The Japanese government has formally decided to withdraw Ground Self-Defense Force troops from Iraq. The decision reflects Tokyo’s judgment that recent developments in the country — the beginning of a formal government, appointment of three security ministers and the transfer of security powers to Iraq from British and Australian forces — meet the conditions for withdrawal.

Japan has dispatched a total of 5,500 GSDF troops to Iraq through 10 rotations since 2004. In a press conference last week, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi praised the mission, saying, “GSDF activities have played a major role in rebuilding basic facilities for local residents and received a highly favorable reception from the Iraqi government and people.”

The director general of the Defense Agency, Fukushiro Nukaga, has already issued a withdrawal order. Troops are expected to complete the pullout from their camp in Samawah in four to six weeks, bringing an end to a humanitarian mission that began 2 1/2 years ago.

Meanwhile, the Air Self-Defense Force transport unit based in Kuwait with three C-130s is expected to expand its activities to cover Baghdad and northern areas.

The dispatch of Self-Defense Force troops to the Middle East has marked a turning point in Japan’s security policy. It all started with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. A month and a half later, the Koizumi administration pushed through the Diet special legislation mandating antiterrorism measures.

Since then, Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels have maintained refueling operations in the Indian Ocean for multinational forces (including American and British troops) carrying out the antiterror campaign in Afghanistan. And ASDF units have provided transport support between U.S. bases in Japan.

Following the start of the war in Iraq (March 2003) and the fall of its president, Saddam Hussein, Japan established a special law, due to expire in four years, authorizing humanitarian reconstruction and support in Iraq.

All of this was made possible by Koizumi’s swift decision-making. Koizumi has promoted the “Japan-U.S. alliance in the world” on the basis of his personal relationship of trust with U.S. President George W. Bush.

Perhaps the prime minister was mindful of the “humiliation” Japan suffered 15 years earlier. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu stopped short of sending Japanese troops. Instead, Japan contributed $13 billion through a tax increase, but it was internationally criticized for failing to make any “physical contribution.”

Two months after that war, six MSDF minesweepers left for the Persian Gulf in the first-ever dispatch of SDF troops abroad. Japan’s minesweeping capability was highly rated by the U.S. military.

In 1992 Japan enacted the International Peace Cooperation Law, which let the SDF participate in U.N. peacekeeping operations and humanitarian international relief missions. Under this legislation, Japanese troops have been dispatched to various countries, including Cambodia, Mozambique, Rwanda and East Timor.

Since 1996, the GSDF has continued to transport units and command personnel to the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force in the “area of separation” (Golan Heights) between Israel and Syria.

Public opinion in Japan is divided over SDF deployment abroad. Opposition parties remain dead set against it. Still, a public mood of support has sunk in gradually, thanks to the achievements of such missions over the past 15 years.

This partially explains why the government has introduced legislation that would elevate the Defense Agency to ministerial status and, at the same time, upgrade the SDF’s overseas activities from “auxiliary duties” to “primary duties” — on a par with national defense. The New Komeito party, the ruling coalition partner, has changed its cautious stance in favor of the bill.

SDF activities in the Middle East have been significant in that Japan has fulfilled a degree of international responsibility — confined to “humanitarian reconstruction and support” — in order to promote regional security. No doubt this has helped to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and to bolster Japan’s diplomatic prowess.

The question now is how Japan should deal with the “post-Iraq” deployment of SDF troops. The Liberal Democratic Party is considering general legislation aimed at deploying troops abroad even without the imprimatur of U.N. resolutions or special legislation. Such a proposal is likely to be a political hot potato after Koizumi steps down later this year, because it can be interpreted as conflicting with the Constitution, which prohibits the use of force abroad.

Stability in the Middle East is directly linked to Japan’s national interest. With the nation dependent on the region for nearly 90 percent of its oil imports, it is essential that the government of the new Iraq become more stable. The Japanese government has supported Iraq with both SDF deployment and official development assistance (ODA).

At the international aid conference for Iraq held in Madrid in 2003, Japan pledged a maximum of $5 billion, including $1.5 billion in grants, according to the Foreign Ministry. The remaining $3.5 billion is in easy-term yen loans that the ministry says will be used over a longer period to improve infrastructure such as transport systems.

Restoring law and order in Iraq is a prerequisite for Japan to provide ODA smoothly. Japan, for its part, must continue to send a clear message that it is committed to supporting of Iraq so that the new Iraqi government can govern the country on a stable basis.

To that end, Japan needs to strengthen cooperative relations with countries in the Middle East. That is the key challenge for this nation following the SDF pullout.

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