Japan to end mission in Afghanistan
TOKYO – Japanese warships were ordered home from the Indian Ocean on Thursday after opposition lawmakers refused to support an extension of their mission supporting U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.The move is not expected to have a major impact on American operations but the White House said it would like Japan to reconsider.The pullback was an embarrassment for Japan’s new Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, a strong advocate of the six-year mission who vowed to pass legislation that would give Japan at least a limited role in fighting terrorism in the region.America’s top ally in Asia, Japan has refueled coalition warships in the Indian Ocean since 2001. But opposition parties effectively scuttled the mission by raising concerns in parliament that it was too broad and possibly violated Japan’s constitution.Japan’s main opposition party made significant gains in July elections and is pushing to further scale back the country’s role in international peacekeeping efforts that involve military operations.Legislation had been passed repeatedly to renew the mission, but the latest extension expired Thursday amid a parliamentary stalemate. Japan refueled its final ship on Monday.”We would like for them to reconsider their decision to stop the refueling. They’ve played a very important role, and the president will be looking forward to talking to the new prime minister when he comes in the next few weeks,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.Fukuda is to visit the U.S. later this month, and is hoping to smooth over relations when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visits Tokyo next week.”In order to fulfill our responsibility for international efforts toward eradicating terrorism, we do need to continue our refueling mission,” Fukuda said. “The government will do all it can to pass the special bill for the refueling mission so we can restart our mission as soon as possible.”The two ships in the mission – a destroyer and a refueler, with 340 troops aboard – were expected to take about three weeks to return, navy spokesman Kozo Okuda said.”We were able to complete this mission because of your pride and training,” Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba said in a message broadcast to the troops. “We all await your return.”U.S. Ambassador Thomas Schieffer and envoys from coalition countries met with Japanese lawmakers on Wednesday and stressed the importance of Tokyo’s refueling role. However, U.S. Defense Department Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters earlier in the week that the halt would not have “any operational impact whatsoever.”Japan provided about 126 million gallons of fuel worth $520 million to coalition warships in the Indian Ocean, including those from the U.S., Britain and Pakistan, according to the Defense Ministry.Analysts said the political disarray in Tokyo could have repercussions with the U.S. alliance.”I think ending the mission would give the impression to the U.S. that Japan is not fulfilling its responsibility,” said Yoshinobu Yamamoto, a political scientist at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.The prime minister took office just over a month ago after his party suffered the setback in parliamentary elections and his predecessor, Shinzo Abe, suddenly resigned.”While we are disappointed that these refueling activities have temporarily been halted, we certainly hope that the new legislation will move through the Japanese system quickly,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey.Opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa and his Democratic Party of Japan opposed the mission because it does not have the specific mandate of the United Nations.Critics also say it violated the country’s U.S.-drafted constitution, which forbids Japan from engaging in warfare overseas.In an effort to placate the opposition, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is proposing narrowing the mission to refueling ships engaged in anti-terror patrols in the Indian Ocean.—AP reporters Kozo Mizoguchi in Tokyo and Desmond Butler in Washington contributed to this report.