Thursday, November 01, 2007

From the folks who brought you Pearl Harbor...

Japan calls ships home, ending role in Afghan war
By Norimitsu Onishi
Published: November 1, 2007

TOKYO: The Japanese Defense Ministry ordered its naval ships home from the Indian Ocean on Thursday, ending for now a six-year mission in the war in Afghanistan that raised the nation's military presence overseas but had drawn increasing domestic criticism.

A destroyer and supply ship that had been refueling U.S. and other warships were recalled at 3 p.m., as a special law authorizing the mission was set to expire at midnight. The government of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda was unable to renew the law because of opposition from the Democratic Party, which seized control of Parliament's upper house in a landslide victory over the summer.

The United States had urged Japan to extend the refueling mission, which, while largely symbolic, provided important diplomatic support for Washington. The mission, based on a "special antiterrorism law," constituted the pacifist country's main contribution to the Bush administration's war on terror.

"To eradicate terrorism in solidarity with the international community, our country must fulfill its responsibility by continuing the refueling mission by all means," Fukuda said in a prepared statement.

Fukuda's government has introduced a new refueling bill in Parliament and could use its control of the lower house to override any objections from the opposition. But even if the government adopted this strategy - a potentially unpopular one, given a public divided over the naval deployment - the refueling mission would not resume for several months.

The law's expiration underscored the current political deadlock in Japan. The governing Liberal Democratic Party suffered a devastating loss over the summer because of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's mishandling of bread-and-butter issues. Abe's subsequent abrupt resignation created a political vacuum that made it impossible to renew the special law before the Nov. 1 deadline.

Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, has vowed to use his grip on the upper house to force Fukuda to dissolve the lower house and call a general election. Fukuda does not have to call a general election for two more years, but the opposition can effectively shut down government by blocking this Afghanistan bill and others.

Analysts predict that Fukuda may call a general election in the spring after passing the next budget, which needs only the endorsement of the more powerful lower house.

While the refueling mission has become tied up in electoral politics, the opposition's objections also reflect a deeper disagreement over Japan's foreign policy. This time, the debate has not been over whether Japan should participate in overseas missions, but how.

Ozawa, who has long advocated dispatching Japanese troops overseas in United Nations-led missions, has argued that Japan should not back the United States unilaterally. Ozawa has argued that the Afghanistan mission violated Japan's pacifist Constitution, but that Japan should send ground peacekeeping troops to Sudan or even Afghanistan as long as they are deployed under the UN umbrella.

Support for the Afghanistan mission also suffered from public opposition to the war in Iraq and its unease over the Japanese government's unwavering backing of the Bush administration.

That unease was heightened over the government's inability to refute clearly the opposition's claims that fuel intended for the war in Afghanistan had actually been diverted to Iraq. Until the opposition's recent victory, the governing party had deflected questions about the mission so that it had received relatively little attention in the media.

"This mission of the last six years is coming to an end just as we were starting discussions on its nature and significance," said Naoto Kan, the acting president of the Democratic Party.

Through August, Japan had provided more than $190 million in fuel to warships from 11 countries, with nearly 80 percent of the total going to American ships, according to the Defense Ministry.

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