6 Feb 2015

Costs of fighting to stay in club

5:13 am on 6 February 2015

Last month, Prime Minister John Key told the BBC that New Zealand's likely involvement in training Iraqi troops was the price of belonging to the 'club'.

John Key in Wellington in November 2014.

Prime Minister John Key has said New Zealand can't turn a blind eye to the IS threat. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

This week, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond urged the Government to commit troops, describing New Zealand as part of the family.

Putting New Zealand troops in harm's way is apparently the price of belonging to the family.

But New Zealand is very much the little cousin as it battles for recognition from its much bigger cousins: Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

So it appears almost inevitable that troops will be sent to Iraq to help train the army there in its fight against Islamic State (IS).

Mr Hammond says New Zealand is not immune from the terrorist threat posed by IS. Even if it does not face the threat of attacks at home New Zealanders travelling overseas could be at risk.

He says the fight against Islamic State is everyone's fight.

The message for New Zealand is clear. It cannot opt out from helping its friends if it wants to remain part of the family or - as Mr Key puts it - the club.

Maaz al-Kassasbeh was captured in December.

Muath al-Kasasbeh Photo: AFP / HO / FAMILY

The argument in favour of the Government committing troops was given added impetus by the brutal killing of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh.

IS circulated a video showing the pilot being set on fire in a metal cage.

Mr Key says that has confirmed his view that something needs to be done to stop the organisation's violence.

The Prime Minister used his speech at the marae at Waitangi to say that escalating violence by IS meant that this country could not turn the other way and it had to stand up for human rights.

He says the comments were impromptu.

He says a number of other speakers had said that New Zealand should not fight other people's wars and he agreed with that.

But Mr Key says the country cannot ignore people being burnt alive or beheaded.

That presents him with a problem though.

ISIS is not alone in beheading people.

What about Saudi Arabia, which is one of the United States key allies in the Middle East, which routinely beheads people?

The difficult of dealing with the complexity of the problems in the Middle East is that the lines between good and evil are blurred.

And the record of Western intervention in the region is not a good one. It has arguably made problems in the region worse, not better.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond

Foreign Minister Murray McCully and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Will this latest military campaign, led by the United States, be any more effective?

Mr Hammond argues this time is different. He says the al-Abadi Government in Iraq is trying to be more inclusive and is working on building the capacity of its armed forces.

Unlike earlier interventions, Mr Hammond says Iraq is prepared to do the fighting on the ground. It simply wants help training its troops and ensuring they are as well-armed as possible to fight IS militants.

Mr Key says New Zealand troops will not be involved in any combat role. And he says they will only go to train Iraqi troops if the Government can be assured they will be effective, they will be safe, and that they can fly in and out of their base of operation.

Whatever assurances are given, however, New Zealand troops will be going into a war zone. The risk to them can never be completely discounted.

Given the complexity of the situation it is not good enough for decisions about military involvement, even if it is restricting to training the Iraqi army, to be based on this country's membership of a so-called club or family.

As government minister and United Future leader Peter Dunne tweeted earlier in the week: "Weren't ANZAC troops at Gallipoli, Passchendaele and the Somme part of the family too?"

What the New Zealand public will want to be assured about is that any decision to send troops to Iraq is based on a dispassionate analysis of of what they can achieve with minimum risk, not on how it might lift this country's reputation among its friends and allies.

Even then, questions should surely be asked about whether New Zealand could make a better contribution by spending more on aid and by increasing its diplomatic efforts to bring stability to the region.

In the end, whether this country sends a token force of up to 100 soldiers to Iraq will make not the slightest difference to the battle against IS.

Its importance will be largely symbolic by adding another flag to the coalition of countries sending troops to Iraq.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs