Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 06:40 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Nov 2020 | 06:40 | SYDNEY

The PM himself is unsure what the extra troops are for


Hugh White

14 February 2008 08:03

Interesting contributions by Erin and Damien, but they do not quite address my concerns. Erin argues that if we are going to send forces, then the particular troops chosen and the police are the right ones to send. Well, I’m not quite sure I agree with that: whether a company of light infantry is the best kind of army unit to send depends on what the task is: if it is, as Erin and Damien seem to assume, to help the ISF maintain calm in Dili, then they are. But if it is to seek out those responsible for the attacks on Monday – as the Foreign Minister seemed to suggest on Monday – then Special Forces might have been more appropriate. So I think it remains hard to judge the wisdom of the government’s move until we know more clearly what the forces are supposed to do. Damien has an answer to that. But before looking at his answer it might help to clarify where the differences between our positions lie. 

He can be assured that I agree that important Australian interests are engaged in East Timor. I have long argued that the stability of our small island neighbours is a core Australian strategic interest, and I also acknowledge a measure of Australian responsibilities to our neighbours. This then is not a debate about ends but about means. How precisely is the deployment of extra forces going to help achieve the objective of a more stable and peaceful East Timor? And I use that pedantic little word ‘precisely’ because, so often when the question of sending forces somewhere comes onto the agenda, people of good will and good sense suspend their critical faculties and relapse into optimistic generalities. We’ve seen a lot of that in recent years.

Let’s look, then, at Damien’s explanation of why he thinks sending the extra forces is a good idea. He knows a lot about the situation on the ground, and he may be right in the explanation he provides: that following the attacks, the risk of unrest in Dili has increased, that existing forces would be overstretched in containing that risk, and that extra forces are needed to ease that strain.

But that is not what the Government has said.  The closest I have seen to an explanation is what the PM said on ABC's AM program on Tuesday:

KEVIN RUDD: The advice the Government's received this morning is the situation on the streets in Dili remains calm, that the Government of East Timor is in firm control, and also our defence assets begin arriving today.

PETA DONALD: What will they be doing when they get there? Do you think it's essential that they get out and round up supporters of the rebel leader Alfredo Reinado?

KEVIN RUDD: My job is to respond to the request from our friend in partner, the Prime Minister of East Timor. I spoke with Xanana Gusmao a couple of times yesterday on the phone, just after the incident, the attempted assassination, both on himself and separately Jose Ramos Horta.

His request was for these additional assets, therefore my decision has been, together with the National Security Committee of Cabinet to deploy them. An extra company from the ready reaction forces in Townsville, the extra Australian Federal Police and HMAS Perth will be berthing off to the harbour within a couple of hours. The actual deployment and use of those forces once they're on the ground, that's a decision properly taken by our force commander on the ground, in close consultation with our East Timorese counterparts.

Now I think that is pretty clear: he sent the forces because Xanana Gusmao asked for them, and he seems to have no particular idea what they are going to do once they get there. This may not be the whole picture, but based on what we can see this does not sound to me like good strategic decision-making.