Recently I was approached by reporters to comment on a report by Harmeet Sooden that reveals that NZDF activities in Iraq extend well beyond what has publicly been acknowledged. Â You can read his report here. My back and forth with the reporters eventuated in an op ed (ironic, given the content of my previous post), the gist of which is below. Â As readers will see, my concerns are not so much about the mission as they are about the lack of transparency on the part of the NZDF and the previous government as to what the deployment really involves.
Ethically and practically speaking, there is no real problem with what the NZDF is doing in Iraq, including the undisclosed or downplayed aspects. It is a way for the NZDF to hone its skills (to include combat skills), increase its capabilities, enhance its professional reputation and more seamlessly integrate and operate with allied forces and equipment, as well as demonstrate that NZ is willing to do its part as a good international citizen. The cause (fighting Daesh) is just, even if the context and conditions in which the war is prosecuted are prone to unintended consequences and sequels that blur the distinction between a good fight and a debacle. The issue is whether the benefits of participating in the anti-Daesh coalition outweigh the costs of being associated with foreign military intervention in a region in which NZ has traditionally been perceived as neutral and as a trustworthy independent diplomatic and trading partner. The statements of coalition partners (especially the ADF) demonstrate that they believe that the mission has been worthwhile for the reasons I noted.
Some will say that the disclosure of the NZDF “advise and assist” role in Iraq is evidence of “mission creep.’ In reality this was envisioned from the very beginning of the NZDF involvement in the anti-Daesh coalition. The training mission at Camp Taji, although a core of the NZDF participation in the coalition, also provided a convenient cover for other activities. These were generally disclosed in the months following the first deployment (TGT-1) in theatre, and it was only during TGT-5 and TGT-6 in 2016-17 that the advise and assist role was openly acknowledged. In practice, military training such as that conducted by the NZDF in Iraq does not stop after six weeks behind the barbed wire at Taji, so some advise and assist operations in live fire conditions were likely conducted before what has been publicly acknowledged (perhaps during the battles of Tikrit and Falluja or other â€œclearingâ€ missions in Anbar Province).
The extended advisory role â€œoutside the wireâ€ is particularly true for small unit counter-insurgency operations. That was known from the start.Â So it is not so much a case of NZDF mission creep as it is planned mission expansion.
NZDF collection of biometric data is only troublesome because of who it is shared with. The Iraqi authorities are unreliable when it comes to using it neutrally and professionally, so sharing with them or the ISF is problematic. Biometric information shared with NZ intelligence agencies can be very useful in vetting foreign travellers to NZ, including migrants and refugees. But again, whereas the use of such data can be expected to be professional in nature when it comes to NZ and its military allies, the whole issue of biometric data sharing with any Middle Eastern regime is fraught, to say the least.
The reasons for the National government’s reluctance to be fully transparent about the true nature of the NZDF commitment in Iraq are both practical and political.
Practically speaking, denying or minimizing of NZDF involvement in combat activities, to include intelligence and other support functions, is done to keep NZ’s military operations off the jihadist radarscope and thereby diminish the chances that New Zealand interests abroad or at home are attacked in retaliation. This goes beyond operational and personal security for the units and soldiers involved as well as the “mosaic theory” justification that small disclosures can be linked by enemies into a larger picture detrimental to NZ interests. All of the other Anglophone members of the coalition (the US, UK, Australia and Canada, as well as others such as France and Spain) have suffered attacks in their homelands as a direct result of their public disclosures. NZ authorities undoubtedly see this as a reason to keep quiet about what the NZDF was actually doing in theatre, and they are prudent in doing so.
However, foreign reporting, to include reporting on military media in allied countries, has already identified NZDF participation in combat-related activities, so the desire to keep things quiet in order to avoid retaliation is undermined by these revelations. Likewise, Daesh and al-Qaeda have both denounced New Zealand as a member of the â€œCrusaderâ€ coalition, so NZ is not as invisible to jihadists as it may like to be. Even so, to err on the side of prudence is understandable in light of the attacks on allies who publicly disclosed the full extent of their roles in Iraq.
The other reason why the National government did not want to reveal the full extent of the NZDF role in Iraq is political. Being opaque about what the NZDF is doing allows the government (and NZDF) to avoid scrutiny of and deny participation in potential war crimes (say, a white phosphorous air strike on civilian targets in Mosul), complicity in atrocities committed by allied forces or even mistakes leading to civilian casualties in the “fog of war.” If there is no public acknowledgement and independent reporting of where the NZDF is deployed and what they are doing, then the government can assume that non-disclosure of their activities gives NZDF personnel cover in the event that they get caught up in unpleasantness that might expose them to legal jeopardy.
It is all about “plausible deniability:” if the NZDF and government say that NZ soldiers are not “there” and there is no one else to independently confirm that they are in fact “there,” then there is no case to be made against them for their behaviour while “there.”
In addition, non-disclosure or misleading official information about the NZDF mission in Iraq, particularly that which downplays the advise and assist functions and other activities (such as intelligence gathering) that bring the NZDF into direct combat-related roles, allows the government some measure of insulation from political and public questioning of the mission. NZ politicians are wary of public backlash against combat roles in far off places (excepting the SAS), particularly at the behest of the US. Although most political parties other than the Greens are prone to “going along” with whatever the NZDF says that it is doing during a foreign deployment, there is enough anti-war and pacifist public sentiment, marshaled through a network of activist groups, to pose some uncomfortable questions should the government and NZDF opt for honesty and transparency when discussing what the NZDF does abroad.
However, in liberal democracies it is expected that the public will be informed by decision-makers as to the who, how, what and why of foreign military deployments that bring soldiers into harmâ€™s way. After all, both politicians and the military are servants of the citizenry, so we should expect that transparency would be the default setting even if it does lead to hard questioning and public debate about what is a “proper” foreign military deployment.
The bottom line as to why the NZDF and political leaders obfuscate when it comes to foreign military operations is due to what can be called a “culture of impunity.” This extends to the intelligence community as well. They engage in stonewalling practices because traditionally they have been able to get away with them. Besides public ignorance or disinterest in such matters, these affairs of state have traditionally been the province of a small circle of decision-makers who consider that they “know best” when it coms to matters of economic, security and international affairs. Their attitude is “why complicate things by involving others and engaging in public debate?” That tradition is alive and well within the current NZDF leadership and was accepted by the National government led by John Key.
It remains unclear if there will be a change in the institutional culture when it comes to disclosing military operations abroad as a result of the change in government, with most indications being that continuity rather than reform is likely to be Labour/NZ Firstâ€™s preferred approach.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Dominion Post on February 12, 2018. (https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/101327837/advise-and-assist-in-iraq-was-always-part-of-the-plan-for-nz-defence-force).