Tough decisions are rarely black and white.
The decision to send troops to a war zone, even if it is to train locals rather than engage in combat, is one of the tougher ones a government has to make and the complexities of the Middle East make the issue even more complicated.
The Dominion Post editorialises:
. . . A political force which prides itself on beheadings and crucifixions of the innocent is intolerable to any democratic state.
The problem is that almost every form of Western intervention is fraught with trouble. The West has learnt from the invasion of Iraq, and the long bloody stalemate in Afghanistan, that making war in the Middle East often makes things worse rather than better.
So the choice is extraordinarily conflicted. Honest opponents of intervention should admit that the decision not to fight is deeply troubling because Isis is evil. Honest proponents of intervention should also admit that the war might have a just purpose but it is also probably unwinnable. . .
The government will have considered all of that in deciding to send troops to train Iraqis and Prime Minister John Key explained the decision in parliament today:
Mr Speaker, today I am announcing to the House the Government’s decisions about our contribution to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
Last November I gave a national security speech which outlined the threat posed to New Zealand by ISIL.
This brutal group and its distressing methods deserve the strongest condemnation.
ISIL’s ability to motivate Islamist radicals make it a threat not only to stability in the Middle East, but regionally and locally too.
It is well-funded and highly-skilled at using the internet to recruit.
Disturbingly, if anything, ISIL’s brutality has worsened since I gave that speech late last year.
In recent weeks we have witnessed a mass beheading and the horrific plight of a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage.
And we’ve seen stories of Western hostages who have been kidnapped and killed in barbaric ways.
ISIL’s outrageous actions have united an international coalition of 62 countries against the group.
New Zealand is already considered part of the coalition because we have made humanitarian contributions, with $14.5 million in aid provided to the region so far.
The Government has been carefully considering its options to expand our contribution to the international coalition.
As I outlined in November, our approach is one that addresses humanitarian, diplomatic, intelligence and capacity building issues.
Mr Speaker, New Zealand is a country that stands up for its values.
We stand up for what’s right.
We have an obligation to support stability and the rule of law internationally.
We do not shy away from taking our share of the burden when the international rules-based system is threatened.
We have carved out our own independent foreign policy over decades and we take pride in it.
We do what is in New Zealand’s best interests.
It is in that context that I am announcing that the Government has decided to take further steps to help the fight against ISIL.
The Iraqi government has requested support from the international community and has been clear with us that security is its top priority.
We have been clear that we cannot, and should not, fight Iraqis’ battles for them – and actually Iraq doesn’t want us to.
Our military can, however, play a part in building the capability and capacity of the Iraqi forces so they can fight ISIL themselves.
I have been open with New Zealanders that we have been considering an option to train Iraqi Security Forces alongside our longstanding partner Australia, in Iraq.
Such an operation would be behind the wire and limited to training Iraqi Security Forces in order to counter ISIL and legitimately protect innocent people.
Mr Speaker, the Government has decided to deploy a non-combat training mission to Iraq to contribute to the international fight against ISIL.
This is likely to be a joint training mission with Australia, although it will not be a badged ANZAC force.
Their task will be to train Iraqi Security Force units so they are able to commence combat operations, and eventually able to carry on the work of our trainers – creating an independent, self-sustaining military capability for the Government of Iraq to call on.
The mission will involve the deployment of personnel to the Taji Military Complex north of Baghdad, and this is likely to take place in May.
The deployment will be reviewed after nine months and will be for a maximum two-year period.
The total number of personnel deploying is up to 106 in Taji, and there will be others such as staff officers, deploying in coalition headquarters and support facilities in the region.
The total altogether will be up to 143.
As well as these people, further personnel and Air Force assets will occasionally need to be deployed to the region to support the mission – for example in support of personnel rotations and resupply.
Mr Speaker, a training mission like this is not without danger.
It is not a decision we have taken lightly.
I have required assurances that our men and women will be as safe as they can practicably be in Taji.
Our force protection needs have been assessed by NZDF and determined as being able to be met by the well-trained soldiers of our regular Army.
So we will be sending our own force protection to support the training activities.
I want to briefly address the issue of special forces.
As I said last November, I have ruled out sending SAS or any troops into combat roles in Iraq.
The Chief of Defence Force has advised me that special forces are not part of this deployment.
However, I want to be clear that special forces could be deployed for short periods to provide advice on issues like force protection or to help with high profile visits – as they have many times before.
Our deployment in Taji will include logistics and medical support, as well as headquarters staff.
It is our intention that Iraqi Security Forces be able to assume responsibility for delivering their own training programmes in future.
The New Zealand Government will retain ultimate decision-making authority over the nature and scope of the activities of the NZDF personnel within the mission, and those personnel will deploy with appropriate legal protections.
Exactly what form those legal protections take will be worked through in coming weeks with our Iraqi counterparts.
We will secure the best protections we realistically can for our personnel.
Mr Speaker, our military has a proven track record of carrying out this type of training work in Afghanistan.
This is a contribution that’s in line with our values and our skills.
But this is not all we will do to help.
We recognise ISIL is not a short-term threat and there is a lot of work to be done in the long-term.
Defeating ISIL will mean winning the hearts and minds of those vulnerable to its destructive message.
That will take time.
As I said last year, we have already contributed to the humanitarian cause and we are currently examining options to provide more help.
We are also stepping up our diplomatic efforts to counter ISIL and support stability in Iraq.
As part of this, we are looking at options to base a diplomatic representative in Baghdad to serve as a conduit between the Iraqi government and our military deployment, as well as assess how we can support better governance in Iraq.
We will also expand our diplomatic engagement on international counter-terrorism by appointing a new Ambassador for Counter Terrorism.
Underpinning all this, we will work as a member of the UN Security Council to advocate for effective action on ISIL.
Mr Speaker, last November I told New Zealanders ISIL had been successful in recruiting New Zealanders to its cause.
Our Government agencies have a watch list of between 35 and 40 people of concern in the foreign fighter context and that remains the case.
Unfortunately an additional group requiring further investigation is growing in number.
We have strengthened the ability of our intelligence agencies to deal with this and they are taking steps to add to their resources.
We cannot be complacent, as events in Sydney, Paris and Ottawa have underscored.
To those who argue that we should not take action because it raises that threat, I say this: the risk associated with ISIL becoming stronger and more widespread far outweighs that.
I know there is already risk.
New Zealanders do too, because they know we are a nation of prolific travellers who have been caught up in terrorist activity around the world many times before.
Mr Speaker, the Government has carefully considered our contribution to the international campaign against ISIL.
We are prepared to step up to help.
New Zealand does not take its commitment to Iraq lightly.
In return we expect that the Iraqi government will make good on its commitment to an inclusive government that treats all Iraqi citizens with respect.
Sending our forces to Iraq is not an easy decision but it is the right decision.
They will go with our best wishes.
To the Dom Post again:
. . . All the signs suggest that Key is doing what Keith Holyoake did in Vietnam – sending the smallest possible force into the war, mainly to keep the allies happy and to show the flag. And probably the most that can be hoped for from this war is to contain Isis and stop it from building a lasting fundamentalist caliphate.
If it can’t build the caliphate, it loses its theological reason for being. And it then might lose some of its support, and splinter under its own murderous fanaticism. None of that is certain to happen, but it is a defensible aim for limited Western military intervention. It is the best option available.
There is no best in situations like this, but sending a limited number of troops to train the locals for a limited time is less worse than the alternatives.