No surprise NZ troops staying longer in Iraq

3:16 pm on 24 June 2016

Power Play - There has always been a fair degree of scepticism that New Zealand's military training mission to Iraq would only be for two years, which was why Prime Minister John Key has repeatedly been asked about an extension.

The original deployment to Iraq was aimed at helping a broader coalition, headed by the United States, to defeat Islamic State and reduce the threat politicians say it poses to New Zealand.

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Camp Taji in Iraq. Photo: Pool picture

But Islamic State was never going to be defeated in two years, and once a country enters into a mission like the one at Camp Taji, that country becomes more noticeable by its absence if it withdraws.

If New Zealand ended its participation in the joint mission with Australia next year as planned, our trans-Tasman neighbours would have needed to fill the void, one of the reasons given for New Zealand staying on.

Mr Key returned from Iraq last year declaring New Zealand's contribution was clearly making a difference.

To back that up the government cites the thousands of Iraqi soldiers who have successfully completed training. Official briefing documents state "key training objectives are being met", "New Zealand's reputation has been enhanced" and the force protection measures in place are "effective".

Of course much of this is hard to judge, but there are other dynamics at play, not the least of which is New Zealand's relationship with the US.

Prime Minister John Key talks to media outside of Rainbows End. 16 June 2016.

John Key has extended New Zealand's Iraq misison. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Official documents prepared for the Defence Minister ahead of a meeting with the Iraqi Ambassador at the end of last year noted the decision by the US last December to send a 200-strong special forces taskforce into Northern Iraq to "increase pressure on Da'esh leaders" and to take a "more muscular approach" to intelligence gathering.

The papers also stated New Zealand was already making a "considerable contribution" for its size, and furthermore Mr Key did not expect a "dramatic change" in that contribution and that it would be "highly unlikely that the Special Operations Forces would be deployed".

At the end of last year the American Secretary of Defense Ash Carter wrote a generic letter to coalition countries requesting they step up their efforts; at the time Mr Brownlee said the U.S. wanted "elite troops, air strikes, provision of ammunition and training".

Mr Key has been reluctant to enter into any activities in Iraq that could be construed as combat, therefore providing elite troops, the SAS, was not an option - New Zealand has no airstrike capability, so the obvious choice was to expand the training mission.

It appears the options the Cabinet would have had to consider were withdrawing from the mission altogether, having more of a combat focus that would have involved the SAS going "beyond the wire", i.e. actively engaging in combat or helping with intelligence gathering or the option the government has gone for - an extension to both the length and nature of the training mission.

The situation on the ground in Iraq is evolving as its security forces make some progress, for example retaking parts of Fallujah, and that means different training is needed.

By all accounts that is still a chaotic and dangerous situation, with skirmishes in different parts of the city and thousands of people trying to flee.

The new training the New Zealanders will provide will be to help Iraqi Federal Police hold and stabilise those areas, quite different from the urban combat skills they have been teaching over the last year or so.

Small groups of New Zealand trainers will also travel to Besmaya, about 50km away from the heavily fortified Camp Taji, to help with the handover to trainers from different coalition countries, who are conducting heavy weapons training.

The government describes Besmaya as a "secure training location" but with any increase in movement around Iraq comes increased risk.

Conditions of New Zealand's continued presence in Iraq include Australia's ongoing participation, that the political and security situation in Iraq is stable enough, and that the invitation from Iraq for New Zealand to be there still stands.

"Stable" is of course a relative term in Iraq, with ongoing fighting against Islamic State, attacks on the outside of Camp Taji where most of the New Zealand defence personnel are stationed, and political challenges to the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

But the view from the government is that even if Prime Minister al-Abadi was to be replaced, that would not necessarily mean the end of the New Zealand deployment, as its focus is very much on the invitation under which New Zealand troops are in Iraq, not the individual politicians who may be in charge.

And while the extended deployment is clearly a change in the government's position, Mr Key has been typically careful with his language, and has never completely ruled out an extension - it was "not his plan", "not our intention" to extend the mission - always leaving the option open.

New Zealand has undoubtedly come under pressure from the US to stay on in Iraq. It is not just about the extra resources, it's about having more countries in Iraq as part of the coalition, giving greater legitimacy of the US-led "Operation Inherent Resolve."

Mr Key and his government have shown themselves to be keen to maintain extremely close relations with the US and a withdrawal from Iraq would not have helped.

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