On RNZ this morning, Labour leader Andrew Little expressed his support for air strikes in Iraq against Islamic State – and by doing so, he may have unwittingly undermined Labour’s opposition to a military response from New Zealand. For months, it has been evident that the coalition bombing campaign needs effective spotters on the ground to identify and locate IS targets. Otherwise, for a period last year a high ratio of coalition sorties were ending with US bombers returning with their bombs still on board, having found no targets.
That spotting role is the kind of training currently being done for instance, by the Canadian special forces. It is dangerous work in that it has to be done out in the field, and that partly explains why Canada’s contingent in northern Iraq has been involved in four separate firefights with IS forces in the past month alone.
It is the kind of assistance that our SAS can also readily provide, and it does make a difference. Having spotters in place to direct coalition air strikes proved a crucial factor in the recent fighting around Kobane, on Syria’s border with Turkey.
So by endorsing air strikes, Little has (unintentionally) made a case for sending the SAS to assist in some of the most dangerous – and effective – training work in the fight against Islamic State. Of course, this also undermines the government’s claim that any troops that we send to Iraq will be safely located behind the wire. If there is an SAS “training” component, that won’t be behind the wire. That’s a fieldwork exercise.
And besides, even the largest coalition military encampments – at the Ayn Al-Asad airbase in Anbar province, and Camp Taji (near Baghdad) have come under attack in recent weeks, Ayn al-Asad more seriously so. In the past week, IS forces have been fighting for control of al- Baghdadi, a town located only three miles from the airbase.
Where are the NZ troops likely to be sent ? TV3 evidently thinks it will be to Camp Taji – even though the Australian contingent is currently located at Ayn al-Asad. Right now, the coalition training effort is taking place at four locations : Ayn al Asad, Camp Taji, Bismayah (also near Baghdad) and the newly opened Irbil facility in the north where Kurdish peshmerga are being trained. The numbers of Iraqi trainees seem surprisingly small, as Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby revealed in a briefing in late January:
Commenting on the number of Iraqi and Kurdish military members trained by the US, [Kirby] said, “Right now, there’re about 3,600 Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces if you add the hundred that we had there that are — that are in the training pipeline.”
“So you got roughly 600 at Al Asad, 1,600 at Camp Taji and another 1,300 or so at Bismayah. And then as I said, you got the 100 up there in Irbil, which just started today.”
If the numbers of Iraqis being trained seem to be small – keep in mind that IS has anything from 15,000–30,000 troops in the field – so have been the coalition gains. Kirby estimated that IS controls 21,000 square miles of Iraq, and yet so far, the coalition effort has displaced them from only 270 square miles of that territory. Clearly, it is going to be an uphill struggle. And Little is correct to assert that New Zealand’s presence will make very little difference to the outcome.
The twin assurances that Prime Minister John Key has given with respect to our military involvement – that our troops will be safe, and that the new Iraqi government will be more inclusive – are both patently false. During his visit last Friday, did Foreign Minister Ibrahjm al-Jaafari provide New Zealand with any examples of the more inclusive measures allegedly being pursued by the government in Baghdad that our troops will be helping to prop up ? Because the sectarian divide in Iraq seems to be getting wider, no smaller. This very week for instance, the Sunni bloc in Parliament has suspended its participation in the Iraq government due to the killing of a prominent Sunni sheikh and the kidnapping of Sunni MP Zayid Janabi by Shi’ite militia, who broke the MP’s leg and hand after killing all his bodyguards…
According to the deputy speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Aram Skeikh Mohammed the entire reconciliation process in his country is now under threat.
Mohammed said that the kidnapping of Iraqi MP Zayid Janabi and murder of his bodyguards has complicated the political process in the country. “This is an obvious indicator that Iraq is in an unstable situation now,” he added.
In such circumstances, we should have misgivings about what our military effort would achieve. What would count as mission accomplished? What is the exit strategy? It is also not a situation for sending in unarmed humanitarian aid, as Little also proposed on RNZ this morning, even to the south of the country. If we want to oppose Islamic State militarily then lending SAS support to train those who can direct air strikes would seem to be the one worthwhile contribution we can make – and the SAS do, at least, accept the risks that this would involve.