Gordon Campbell on the unravelling of the government’s responses to Islamic State

Despite having had months to prepare its story about the threat allegedly posed by Islamic State, the government’s rationale for its line of response is looking increasingly shabby.

1. We’ll maybe be training their troops, but not any time soon, and not in any part of Iraq where things might be risky. Such pre-conditions would seem to (a) rule out most of the currently contested territory of Iraq and (b) be too little, too late given that a visible IS presence is currently being reported in Abu Ghraib, on the outskirts of Baghdad. Currently, we’re sending a scoping mission on whether (and where) we might safely play a training role sometime next year – assuming that the government in Baghdad hasn’t been over-run by then.

As Prime Minister John Key said in his speech to the Institute of International Affairs:

“If New Zealand military personnel are deployed in Iraq they would be behind the wire.” Our current scoping mission will involve “the assessment of how safe and secure a training location is and whether our security requirements could be met.” Fine. It’s probably safe to say that the IS fighters will not be quaking in their boots at the prospect of our arrival.

Two residual questions though. One, why would our training role be likely to succeed in any meaningful way, when the US has spent $25 billion and put four years into training the same Iraqi army that has failed spectacularly – not in all cases, but in many – to stand its ground. Secondly, Key has stressed that our troops will not be playing a combat role in Iraq. Fine. So…what are the rules of engagement if and when they’re fired upon? If they fire back, how does that differ from being in combat?

2. The passport cancellation fibs. As Key confirmed in this RNZ interview, five New Zealanders are currently fighting in Syria ,and nine passports have been revoked – with the strong implication being that the threat posed by Islamic State was the relevant context in both instances. Problem: Islamic State, as recently as January 2014, was still locked in internecine warfare with other radical groups in northern Syria, and its blitzkrieg across the Iraqi border was still months away. Yet as this OIA response from Internal Affairs Minister Peter Dunne makes clear, only two passports have been cancelled since February.

Logically then, only two passport cancellations rekated to Islamic State could possibly have taken place. Presumably, it has been nine cancellations since 2005, when New Zealand granted itself powers to cancel passports. Key’s misuse of the figure can only be seen as a deliberate attempt to mislead the public about the scale of the IS problem and of his government’s response to it.

3. Famous Five Go to Syria. As for those five New Zealanders fighting in Syria….again, the clear implication is that these people are fighting for Islamic State. Are they? Or, as security analyst Paul Buchanan has suggested, are they fighting for the Free Syrian Army, or other moderate anti-Assad forces that the West actively supports? In future, can our security agencies really be trusted to accurately figure out which side of the conflict any persons expressing an interest in going to Syria are on?

On Q& A yesterday, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee claimed a surprising – and unbelievable – level of detailed knowledge of the activities of the Kiwi jihadis currently alleged to be fighting in Syria: “ The five, we’re aware of them because they’ve left New Zealand to go there and they’ve been identified in those new places.” Evidently, these are people who obligingly said they were going directly to Syria to fight, since Brownlee drew this telling distinction: “There could be others who have gone to the fight by going though other countries, and you lose track of their movements.”

So…even though merely going in through say, Turkey would have enabled clever jihadis to evade detection entirely, it had to be taken on trust that the honestly upfront five were still firmly in our focus. According to Brownlee: ‘To identify five, I think indicates that we’re pretty sure where they are, and what they’re up to.” So, amongst 15,000 foreigners fighting for IS, and the 3,000 that hold Western passports, Brownlee claims to still know where our five guys are right now, and what they’re up to. In-ter-esting. Too bad those bad guys didn’t have the brains to go in through Turkey – because if they had, they would have been spared from being eternally transfixed by the all seeing, all knowing Eye of Gerry.

4. The “Yes you can/No you can’t turn Kiwis into stateless persons’ morass. Here’s John Key on RNZ (link above) when asked if New Zealand can refuse to let returning jihadis back into the country: “Fundamentally, we can’t stop them coming back. We are looking at law in that area in terms of what happens next.” And in complete contrast, here’s this exchange with Brownlee on Q&A:

Interviewer: So if you cancel their passports what does that mean for them – are they stateless?

