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What is New Zealand's mission in Iraq?

What is New Zealand's mission in Iraq?

On Tuesday New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced in parliament that New Zealand would deploy a non-combat military mission to Iraq as part of the US-led coalition against ISIS. The 'Building Partner Capacity' mission to help train the Iraqi Security Forces will be part of a joint (albeit not an ANZAC badged) mission with Australia.

US soldiers receive a warriors welcome from New Zealand military personnel,  Afghanistan, 2004.

Notwithstanding the unresolved issue of the legal status of New Zealand defence personnel and valid concerns about force protection (more on both issues below), the critical questions relate to the nature of New Zealand's contribution: what can New Zealand do that differentiates from previously unsuccessful security sector reform efforts? And can New Zealand deliver meaningful success within the 9-24 month deployment timeframe? 

New Zealand's contribution, outlined by Chief of Defence Force General Tim Keating, is modest. It includes training in basic weapons, individual and unit-level military skills to prepare Iraqi Security Forces for combat operations, operational planning, medical and logistics training and the 'training of trainers'. Indeed, the successful training of Iraqi Security Force personnel to take over the role of delivering the training program lies at the core of the New Zealand mission.

The success of ISIS in Iraq is widely acknowledged as a testament, in part, to the failure of a decade-long security sector reform (SSR) process at a cost of over US$100 billion. As academic Andreas Krieg said last year: [fold]

Western SSR in Iraq after the 2003 invasion has created a security sector infested with the same diseases as those that mar the security sectors in neighbouring countries, defined by politicization, patrimonies, and patronages. Widely, ISIS' success is the testimony to a failed policy of the interrelated political and security sector reform in Iraq.

General Keating said New Zealand defence personnel have an aptitude for building the capacity of indigenous forces 'from Malaya to Afghanistan'. That is true. New Zealand has an excellent reputation in international peacekeeping circles for effective engagement with local populations, including local security forces. But this is due in large part to personalities, an emphasis on relationship building and culture, rather than a clear institutional doctrine.

This is, however, Keating's point of differentiation and which underpins his vision of a 'true partnership...not a them and us approach'. Keating's core distinction between previous SSR activities in Iraq compared with New Zealand's mission is the degree to which Iraqi personnel will be integrated into the development and delivery of training, including agreement on the objectives and outcomes. 

This approach is critical to success with SSR. Local participation is fundamental to establishing the legitimacy of the mission. Without inclusive local participation from the planning phase through to monitoring and evaluation, local ownership of the training program will be difficult to achieve and sustain. Moreover, it is the sustainability of successful outcomes after the mission has left which is the ultimate benchmark of success. 

Keating has outlined what success will look like for this mission: success is an Iraqi Security Force able to undertake combat operations at a level as agreed by Iraqi and Coalition trainers. Success has also been directly linked to New Zealand's deployment timeframe, so the matching of timeframe with ambition and environment which will be critical. 

The 'training of trainers' component, if successful, will enable New Zealand to develop a transition strategy as opposed to an exit strategy. Transition strategies enable capacity builders to integrate the succession plan into the overall mission, which will influence local ownership and long-term sustainability. It will be critical that the impact and sustainability of the program be addressed even beyond the deployment to ensure that the real contribution of the mission is a reflection of broader issues of peace and stability rather than the end of the deployment cycle. 

Of course, SSR does not occur in a vacuum. There are wider dynamics which will impact upon the success of the New Zealand mission, and in fact the majority of factors which will ultimately influence the success of the mission are beyond the control of New Zealand and Coalition defence planners. Capacity development of the security sector in Iraq will be conducted in a socio-political, historical, cultural and security environment broadly (but not exclusively) defined by the legacies of the two Gulf Wars, 10 years of failed SSR programs, broader endemic Middle East dynamics and the emergence of ISIS. National will is therefore critical and is likely to shift over the duration of the mission. The success of New Zealand's mission depends on maintaining political will, which means politics is centre stage.

The outstanding issue now is the legal status of the New Zealand Defence Force personnel, a point that certainly should have been clarified before the announcement.

The options are either diplomatic immunity or a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The Iraqi Government is reluctant to sign a SOFA and Australia has agreed ADF personnel will carry diplomatic passports. This is the weaker of the two options and one that led the Obama Administration to pull troops out of Iraq in 2011 because the Iraqi Government refused to give US soldiers immunity from prosecution. The legal implications of any agreement less than a SOFA requires deep scrutiny before a final decision is made. 

The issue of force protection also demands attention. Camp Taji, the military complex where New Zealand defence personnel will be based, lies at the northern entrance to Baghdad, 15km from the capital. The Camp was the focus of ISIS's efforts to secure Baghdad in June 2014. It is likely that Camp Taji, the symbol of the international coalition, will be a primary target as ISIS becomes more desperate and increasingly bold. Other equally serious threats to New Zealand defence personnel include rogue Iraqi Security Force attacks on Coalition forces – the 'green on blue' attacks that have become synonymous with SSR in Afghanistan.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Morning Calm Weekly News.

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