Japan pulls out of Afghanistan coalition

Japan ordered its naval ships on Thursday to withdraw from a refuelling mission in support of United States-led operations in Afghanistan as a political deadlock kept the government from meeting a deadline to extend the activities.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is caught between close ally Washington, which is pressing for enactment of a new Bill to allow Japan’s navy to keep providing free fuel for US and other ships patrolling the Indian Ocean, and a resurgent opposition set on blocking new legislation now before Parliament.

“The Japanese government will make every effort for the early enactment of a new law to continue the Indian Ocean refuelling mission to realise and protect our national interests and to fulfil our country’s responsibility to international society,” Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba said in a speech thanking members of the mission after ordering their withdrawal.

The Pentagon said this week that Japan’s withdrawal would not affect its patrolling of the Indian Ocean for drug smugglers, gun runners and suspected terrorists.

But US ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer, who has been lobbying hard for Japan to stay the course, has said a permanent halt would send a very bad message to the international community and to terrorists.

The naval mission—now certain to be halted for months if not longer—is sure to be on the agenda when US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates visits Japan next week as well as at a summit between Fukuda and President George Bush that media say will take place in Washington on November 16.

“We will make our utmost effort to enact new legislation promptly so that we can resume our refuelling activity as soon as possible,” Fukuda said in a statement.

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Ishiba ordered supply ship Tokiwa and an accompanying destroyer to head home after performing the last refuelling operation under the current law on Monday. That law expires at midnight (3pm GMT) on Thursday.

Japan has supplied fuel and water worth about ¥22-billion ($190-million) over the six years of the mission.

Tokyo is now considering fresh aid to Pakistan—the only Islamic country taking part in the naval operations—as well as to Afghanistan to offset return of its refuelling ships.

The naval mission has become the focus of a domestic tug-of-war between Fukuda’s ruling bloc and the main opposition Democratic Party, which together with its smaller allies, has vowed to vote against it in part because it lacks a UN mandate.

Democratic Party leader Ichiro Ozawa rejected a plea to agree to the new law in a rare one-on-one chat with Fukuda on Tuesday.

The two are set to meet again on Friday to discuss the naval mission as well as a broader political deadlock that could spark an early election for the powerful lower house.

Overseas dispatches are controversial in Japan, where the military is restrained by the post-World War II pacifist Constitution. Japanese voters are divided over this one, with just under 50% in favour of extending it.

The fuel provided by Japan’s supply mission accounted for about one-fifth of total fuel consumed by coalition vessels from December 2001 through February 2003, according to Pentagon data.
Since then, it has accounted for just over 7% of the fuel consumed by coalition vessel. - Reuters

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