Foreign Affairs

NZ’s ‘mission creep’ in Iraq creeps on

In 2016, Andrew Little promised he would withdraw Kiwi troops from Iraq if Labour won government - two years later, Jacinda Ardern has extended their stay in the country. Sam Sachdeva reports on the Government’s military deployment decisions and what they may mean.

In what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has dubbed a “pure MMP Government”, there has been a number of debates - both in public and private - about areas of policy disagreement.

One area where all three parties seemed to be on the same page was New Zealand’s role in Iraq: Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First all opposed the National government’s 2016 decision to extend the mandate by 18 months.

Yet Ardern has now overseen an extension of her own, with troops continuing to train soldiers at Camp Taji until at least June next year - albeit with a reduction from 143 personnel to 121.

The announcement was part of a cluster of deployment decisions made following temporary mandate extensions earlier this year, as the Government gave itself time to make a decision about New Zealand’s defence footprint as a whole.

Speaking to media on Monday afternoon, Ardern defended the decision to further extend a deployment that her predecessor as Labour leader Andrew Little described as “mission creep” in 2016.

While “significant gains” had been made against Islamic State (Isis) on the ground, Ardern said the terrorist organisation remained a threat and New Zealand had a role to play in ensuring it did not regain its strength.

The Government’s decision was not about mission creep but “fulfilling our obligations”, Ardern said.

“If we were to withdraw now, that would be seen as not completing the commitment that has been made by that existing deployment.”

“You need a compelling reason in Iraq to stay, and I’m not entirely sure that is there, so I think that now would have been a time to say, ‘Right, we’ve done what we said we were there to do’.”

It was a decision that surprised Victoria University professor of strategic studies Robert Ayson, who believed there was good reason for a withdrawal from Iraq, given Isis was “no longer the battleground force it once was”.

“You need a compelling reason in Iraq to stay, and I’m not entirely sure that is there, so I think that now would have been a time to say, ‘Right, we’ve done what we said we were there to do’.”

Ayson said one factor which likely weighed heavily on Ardern’s mind was the alliance with Australia and joint training role at Camp Taji, along with the need to indicate New Zealand was a contributor to international defence work.

That was something alluded to by Ardern, who said she personally shared news of New Zealand’s extension in Iraq with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison given the importance of the partnership.

New Zealand’s role in training officers in Afghanistan has also been extended, to September 2019, with Ardern flagging a possible end to our involvement in a country where the NZ Defence Force has played a role since 2001.

“After nearly 20 years, this Government thinks it’s time to assess the question of New Zealand’s longer-term presence there, including alternative military and civilian contributions.”

Peacekeeping boost needed?

Less surprising was the extension of three peacekeeping missions New Zealand is currently involved in: the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) led by former Labour leader David Shearer; the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO) in the Golan Heights and Lebanon; and the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) mission in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

The UNMISS deployment has been extended until July 2020, while Kiwi peacekeepers will remain involved in both UNTSO and MFO until September 2020.

Ardern said the Government had discussed whether it could increase its peacekeeping work, but cited problems in finding personnel with the language skills required for missions in French-speaking parts of Africa.

Ayson was sceptical about Ardern’s argument, saying the historic lack of Arabic language skills had not stopped the military from working in the Middle East.

Ayson said there was a “real gap” between New Zealand’s rhetoric about the importance of the UN and its willingness to send troops to UN-led peacekeeping missions - something he described as a test of Ardern’s commitment to New Zealand’s credentials as an international citizen.

He believed the main concern was one of risk to troops, with New Zealand’s traditional partners not heavily involved in UN peacekeeping.

“There are risk issues, so the question is, does the Government have the appetite for that risk, and I think the answer is no.”

In 2017, the departing foreign minister Murray McCully highlighted safety concerns as a key reason for his government avoiding significant commitments to UN peacekeeping.

However, Ayson said there was a “real gap” between New Zealand’s rhetoric about the importance of the UN and its willingness to send troops to UN-led peacekeeping missions - something he described as a test of Ardern’s commitment to New Zealand’s credentials as an international citizen.

Coalition differences

The deployment decisions have exposed some of the differences on defence between the coalition parties.

Ardern conceded the Greens remained opposed to the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the party’s defence spokeswoman Golriz Ghahraman said the money being spent would be better used on opening up “aid corridors” and providing humanitarian support.

“We do oppose it [the deployments], we oppose it strongly...we just don’t think it’s good enough for New Zealand to support and legitimise these failed military campaigns, essentially.”

Ghahraman said she had a close relationship with Defence Minister and New Zealand First MP Ron Mark, and supported the NZDF’s work in Antarctica and the Pacific, saying that was what New Zealand did best.

“It might be a reconstruction role, it might be a humanitarian role, but it is a dynamic environment - our view is though it’s unlikely it will stay exactly as it is now."

While Ardern has extended our stays in Iraq and Afghanistan, she has also promised reviews of our role in each country next year and signalled “that we anticipate New Zealand’s contribution changing”.

In Iraq, she said New Zealand could move from training cadets “to actually training trainers” - a change that would likely result in a far smaller deployment.

“It might be a reconstruction role, it might be a humanitarian role, but it is a dynamic environment - our view is though it’s unlikely it will stay exactly as it is now, but Cabinet is allowing itself the space to consider that early next year.”

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