Gordon Campbell on the tokenism of New Zealand‘s role against Islamic State

Was John Key born lucky or what? Political performance tends to be judged on three things – the unemployment rate, the petrol price at the pump, and the market value of your house. This year, Key was lucky enough to hit a peak in the business cycle just as the country went to the polls. Since then, the long awaited drop in the value of the NZ dollar versus the greenback has begun – a slide that will ultimately push import prices up, including petrol prices.

Talk about luck, though. Overseas, the price of oil has obligingly dropped, giving Key some breathing space. On October 16, the U.S. benchmark price dropped to $US79.78 a barrel, the lowest it has been since June 2012. This fall should soften the political blow of any drop in the Kiwi dollar over the next few months. (On the upside, this oil price drop will also undermine the economics of shale oil extraction.)

This morning’s violent attack in Canada should focus attention back on the risks involved in New Zealand’s military involvement with the campaign against IS. Here again, Key has been pretty lucky. To date, the Opposition has continued to occupy itself with the marginalia of the issue. E.g. whether Key did or didn’t know whether Barack Obama would be present at the US briefing last week on IS, or whether New Zealand’s military involvement is or isn’t already a fait accompli.

It might be better to tackle the issue, head on. Our contribution against IS will be to send SAS forces to train the Iraqis? That’s like offering trainers to General Custer just as the 7th cavalry reached the Little Big Horn. The US has spent billions of dollars and thousands of lives and limbs in trying to train a new Iraqi army since the mid 2000s – only to see those ‘trained’ troops simply melt away in the face of the better-led, better armed and better motivated forces of the Islamic State. Sending our troops to “train” the Iraqis is to put our troops in harm’s way – while creating a genuine risk at home, as the recent incidents in Canada have shown – for no good military purpose.

Did we learn nothing from Afghanistan, where 10 New Zealand lives were lost defending the corrupt and ineffectual government in Kabul, and to support aid projects already being swept away by an enemy that is winning the war against the Afghan troops that we also went there to ‘train’? Oh, but one thing is booming in Afghanistan: that would be the opium poppy crop, which a report this week says had an all-time record year in 2013. Before the families of any more New Zealand troops get to bury their loved ones, can the government explain what the achievable military goals are that could possibly justify such losses ? And if the rationale is a political one, how can any of the political brownie points that we may be hoping to win in Washington or Canberra from our involvement, be possibly worth earning in blood?

I’m sorry if that sounds offensive, but it is the reality of the devil’s bargain that we are entering. In Iraq, New Zealand will be lending military assistance to a government that has no validity in the eyes of the Sunni minority that is crucial to its survival. I’m talking about the Sunni tribal leaders who, whatever their misgivings may be about IS, happen to hate the government in Baghdad even more, and with good reason. The musical chairs in the Baghdad government and talk of a more ‘inclusive’government should fool no-one. Al-Maliki has gone, but his successor comes from the same party. The powerful Interior Ministry has just been handed over this week to the Badr Organisation. This is the Shia militia responsible for thousands of deadly attacks on Sunnis that have ultimately, driven even moderate Sunnis into the arms of the Islamic State.

The last time the US managed at great cost to successfully rally Sunni opposition within Iraq against an influx of foreign fighters was in the so-called Awakening programme of the 2000s, but the incoming administration of Barack Obama abandoned them, and effectively handed them over to the tender mercies of the al-Maliki government. Given that bitter experience, it will be almost impossible to woo the Sunni community back on side. For an up to date account of this sad story and the dismal prospects of the brave but outgunned Iraqi army forces that are still willing to fight in Anbar province, see this account.

Iraqi troops are not only frustrated with Baghdad, which they say has not given them enough weapons to fight the jihadists — but they’re disappointed with the U.S.-led air campaign meant to support them. Over the past two weeks, about a dozen airstrikes have targeted Anbar out of the nearly 50 airstrikes carried out by U.S.-led forces in Iraq. In the first week of October, meanwhile, there were more than 15 airstrikes in Anbar, according to information released by U.S. Central Command. U.S. officials have said that the recent decrease in airstrikes in Anbar is due in part to bad weather conditions, a claim dismissed by those on the ground in Anbar.

“It’s like Iraq has become secondary,” said the lieutenant. “Recently, American forces in the air have not played any real role.… The coalition aircraft just patrols, but doesn’t bombard.” The encirclement of al-Asad base is just the latest in a string of dramatic Iraqi military failures in Anbar.

Is ‘training’ the troops in such immediate peril what we are really going there to provide? If anything is going to turn the tide against the Islamic State, it will require (a) a major ground offensive by regional Arab states and Western forces to supplement the air campaign and (b) the non-selective arming of all the enemies of Islamic State, and that should include the Kurds in Syria, no matter how Turkey wants to pick and choose among whom it arms and assists. Token ‘training’ by the SAS will achieve little. And if the SAS ‘training’ is a euphemism for a direct military role, this should be spelled out, within the context of just what the overall plan – including the exit strategy – looks like. Because right now, it’s hard to see how an SAS “training” role would serve any valid military purpose, let alone the national interest.

Chinese Democracy
No, not the terrible Guns’n’Roses album, but the equally terrible comments about democracy made on Monday by Hong Kong’s governor, Leung Chun-Ying. Poor people shouldn’t get the vote, Leung explained, because they’ll only go and elect people and policies that rich people wouldn’t like.

Leung Chun-ying, said Monday evening that it was unacceptable to allow his successors to be chosen in open elections, in part because doing so would risk giving poorer residents a dominant voice in politics.

Instead, he backed Beijing’s position that all candidates to succeed him as chief executive, the top post in the city, must be screened by a “broadly representative” nominating committee appointed by Beijing. That screening, he said, would insulate candidates from popular pressure to create a welfare state, and would allow the city government to follow more business-friendly policies to address economic inequality instead Mr. Leung said that if “you look at the meaning of the words ‘broadly representative,’ it’s not numeric representation.”

“You have to take care of all the sectors in Hong Kong as much as you can,” he said, “and if it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month. “Then you would end up with that kind of politics and policies,” he continued.

Exactly. Allow the rabble to vote, and they’ll vote for what they want.