Australian troops 'scorned' for low-risk missions

Australian infantry soldiers are ashamed of their low-risk missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and are scorned by troops of other nations, two seasoned officers charged in comments published on Tuesday.

“The restrictions and policies enforced on infantrymen in Iraq have resulted in the widespread perception that our army is plagued by institutional cowardice,” Major Jim Hammett wrote in the Australian Army Journal.

Australia, under the conservative government of former prime minister John Howard, contributed troops to the United States-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, but their roles have been limited.

Howard prided himself on being a staunch US ally in the so-called “war on terror”, however, and President George Bush called him a “man of steel” over his troop commitment even when the occupation began to go awry.

While Australia had received “significant political kudos” for its support of coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was not reflected among troops on the battlefields, Hammett said in the official journal.

“Australia’s contributions to both Iraq and Afghanistan have been derided and scorned by soldiers and officers alike from other nations who are more vigorously engaged in combat operations,” Hammett, who has served in Iraq, Somalia and East Timor, wrote in the latest edition.

“The restrictions placed on deployed elements as a result of force protection and national policies have, at times, made infantrymen ashamed of wearing their Australian uniform.”

No Australian soldiers have been killed in combat in Iraq, while more than 4 000 US soldiers have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

In a separate article, Captain Greg Colton said infantry troops were increasingly frustrated because special forces appeared to be favoured for offensive operations while they were set “second-rate operational tasks”.

Five Australian soldiers, mainly special forces commandos, have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002.

Australian army chief Lieutenant General Peter Leahy told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he understood some soldiers wanted “a bit more of a go”, but they had to understand the nature of war had changed.

“This is no longer infantry wearing red jackets and white cross straps, taking on the army of another king,” he said.

“What we’re seeing now is that we’re required to work in different populations to work to protect, to support and persuade.

“I know that the infantry have real basic skills, that they can do that traditional role of seek ... and kill and destroy. But we’re not asking for that at the moment, that’s not the environment we’re in.”

The new centre-left Labour government led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, which was elected last November, has pledged to pull Australia’s 550-strong battle group from southern Iraq by the middle of this year.

In Afghanistan, Australia has about 1 000 troops, mostly assisting a Dutch-led reconstruction operation in Uruzgan and Rudd has pledged continued support for the coalition.

Rudd, speaking last month after a commando was killed in a battle with Taliban rebels, said “2008 will be difficult and dangerous and bloody, and the Australian nation needs to prepare itself for further losses in the year ahead”.

He said Australia had no plans to increase the number of its troops deployed in Afghanistan, noting that it was the largest contributor to coalition forces among non-Nato members.—AFP

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