The afternoon of my flight from Wellington to Christchurch is clear and cloudless, and I’m disappointed to find that my window seat has been taken. A guy about my age, with thick tattooed biceps protruding from under a black singlet, smiles innocently at me.
“You hadn’t come so I figured I’d just sit here. Hope you don’t mind. I’m Justin by the way.” Justin’s cleanshaven face seems at odds with his rough, working man’s body. By the time the safety demo has finished, I’ve learnt that Justin grew up in my hometown and is headed south to visit his girlfriend of two years for the weekend."
“I haven’t seen my Missus since Christmas y’know.”
“That’s tough, how come?”
“Oh just army stuff man. I’m training at the base in Palmy.”
“Is it hard doing long distance?”
“Yeah it's hard. But I call her every day. And we text all the time. She’s going to varsity soon.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yeah, but if she came up…”
“Yeah, but if she came up…”
“Well, we’re waiting to hear about Iraq at the moment, right? If John Key’s gonna send troops to fight ISIL.”
“Would you go?”
“It depends.” Justin fingers a tattoo and the design crinkles under his nail. “I’d have to talk to Mum and Dad. And my Missus, she don’t want me to go. She keeps telling me scary stuff about ISIL she hears on the news. The beheadings and that.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Me?” Justin looks thoughtfully out over Cook Strait, across the speckled white caps of the waves towards the South Island. When he turns back, his eyes are sparkling. "You gotta think about your country too," he replies cheerfully. "I'll know when the time comes." That was two weekends ago.
The government will release details of involvement in Iraq in Parliament today.
Justin (not his real name) is one of a number of Kiwi soldiers who will now be giving serious consideration to the life-changing decision of whether or not to travel to Iraq with a New Zealand deployment. It is all but confirmed that the government will send troops to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL; the decision was given the green light by Cabinet yesterday and will be debated in Parliament from 2pm today. Foreign policy decisions of this nature are a matter for the Executive government, so it is not necessary for National to amass support for a deployment through a vote in Parliament. Today's ministerial statement to Parliament will be an opportunity for John Key to set out the action plan in Iraq after months of difficult negotiations.
Although the finer details of the deployment - for example, the legal status of New Zealand troops and the structure of the army - are yet to be made public, many facts are already well-known. About 100 New Zealand soldiers will be sent to Iraq, most likely to the US training base Camp Taji north of Baghdad, in a training capacity only. This distinction is important, for the government insists that New Zealand is not getting involved in fighting and is not sending combat troops. Our men and women would be tasked with training soldiers in the Iraq army so the Iraqis can master new tactics to help defeat ISIL. In addition, New Zealand may help in intelligence gathering. New Zealanders won't go on military exercises and would only take up arms for self-defence purposes. They will likely be accompanied by Australian troops (possibly 300 Australians) in an alliance reminiscent of ANZAC, and there is no exit strategy in place at this point in time.
Gerry Brownlee (Defence Minister) and John Key.
New Zealanders around the country will no doubt be keenly following the updates from Parliament today. Opposition politicians, political commentators and academics in particular will be quick to subject the government's plans to scrutiny. There is already a great deal of debate taking place as to whether or not the government is making the right decision... would New Zealand's contribution even be effective? are we putting our soldiers and potentially our civilians in danger pointlessly? what other options exist that may have less adverse effects for all concerned?
According to the government, New Zealand cannot sit back and stay out of Iraq. ISIL is abhorrent and brutal and must be stopped. New Zealanders in the region are at risk, as well as New Zealanders in locations around the world which could be subject to terror attacks. For instance, New Zealanders have lost their lives in the past in 9/11 and the Bali bombings, and we cannot let this happen again. It is necessary to fight ISIL before they become too strong. Furthermore, around 60 other countries are supporting the Iraqi government, so it would be callous of New Zealand to refuse. John Key famously told the BBC that this is the price to pay for being part of the club.
