Is the Iraqi gamble worth taking?
Inevitably, the Gallipoli commemorations all but overshadowed the release last week of a Cabinet paper that set out the pros and cons of New Zealand’s military involvement in Iraq.
At his press conference in Wellington, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott had made a typically ham-fisted attempt at decking the Iraq deployment in historical glory, by describing the troops being sent as ‘‘the splendid sons of Anzac’’ .
Thankfully, the Cabinet paper was more sober about the possible risks and limited gains involved.
The broad details of the Iraqi ‘‘ training mission’’ are already well known.
Of the 143 New Zealand troops being sent, 103 will be working alongside an Australian contingent at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad.
Only 16 of the Taji group will be doing any actual training, with the rest being assigned to provide security protection and administrative support to the trainers.
A handful of New Zealand troops will be based at coalition central command in Baghdad. A third group of undisclosed size will engage in unspecified tasks, from a secret location.
Candidly, the Cabinet paper conceded that the overall mission could well be unsuccessful, especially if the Iraqi people continue to regard the Iraqi government as being neither credible nor inclusive.
In the meantime, the Cabinet paper said, the risks to our troops could originate from:
1. Attacks by the Iraqis we will be training.
2. The enemy shelling of Camp Taji.
3. From ‘‘friendly’’ fire.
The Cabinet paper also cited ‘‘cultural miscalculation’’ as a risk factor, and recommended ‘‘ cultural awareness training’’ for our troops to reduce the possibility of behaviours likely to be resented by the locals.
In its most controversial passage, the Cabinet paper claimed that though our military deployment ‘‘could make New Zealand a target’’ by Islamic State, any
aka lesser response increase that risk.
That seems debatable. At the very worst, Islamic State and its local fellow travellers pose only a security risk to ordinary New Zealanders – not a military one – and our military presence in Iraq seems likely to increase that security risk, not reduce it.
As Labour’s former Defence Minister Phil Goff put it, our military presence will raise our profile as a terrorist target, while making very little difference to the military outcome.
As Goff also indicated, many other countries in the Asia-Pacific region (which the Cabinet paper regards as being in danger from the unchecked expansion of Islamic State) have chosen not to join the American-led coalition.
Among the countries that are participating, some are responding in different ways, such as by
only donating humanitarian aid.
To date, New Zealand has contributed $14.5 million in humanitarian aid to the Iraqi government. By contrast, the two-year military deployment in Iraq is budgeted at $65m.
The recent outpouring of goodwill towards our defence forces (and military traditions) is likely to carry over into the public perception of the Iraq deployment.
However, Gallipoli was – according to the historians – a military folly entered into by a young colony all too eager to impress its king.
Times have changed. These days, scepticism tends to be our first ( and healthier) response when patriotism puts on a military uniform.
This time around, New Zealand will find out soon enough whether our military involvement in Iraq has been a gamble worth taking.