Editorials

Make wise use of SDF's Iraq logs

The daily activity logs of Ground Self-Defense Force personnel deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2006 — disclosed last Monday after it was falsely claimed they were lost— indicate that the troops carried out their humanitarian mission in extremely tense conditions, with repeated references to “fighting” taking place even in what the government called a “noncombat zone.” The question that must be asked is whether these vital records have been — or will be — used as a teaching tool for subsequent SDF missions or in formulating policy for such activities.

The deployment to Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion was the SDF’s first overseas mission in a country where conflict was taking place. Under one-off special legislation enacted for the mission in 2003, a total of some 5,500 GSDF personnel were dispatched to the southern Iraq city of Samawah to engage in reconstruction aid such as building schools and other infrastructure, supplying water, providing medical guidance and so on. Although fighting was still taking place in various parts of the country after the end of the initial large-scale military operation, no SDF troops were killed or injured during the mission.

The government at that time said the GSDF members were being sent to “noncombat” areas of the war-torn country, as stipulated by the legislation that was crafted under the constitutional ban on the use of force overseas. It has become known, however, that the GSDF camp in Samawah faced repeated mortar and rocket attacks. The nearly 15,000 pages of Iraq mission logs, which covered 435 days, also mention fighting taking place between various forces in the areas where the Japanese personnel were operating as they kept records of the local security situation.

Instead of using the GSDF logs to reopen the discussion on whether the troops had indeed been sent to “noncombat” areas more than a decade ago, the question we should be asking now is whether the records have been properly reviewed to provide lessons for future missions — which should be the primary purpose of keeping such logs in the first place.

Last year, then-Defense Minister Tomomi Inada told the Diet that the Iraq mission activity logs could not be found. The matter had come up in relation to the fiasco over the daily activity logs of SDF peacekeepers in South Sudan, which the Defense Ministry initially said had been destroyed but later turned up. In fact, the GSDF found the Iraq mission logs shortly after Inada’s statement to the Diet but failed to report it to Inada’s successor, Itsunori Onodera, for more than a year until their existence was announced early this month. The fact that the GSDF withheld the discovery of the logs for so long raises serious questions about civilian control of the military, but the utter confusion over the Iraq mission logs throws in doubt whether such records are properly stored, much less adequately reviewed.

The review of the Iraq mission records is all the more important since the scope of SDF overseas activity were significantly expanded in the security legislation enacted in 2015. Under the special legislation for the Iraq mission, the “noncombat” area where the SDF troops were sent for their humanitarian aid mission was defined as being “where combat activity is not currently taking place and will not take place throughout the duration” of the GSDF mission. Meanwhile, the security legislation allows ordering SDF troops on missions to provide logistical support to other forces in international conflicts anywhere except for where combat activity is actually taking place, thus possibly sending them much closer to the battlefield. The records of GSDF troops deployed to Iraq should be thoroughly examined in assessing whether the dispatch of the SDF on such a mission is indeed appropriate.

In assessing the records of the SDF’s activity, parts of its activity logs including sensitive defense information will need to be withheld from public review. The Iraq mission logs disclosed last week had some parts omitted, including for days when the GSDF camp was known to have been shelled by mortars and rockets. Information that pertains to details of the SDF’s activity and its capabilities will have to be withheld so that its operation will not be compromised.

The bottom line is that a mechanism should be established to properly assess the records of past SDF missions so that what was learned will be utilized in planning future activities and formulating policy.