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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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In Australia, latest polls show 64 percent believe Australian forces should be withdrawn, compared with 47 percent 12 months ago.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."
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.
Howard believed the ANZUS alliance needed attention because it had lost some of its significance with the end of the Cold War, and with one of the partners, New Zealand, an inactive partner since 1985.
On September 11, Howard was in his Washington hotel, only a few blocks from the White House, when the first attack happened. When he spoke to reporters a short time later, sirens could be heard outside.
"While we were doing the news conference, the third plane, Flight 77, drove into the Pentagon. We pulled back the curtains and we saw the smoke rising," he said.
"We knew then, beyond any argument, that this was a concerted terrorist attack on the United States."
The remainder of Howard's U.S. program was immediately canceled. The following day, Howard and his party were the only visitors in the U.S. House of Representatives as it held an emergency debate on the tragedy. He received a standing ovation from lawmakers for his gesture of support.
Howard then attended a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, and spoke by telephone to then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan about the market implications of the attacks.
AUSTRALIA COMMITS TO MILITARY RESPONSE
By this time, Howard was already forming the view that Australia would be involved in any military response against those responsible.
"I just knew instinctively that if an international effort were needed, Australia should and would be part of it and would be a very early and willing part of it," he said.
Late on September 12, the U.S. military flew Howard and his official entourage to Hawaii on Air Force Two. At the time, all commercial flights into and out of U.S. airspace were canceled.
From Hawaii, Howard flew back to Australia on a Qantas jet, which had been given special permission to fly out of the United States, making it the first commercial flight back in the air in the United States after the attacks.
As he flew across the Pacific Ocean, Howard resolved to invoke the ANZUS alliance for the first time, committing Australia to support the U.S.
Howard said potential concerns from other nations, such as China, were secondary considerations.
"It was so fundamental, and so obviously an occasion where we had to be and should be a 100 percent ally of our close friend, it didn't really enter my mind for a moment, that identifying with the United States fully at that time would hurt relations with other countries," he said.
"And in any event, my thinking was that we had an obligation to give them full support."
Howard went on to win national elections in November 2001, and again in 2004, before he lost his seat in an election loss in 2007, ending his 11 and a half years in power.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)