocating further cuts to the military component of the peacekeeping mission in East Timor.

Strangely enough the Government's opposition to military support for East Timor once again coincided with its commitment to deploy troops to Iraq. Only two days after Howard announced the new deployment of 450 troops to Iraq's Al Muthanna province, our ambassador to the UN stated Canberra's position that "we don't think there's a need for a continuing military component".

Little more than six months or so after the withdrawal of the last of Australia's troops, problems erupted in the East Timorese military and police forces. The rest, as they say, is history.

The UN's peacekeeping force in East Timor (of which Australia was a central part) represented a major stabilizing force in East Timorese politics - particularly during the early development of its democratic institutions. The permanent withdrawal of the UN force exposed too early the brittleness of East Timorese politics - brittleness now on stark display and with consequences for future stability.

East Timor and the Solomons are casualties of a Government whose foreign policy priorities for many years now have been driven by John Howard's $2 billion investment in his so far failed Iraq enterprise.

The result: a growing arc of instability that now presents financial and foreign policy costs for Australia in the years to come."

Source: The Australian (UNOTIL Daily Media Review, Public Information Office)

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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