Japan Likely To Scale Back Afghan Support

Japan could scale back its support of the U.S. in Afghanistan by ending naval assistance to vessels involved in ground missions there under a ruling party proposal that officials predicted Sunday would gain parliamentary approval.

Since 2001, Japan's navy has been providing fuel for coalition warships under an anti-terrorism law that has been extended three times. Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda has strongly pushed for another extension to the mission, which expires on Nov. 1.

However, Fukuda has been forced to make concessions because of strong resistance from the opposition bloc, which took control of parliament's upper chamber following a massive electoral defeat for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in July.

A new draft law, submitted to the opposition Friday, would clearly limit the mission to naval refueling and supplying of water to vessels participating in the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom's maritime patrol missions in the Indian Ocean.

"Under the new law, there will be no refueling to ships providing support for ground operations (in Afghanistan)," Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said Sunday on a public broadcaster NHK talk show.

"The Indian Ocean is an important passageway for much of the world's oil, and tankers passing through could fall victim to terrorism," Komura said. "Providing security there is valued highly by the international community, and we will continue to provide logistical support."

According to LDP's Web site, the new draft law would also rule out search and rescue missions, as well as humanitarian relief efforts.

It was not immediately clear how seriously U.S. ground operations in Afghanistan would be affected under the draft law, the details of which have not been made public.

As of Aug. 31, 2006, Japanese vessels had supplied about 450,000 kiloliters (120 million gallons) in fuel worth US$168 million (euro118.85 million) to coalition vessels, according to the Foreign Ministry.

The current law allows more leeway in what kind of support Japan's military can provide — a sensitive issue because of the country's pacifist constitution.

The LDP had hoped to secure a quick compromise with the opposition over the draft law before the mission expires. But the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan has demanded a full debate in parliament, raising speculation the government will not meet the Nov. 1 deadline.

The Democrats are critical of the mission because they say the U.S.-led Afghan campaign has not been properly sanctioned by the United Nations. They also say the mission violates the constitution, which bans the use force to defend its allies.

Opposition lawmakers have also alleged that oil supplied by Japanese ships was diverted to U.S. operations in Iraq, triggering public outrage.

"The government must more clearly disclose its activities over the last six years," DPJ secretary-general Naoto Kan told a Fuji TV talk show on Sunday.

Kan did not comment specifically on the draft law, but said, "How I see it, these activities are not based on a U.N. resolution ... and violate the constitution."

He suggested, however, that Japan could have a role to play in the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, a NATO-led mission set up by the United Nations Security Council in 2001 and charged with securing Kabul and its surrounding areas.

"Japan can cooperate in activities centered on the United Nations," Kan said. "While participating in the ISAF has its risks, the mission is centered on the U.N. and Japan could participate within its own capacity," he said.

On Saturday, the country's largest business daily, the Nikkei, said Japan was preparing to withdraw its ships entirely from the region because the government did not expect to meet the deadline — a report quickly denied by the Defense Ministry.

Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba reiterated Sunday the government remained confident it can win the backing of the opposition, which controls parliament's upper chamber.

"We believe the new law will be approved in the upper house," Ishiba told a separate talk show aired by TV Asahi.

"Afghanistan remains a terrorist hotbed, and peace in that region is in Japan's national interest," Ishiba said. "Why shouldn't Japan provide fuel to ships that patrol the sea, to prevent the proliferation of terrorism and drugs?"

Ishiba also blasted the Democrats' suggestion that Tokyo participate in the ISAF, saying dispatching Japanese troops to combat zones was itself a clear violation of the constitution.

The parliamentary deadlock comes after the LDP lost control of the upper house in elections in July. The party still controls the lower house, however, which can override an upper house decision.

But Fukuda, who took over last month from his hardline predecessor Shinzo Abe, has promised to reach a consensus with the opposition over the Afghan mission, rather than resort to hardline tactics in parliament.

Japan, America's top ally in Asia, also backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and provided ground troops for a non-combat, humanitarian mission in southern Iraq from 2004-2006. Since removing ground troops last July, Japan has expanded its Kuwait-based air operations.

Japan also hosts about 50,000 U.S. troops and is working with the U.S. on a joint missile defense system.