Japan’s Decision to Send Troops to Iraq

By Jim Garamone

Japanese troops stand in formation in their new tent on their arrival at Camp Virginia, about 30 miles south of the Iraqi border in northern Kuwait January 17, 2004. A team of Japanese soldiers heading to Iraq in the Asian power’s most controversial deployment since World War Two flew into Kuwait early on Saturday.

Photo by Caren Firouz / Reuters

TOKYO – Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi announced the decision to put troops in Iraq in December. This is the first time Japanese forces will serve as part of a coalition not sponsored by the United Nations. The soldiers will be engaged in helping to rebuild Iraq, and will be based in the southern part of the country. They will work with Dutch soldiers, and will come under the command of a British general.

Japan’s decision to send forces to Iraq is a "historic move," said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers.

Myers, here to meet with Japanese military leaders, said the Japanese decision to send about 1,000 members of the Ground Self-Defense Force to Iraq is welcomed by the international community.

Western diplomatic officials said the move was a courageous one, and that the prime minister "was ahead" of the Japanese people. Officials also said that there is uncertainty as to what will happen in Japan if the Japanese forces take casualties in Iraq.

Myers told reporters that operations in Iraq are not without risk. He said the northern and southern parts of Iraq are a bit more stable that the central and western areas. But, he said, former regime loyalists and in some cases foreign jihadists target international agencies and non-U.S. members of the coalition. "You can never say that you’re free from risk," Myers said.

But the Japanese have to ask themselves why it is important to help rebuild Iraq, Myers said. "The reason is that it will be one less place where terrorists can plan and operate," he said. "The only way we’ll be successful is with strong international effort in there, and Japan has decided to be part of that strong international effort. It has the potential to change the dynamics, not only in that region, but in the world."

The general said the capture of Saddam Hussein last month allowed coalition forces to round up hundreds of regime cell leaders. "The capture of Saddam Hussein has emboldened some people to come forward without the fear of retribution," he said. "We’ve seen an increase in the number of people who have come forward to offer intelligence on where weapons caches are, where improvised explosive devices are being built (and) those sorts of things."

He said that overall the security situation in Iraq is improving, "but it’s too early to say (whether) that’s a trend line or just a snapshot."

Myers said the United States values the other contributions Japan is making in the global war of terror. He praised the Japanese for helping to rebuild Afghanistan, and said the Afghans agreeing on a constitution is an example of the progress being made.

The chairman said that overall, the coalition is winning the war on terrorism. He said strong international support remains the key, because the effects of a terrorist strike are not localized. "Whether the terrorism attack occurs in Riyadh, or Islamabad, or New York City, or God forbid, Tokyo, the outcome is the same: it affects all countries on this planet, not just the country where the act occurred," he said. "We’re going to have to deal with this scourge as we have with other scourges of the past."

The United States is working with Japan, China, Russia and South Korea to convince North Korea to forgo nuclear weapons. These six-party talks have been very useful, he said. "Clearly, you would like to solve this issue of a nuclear North Korea, the chance of proliferation of fissile materials (and) all those issues that should worry all of us a lot. Our best chance for solving this is through diplomacy," he said.

The chairman addressed questions about the global posture review and how changes in the footprint of the U.S. military would affect Japan. "It has been a long time since we’ve taken a hard look at how we are arranged, given this new security environment," Myers said. "For instance, some of the camps and posts and stations where we are located now in the Republic of Korea are where we were in 1953, when the armistice was signed."

Given the changes in Korea, he said, these areas may no longer be the best places to be based.

Myers said two fundamentals are factors in examining the global posture in the Pacific region. First, the United States is a Pacific nation and will remain committed to the region. "The other fundamental is the security relationship we have with Japan," Myers said. "This is clearly the most important relationship we have in Asia, and that fundamental won’t change."

He said the U.S. military is at the beginning stages of discussions about changing the footprint of U.S. forces. These discussions are mostly within the Pentagon, but some have been with Japanese counterparts. "We’re a long way from making decisions," he said. "Whatever we do will be done in consultation with the Japanese government."

Myers said the U.S.-Japan security relationship is absolutely vital to both countries, not only in Asia, but internationally as well. "We will continue to strengthen that alliance the best we can," he said.