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

‘‘ in­di­rect’’

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.

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