New Zealand’s Iraq Deployment: Motivations and Interests

The following commentary by Robert Ayson, Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, was based on a talk to a Diplosphere forum at Parliament House and published in the New Zealand Herald on Thursday 26 February 2015.

The following commentary by Robert Ayson, Professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, was based on a talk to a Diplosphere forum at Parliament House and published in the New Zealand Herald on Thursday 26 February 2015.

In November Prime Minister Key referred to ISIL as a ‘game changer’ for New Zealand. I wasn’t convinced, especially as the government was focusing on the domestic aspect in seeking to justify increased surveillance powers. Like many others I was sufficiently concerned about the mad rush to pass legislation with bad implications for civil liberties that I made a submission to the Select Committee. 

My main concern about ISIL’s implications for New Zealand has always been the international dimension. I’ve been frustrated with the government’s certainty about what it needed to do on the domestic front and its fumbling around on what it might do on the international aspect. Yesterday’s announcement of New Zealand’s deployment to Iraq brings those months of fumbling around to an end. 

Yesterday the Prime Minister argued that New Zealand needed to stand up for its values. This can be hazardous space. But one of the reasons why the anti-ISIL military coalition that New Zealand is joining is justified is because of the challenge to nearly universal values that ISIL represents. Its barbarity, lack of respect for the lives of those people it targets directly, and overt challenge to many communities in its wider audience, all carry values dimensions. 

ISIL is not the only threatener of these values today. If we were truly consistent there are other conflicts to which we might respond with a deployment. Quite why we are not doing more in peacekeeping in Africa is a question that deserves to be asked, especially when we are on the Security Council. 

But two facts here need to be considered. The first is that New Zealand very rarely can choose to deploy alone. We join wider military efforts for anything beyond our immediate neighbourhood (in which case we normally work with the Australians). The second is that a good part of the international community has decided to make something of a stand against ISIL. I say something of a stand because there are real limits as to how far even the largest contributor of military force wants to go. 

That makes the anti-ISIL coalition the big bus that is departing the station. We don’t choose the bus, we choose whether to board it or not.

And this brings us to the national interests that should be motivating New Zealand’s concern about ISIL internationally and its commitment to the coalition. 

One is that we have an interest in the preservation, where it is possible, of the idea that recognized nation states (like us) retain a domestic monopoly on the use of force and that non-state groups (like ISIL) are denied that opportunity. 

A second is that we have an interest in the preservation, where it is possible, of the international boundaries which separate one nation state from another and in preventing armed groups from violating those points of demarcation. The caliphate idea of ISIL is a direct challenge to this standard. 

A third is our awareness that an unstable Middle East, where governments fear for their continuing existence, presents particular dangers to international security. We talk rightly of Asia’s importance to New Zealand, and of the South Pacific’s, but the deployment of our forces much further afield often tells a different picture. 

A fourth is that it is against our interests for a group such as ISIL to continue violent actions in Syria and Iraq which are then used to inspire overseas recruits and sympathisers, including to a very limited extent within New Zealand itself. 

A fifth is that New Zealand needs a world where a significant number of states are willing, when it is necessary, to use force in the promotion and protection of collective interests. 

A sixth is that we need leading western powers, who share many of our interests and values, to be willing to take leading roles in this endeavor. This does not mean we are going to Iraq because of some price of some club. But it does mean that we are going to Iraq partly because of the advantages of a club to international order. 

I assume there are occasions when the use of force is both necessary and has some utility. Force can be a blunt instrument with unintended consequences. I cannot guarantee to you, and neither can the government, that things will be hugely better once the military campaign has been completed. Nor can I guarantee that, once trained, the Iraqi forces will do their job nearly as well as we might wish. But I am convinced that it is not possible to deal with ISIL, at least in the short term, without the use of force being part of the approach. 

Could there be blowback? Absolutely. But can we reduce the threat that ISIL poses to our interests and values without someone using force against it? I don’t think so.

Both sides of the debate in parliament have managed to trap themselves, or have been scared by ghosts from the recent past, when thinking about the use of force. 

The Key government has been keen to avoid a repeat of the Kabul surprise, where the SAS forces it deployed in 2009 turned out to be doing rather more combat than folks were led to believe. Not surprisingly, Mr Key’s government ruled out a specific SAS contribution in Iraq and spoke of restricting New Zealand to a training role. Now the lines between training and combat are fuzzy ones. I don’t think the government should have told us early on what they were not going to do. They should have told us what they were going to do, and they should have left options, including the SAS side, more obviously open. 

The trap this also created was that it allowed the Opposition to query the value of a training role given the patchy and worse than patchy record of the Iraqi armed forces under US-led training after the 2003 invasion. 

But in baiting that trap the Opposition created one for themselves. They ended up in a position where their unwillingness to support even the dispatch of NZ forces for training undermined any sense that they regarded ISIL as a problem really worth worrying about. They gave the clear impression that whenever someone mentions Iraq, it is all about reliving New Zealand’s correct decision not to join the 2003 invasion. 

But now is not then. Same part of the world yes, but a different problem. Did that invasion create some of the conditions that ISIL has taken advantage of? Yes. Does that guarantee that the use of force now will worsen the situation, and make ISIL stronger not weaker? I don’t think so. Should New Zealand be part of that effort? For me, the answer is yes.