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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (September 3, 2003)

Realistic view needed for practical SDF role in Iraq

Miki KASE (Adjunct Fellow, American Enterprise Institute)

It has been a month since the Diet passed legislation to allow Self Defence Forces troops to be sent to Iraq, but there is hardly any possibility that such a move will materialize any time soon. This is because the government is finding the situation in Iraq too dangerous for the SDF.

The situation in Iraq certainly is insecure---the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad is only the latest grievous evidence of this. There is news of casualties almost every day and the victims are not just American soldiers. But was such insecurity unexpected when Japan started considering sending the SDF with the end of the war? There were ambush attacks, shootings and missiles being hurled at troops even right after the Iraqi people were "liberated" from the dictator, Saddam Hussein. US President George W. Bush declared the war over in May but the world knew about the continuing attacks, probably not just from Saddam's supporters but also from Al-Qaida and other Islamic militants who were drawn to Iraq to fight the "infidels". General John Abizaid, the American Commander in Iraq, earlier had described the situation as a guerrilla war.

Then why is there this running around like headless chickens in the Japanese government? The answer is miscalculation and wishful thinking much more than anything that is happening in Iraq.

As the North Korean crisis intensified with Kim Jong Il's adamant pursuit of his nuclear program, the Japanese government realized that Japan could not just sit on the sidelines on Iraq, while asking for support on the North Korean situation. A fat check, like that issued in the first Gulf War, would not suffice this time. Japan desperately needs the United States to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons program and its support to solve the abduction issue. At the same time, the power of the US military in Iraq spread a widely shared belief in Japan that the US might choose to apply "surgical attacks" on North Korea. By contributing to the situation in Iraq, so the government thought, Japan might be in a better position to influence the United States to take a more conciliatory approach to North Korea.

But there was a significant mismatch between the Japanese calculation and the American position.

There are different types of support that other countries can provide the United States. During the actual war, the superpower did not really need other troops alongside its own. This was already true in the first Gulf War and the gap between US forces and others has only widened in the last twelve years. The technology and might of the US forces are such that, with a few exceptions like the British and the Australians, other troops are more in the way, and in both wars, were valued only as lengthening the list of supporters.

There were intelligence, economic and practical military assistance, like basing and over-flight rights, that others could provide. Then there was the political support. Because of fierce opposition to the Iraq war from the governments of some traditional allies and the general public in many countries, the United States desperately needed political support. This was especially true during the debate on the second Iraq resolution in the United Nations prior to the war.

But now that the war is over and the post-war situation in Iraq is more unstable than expected, the US requirements are quite different. It is no longer trying to lengthen its list of supporters for the sake of the list alone. What it wants is concrete help, not just political support, not just words on paper.

Maintaining the forces in Iraq is a heavy burden. US troops have suffered more than 60 deaths since President Bush declared the end of the war, and no one is really sure of who the enemies are, except that it does not seem to be enough just to get rid of Saddam's supporters. According to the Pentagon, maintaining the 139,000 troops is costing $4 billion a month and reconstruction will cost at least $7.3 billion just for this year. There are also American troops in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and now in Liberia.

There are a number of countries which have sent or are offering to send troops to Iraq, like Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Spain and Ukraine. But most of them can send only small numbers and most are inexperienced and ill-equipped for the difficult task that they face. The countries that have substantial forces and are experienced --- France, Germany, India --- will not send forces without another UN resolution that gives more authority to the United Nations. But while there is pressure to ask for more international troops even within the US, the Pentagon is afraid of losing control with such a resolution.

Furthermore, the US economy is not recovering, there are criticisms of the way intelligence was used in justifying the war, the support for the President is dropping and there is the presidential election looming next year.

The Japanese government seemed oblivious to all this. For it, the legislation on Iraq was really related to North Korea, and just passing the legislation was the objective. It was like a band of bagpipers that the US President Lyndon Johnson said would be enough for Britain to send during the Vietnam War --- a gesture of political support. This sort of policy might have worked twelve years ago, but now gestures are not enough.

The government said that the SDF would assist US troops, for example, by providing water and fuel, but of course, only in a noncombat zone. There was no hard-headed analysis of whether the environment in Iraq met the domestic safety restrictions, nor whether such restricted assistance was what the United States wanted. In contrast to the New York Times' description of the SDF deployment as "the first for Japanese troops in a combat zone since World War II", the Japanese government thought that there would be a nice, safe area for the SDF.

Hence, the great surprise when it turned out that SDF support was not welcomed at Baghdad airport, which seemed the only place that met the safety requirement, and the shock when asked to send them to north of Baghdad, where American troops were rooting out Saddam's supporters. Japan then shifted to considering helping reconstruction efforts but the bombing of the UN headquarters has only underlined the fact that even those engaged in humanitarian efforts are not immune from attack.

Japan's analysis of the possible US bombing of North Korea was also flawed. With a little more observation of the tense situation in Iraq, of the more serious American concern for the nuclear weapons development in Iran and with a little thinking of whether the American people would support an attack on North Korea, the government should understood easily that the United States is not eager to start a war in the Far East.

Japan cannot afford to make another miscalculation or get away with fuzzy excuses. After the bombing of the UN headquarters, the United States needs practical help even more than before. If the SDF are finally going to be deployed, they must make a real contribution, above and beyond not being a burden to other troops. A hollow promise is much worse than a fat check.

(This commentary first appeared in August 27, 2003 issue of The Daily Yomiuri.)

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