In late February 2007 Kevin Rudd met the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, arch neo-con of the flailing Bush Administration. Undeterred by their first meeting or Cheney's fearsome reputation, Rudd confidently explained the strategic and operational rationale behind Labor's policy to withdraw Australian combat troops from Iraq by the middle of 2008.
The next day Cheney was asked whether Labor's policy would damage the Australia-US alliance. When he answered in the negative the jig was up on the Coalition's spurious claim that Labor's policy of withdrawal would irreparably damage the alliance. Cheney added for good measure, "We do from time to time, as all governments do in democracies, have differences of opinion ... but I think the alliance is rock solid." Confirmation from the primary architect of the Iraq war that the resilience of the alliance would overcome any policy differences with a future Labor government.
Rudd has consistently said that the alliance does not mean automatic compliance with every decision made in Washington, that it is mature and durable enough to withstand disagreements. The alliance has stood the test of time, remaining vital to Australia's national security through the administrations of 12 US presidents and 14 Australian prime ministers.
Without a doubt, the efforts of Australian personnel deployed to Iraq over the past five years have enhanced the alliance. Australians have performed with the professionalism and bravery so often expected of them. Fulfilling their duty with unwavering commitment, even if some held misgivings over the strategic wisdom of the war. Australian SAS fought some of the first battles of the war against Saddam Hussein's military. In April 2003 they captured the Al-Asad air base, allowing coalition aircraft to land. The entire coalition naval contingent in the northern Gulf was led by an Australian captain, and an Australian ship provided critical support to British forces ashore. RAAF F/A-18 Hornets flew sorties against Iraqi military targets and provided cover for US ground forces pushing into Tikrit.
It was not surprising then that US personnel often believed there were thousands of diggers in Baghdad, testament to the efforts of the 110-strong Australian Security Detachment deployed to protect Australian officials. They rolled in and out of US bases, the airport and the crowded streets of Baghdad so regularly that I was once asked by a US sergeant how long the Australian division (a 10,000-strong force) was staying in Baghdad.
In Iraq, the performance of Australians working with their US counterparts forged the bonds that have provided the real foundation for the alliance over the past 67 years. Major General Jim Molan was the Deputy Chief of Operations during some of the heaviest pre-election fighting in Iraq. Colonel Mike Kelly (now federal member for Eden Monaro) was instrumental in the rebuilding of Iraq's legal and justice systems and Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Hayward led training teams in the new Iraqi army.
In making the case for responsible withdrawal the Prime Minister has demonstrated independence and candour. The Rudd Government's Iraq policy is grounded in the recognition that stability in Iraq requires a political solution among all the ethnic and sectarian groups on such critical issues as the distribution of oil revenue, powers of regional governments and demobilisation of militias. The strategic reality is that an indefinite presence of foreign troops as part of a one-dimensional military campaign will never end the violence. This can be achieved only by Iraqis through negotiation and agreement.
Yet there remains a solid commitment from Australia to assist the Iraqi people. That is why the Government is providing $140 million in aid and reconstruction funds, retaining the naval contingent to help protect the 95 per cent of Iraqi budgetary revenue that flows from Iraqi oil, and the security detachment to protect our diplomatic staff.
The withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq also makes operational sense. The Australian Defence Force is overly stretched with deployments in Afghanistan, the Solomon Islands and East Timor to name a few. By contrast, the 550 Australian combat troops providing security cover to the southern provinces of Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar have not been called out once to back up local Iraqi forces since successfully handing over security responsibility to the Iraqi authorities in late 2006.
The Government's decision to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by mid-2008 and to focus military and aid resources in areas that will assist Iraqis in reaching political solutions is the right one for strategic and operational reasons. The Australia-US alliance will, to quote the outgoing US Vice-President, remain "rock solid" well after the last digger leaves Iraq.
Peter Khalil spent nine months in Iraq in 2003/2004 working as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. He has also served as Kevin Rudd's national security/foreign policy adviser and as a senior adviser to the Minister for Defence.