Brownlee: Well, according to them they’re not. But as far as we’re concerned, they are.

They’re not welcome back?

That’s why they don’t have a passport any longer.

Do we not have a responsibility to make sure these people are not out in the international community causing trouble?

That’s why we have to be clear about cancelling some passports potentially, for people who are still in New Zealand.”

Even without that last answer – which indicates a willingness to ensure that such people are unloaded elsewhere – Brownlee is still talking about unilaterally revoking the nationality of New Zealanders on the basis of assumptions reached by our security agencies. Incredible, given that even SIS Minister Chris Finlayson is saying that some of the New Zealanders who go to fight for IS will return disenchanted, and seeking rehabilitation. How do Brownlee and his colleagues propose to tell the difference between hardened jihadis and repentant ones – if they are going to cancel passports and prevent such people from returning home at all? Will any right to judicial review be built into the passport cancellation process?

Brownlee seems utterly at ease with making some New Zealanders stateless. This puts this country at odds with the intentions of the 1961, UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness

• even though escape clauses for domestic law ( article 8, para 3) and other reservations were built into that document.

5. The exit strategy that isn’t gonna happen. On RNZ’s Focus on Politics programme last week, Key can be heard spelling out our exit strategy from Iraq. It’s a doozy. Essentially it involves the new Iraqi government suddenly somehow gaining an inclination for “getting on top of their outreach programme.” Or to spell that out:

…Ultimately, what you’ve got is quite a number of people – Sunni tribesmen and allies who have aligned themselves with ISIL. Now, I think at the point at which they believe there is a legitimate place for them in the governing arrangements of Iraq they may well switch sides. And that’s the likely trigger point for the reduction in the threat of ISIL.

Sure, and pigs may fly. They ‘may well switch sides’? Really? What Key deliberately fails to mention is that this ‘switch” has been done – and has failed – before. The Sunni in question were purged from Saddam’s army after the March 2003 invasion. Civil war then ensued, and foreign fighters from al Qaeda entered Iraq to take advantage of the disorder. To combat them, the US induced Sunni leaders to join the so called Awakening Councils which by 2008- 2009 had been highly successful against al Qaeda. Alas, even before the US forces left in 2011, the Awakening Councils got sidelined and burned off by the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, which was totally opposed to an armed and capable Sunni resistance.

That’s why the Sunnis of northern Iraq signed up to Islamic State. That why they seem to hate the government in Baghdad more than they dislike IS. Not that they like IS overly much – some tensions between Sunni leaders and IS are already evident – but because they had put their faith once before in the US/Iraqi government, and had been badly burned. Sure, it would be nice to think they could be induced – as Key cheerily suggests – to once again place their trust in joining a “governing arrangement” with the current Baghdad government. But the new Iraqi leadership has shown absolutely no sign of mending its ways and becoming more inclusive. For Key to be offering Sunni participation within the current Iraqi government – “they may well switch sides” – as the way the threat from IS will eventually be resolved is misleading at worst, and fatuous at best.

6. Can our security agencies really be so bad at their job? Finally, Paul Buchanan hit this particular nail on the head, by pointing out that the extension of surveillance powers being sought under urgency by the government – and the related infringement of our civil liberties – is an admission of failure. As Buchanan put it:

It is tacitly telling us that criminal law, including all of the anti-terrorist legislation passed in the last ten years, is inadequate to deal with this particular type of suspected criminal enterprise (or better said, intended criminal enterprise). On the other hand it implicitly recognises that the combined resources of the GCSB, SIS, Immigration, Customs, NZDF, Police and other security agencies, as well as those of NZ’s main security partners, are unable to monitor the activities of the dozen or so Kiwis who may have jihadist pretensions, this despite the fact that New Zealand is an isolated and relatively small archipelago with no land borders and limited access or egress by air or sea, with a very small Muslim community from which potential jihadists are drawn.

Ultimately, why are we paying millions upon millions of dollars to support security agencies that cannot do a remarkably limited job adequately – at least not without trampling over the rights and freedoms that we are paying them to defend?