The implication of this statement is that sending troops to Iraq is a gesture of solidarity with countries like the US, UK, and Australia who New Zealand would rely on in the event of a security lapse. In the wake of ISIL's rise, the government has committed more humanitarian aid to the region and beefed up security measures at home (for instance, New Zealand citizens suspected of being linked to ISIL are being observed), but the government has now decided it is to take action in the international arena. Key has noted that polls are showing that New Zealanders generally support involvement in Iraq. For instance, the latest One News Colmar Brunton poll showed that a majority of 48% of Kiwis would support sending troops abroad. (42% would not support this move and 10% were undecided.)
Murray McCully and Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
Foreign Ministers of New Zealand and Iraq.
Professor Richard Jackson of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies is one of the sceptics. He argues that past experience should tell us that foreign involvement in the Middle East is only going to make the situation worse. Decisions taken by Western countries to bomb or arm IS will fail to bring peace and security to the region and will only lead to more terrorism and violence. Research tells us, he says, that terror attacks undertaken by al-Qaeda and ISIL have been arisen from a desire to take revenge on Westerners who have intervened in the region. Jackson views Western policies towards the Middle East harshly, as short-sighted and ill-informed.
Commentator Bryce Edwards echoes the sentiment sending troops to Iraq would be ineffective. 100 New Zealanders, however skillful they may be, are little more than a drop in the bucket, and it is the symbolism of the move that is most important: the extra flag being hoisted in the war effort. Our government is focused on the symbolic importance of providing greater political legitimacy to the actions of Western allies. However, Edwards believes we would be better to investigate other options of contributing to Iraq, such as increasing diplomatic efforts in the region, upping humanitarian aid and condemning Saudi funding of ISIL. He warns us to make no mistake about it, this move is political and we are being fooled if we think it is based on humanitarian reasons.
Is sending troops to Iraq the best way to fight ISIL?
It is clear that the government has faced international pressure to commit troops to the Middle East from a number of fronts. Barack Obama called for a coalition of Western and Middle Eastern forces, Iraq's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari came to the country recently to meet with officials and request assistance, and the British have made a similar plea. The government will engage in negotiations with Australia's Tony Abbott when he arrives in New Zealand this Friday. Yet should New Zealand make a stand and refuse to bow to international pressure?
Journalist Jon Stephenson argues that committing troops to Iraq would succeed only in heightening the risk to New Zealand: by placing our soldiers in harm's way and by increasing the likelihood of ISIL wanting to attack New Zealanders in retaliation. Other critics have noted that the risk of Iraqi troops defecting and turning their arms against New Zealanders cannot be ignored. Stephenson views the Iraqi army as woefully ineffective and believes it will take a long time for Iraq to find much-needed political solutions to the sectarian violence which is tearing its country apart.
Kennedy Graham of the Greens.
Journalist Jon Stephenson.
Another major bone of contention is the government's insistence that it does not need the support of Parliament in order to make this decision. Whilst this is factually correct, some individuals are arguing that the government would be better to seek parliamentary support, or even that it is undemocratic not to have a majority in the House. Victoria University lecturer Robert Ayson believes that the government should only proceed when it has the support of the House, especially given that the situation in Iraq may change rapidly. Kennedy Graham, the Greens spokesperson for Defence, labelled the government's actions as politically improper. Labour, the Greens, United Future, the Maori Party and New Zealand First do not support military involvement in Iraq, the only party siding with National - albeit reluctantly - is ACT. According to political commentator Gordon Campbell, the government's mandate is weak as it, appears to lack authority and support (a) among the Parliament of Iraq that we are supposed to be helping and (b) among the public here at home.
The government's response to these criticisms so far has been that polls show it does have widespread public support for this move, that troops are only travelling overseas in a supporting role, and that it is necessary to make the hard decisions sometimes. John Key has insisted that New Zealand is not bowing to international pressure and is making an independent decision. Finally, Key has stated that other opposition parties are speaking out against deployment because they see it will give them a political edge, when in reality, in their heart of hearts they know the right thing to do is to send troops.
Whatever the case, it is clear that the government's decision will have enormous repercussions on life in New Zealand (not to mention in Iraq): on our foreign relations, on National's popularity, and most importantly, on the lives of individuals like Justin, who may find themselves hoping on a plane, this time bound for the Middle East, in only a matter of months.