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Australia's Howard a surprise 9-11 witness

Sep 5, 2011, 6:42 a.m.
File photo of U.S. President George W. Bush (L) and Australian Prime Minister John Howard as they listen to proceedings during a ceremony at the Washington Navy Yard, September 10, 2001.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By James Grubel

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's former Prime Minister John Howard, a surprise witness to the September11, 2001, attacks on the United States, believes former President George W. Bush deserves more praise for his response and for stopping further attacks.

Howard was in Washington when hijacked airliners crashed into the towers of New York's World Trade Center, the Defense headquarters the Pentagon, and into a field in Pennsylvania. Among the thousands killed were 22 Australians.

In an interview to mark a decade since the attacks, Howard said he has no regrets about joining the war in Afghanistan, cautions against an premature withdrawal of troops, and said history will vindicate Bush's response to the new threats.

"History will vindicate his great success in keeping America free from a further terrorist attack," Howard told Reuters from his office overlooking Sydney Harbour.

"The decisions I believed were right. I still believe they were right, and I believe history will vindicate them."

The events of September 11 came at the half-way mark of Howard's term as prime minister, and had a profound impact on his next six years in office, propelling national security to the equal top political issue alongside economic management.

The attacks helped cement a close personal and political alliance between Howard and Bush, who named Howard a "man of steel" for his steadfast support of the United States, and fundamentally re-shaped the Australia-U.S. military alliance, which had been the bedrock of Australia's security for 50 years.

AFGHANISTAN IS BEING WON

The attacks also led Australia into the war in Afghanistan, and later Iraq. The war in Afghanistan is now stretching into its 10th year, with 29 Australian soldiers killed.

Howard said he had no regrets about committing troops to the war in Afghanistan. But he cautioned against any premature withdrawal of allied forces because of falling public support for the war.

In Australia, latest polls show 64 percent believe Australian forces should be withdrawn, compared with 47 percent 12 months ago.

"It was certainly worth fighting and I do believe it can be won. Slow though the progress seems to be, it is being won," he said.

"It would be a big error for the allies to pull out prematurely," he said.

"Pakistan is more unstable than it was 10 years ago. If we left behind an ambiguous situation in Afghanistan, the impact of that on the terrorist cause in Pakistan, which is a nuclear-armed country, could be quite dramatic."

POLITICAL ALLIANCES

The day before the attacks, on September 10, 2001, Howard met Bush for the first time. They spent four hours together, including talks over lunch at the White House, starting what became a strong political alliance and personal friendship.

"We didn't talk about terrorism. Nobody knew this terrible event was just around the corner," Howard said.

The trip had been timed to mark the 50th anniversary of the ANZUS military alliance, which commits Australia, New Zealand and the United States to come to the support of each other if their countries are attacked.

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