Prime Minister John Key did a whirlwind trip to Iraq to confer with its Prime Minister and President and visit the NZDF personnel stationed at Camp Taji, 25 kilometres north of Baghdad. The trip was supposedly secret yet he took an entourage of 40, including selected members of major NZ media outlets. He stayed overnight at Camp Taji in between duststorms, fog, and assorted other travel contretemps that lengthened the journey.
The coverage from the invited media was breathless and fawning. It was mostly about the travel delays. It was a mix of reporter’s lament and “hey I am here!”. Save the protocolar press releases, nothing, as in zero, was reported by the NZ media about John Key’s meetings with the Iraqi government, AKA the people that ostensibly have sovereign control over the land in which the NZDF operates at their formal request. That much was announced by the National government four months after NZ agreed to the military terms of its joining the anti-Daesh coalition.
What passed for reportage about the NZDF mission was basically regurgitated NZDF press releases extolling the virtues of the NZDF trainers, the difference that they made and the successes they were having in training Iraqi troops. PM Key was featured at length in audio and video clips talking about his sense of personal responsibility for the troops and his commitment to their cause.
Taking it all in, my gag reflex was forced into overdrive. If I were vulgar I would label those covering the visit as “useful fools.” If I were nasty I would simply call them “tools.”
Whatever morale boosting the visit may have occasioned amongst the NZDF troops, this was a PR exercise/photo op/sound bite exercise of the first and crassest order. Let me explain why.
“Secret” trips by Western political dignitaries to troops in conflict zones usually do not involve a pack of media figuresÂ tailing along. That is because real morale boosting is about the troops, not the dignitary’s image back home. Troops like to be appreciated by their political leaders, and that can be done without media fanfare. In fact, most troops prefer the appreciation to be given in private and not in the glare of cameras (and in fact, NZDF personnel other than Defense Chief Tim Keating were not identified in the reportage of the visit). Bringing media along turns the exercise into a circus side show that is more about the dignitary than the troops. And so it was on this occasion.
The media coverage of the trip was not of the “embedded” type. Embedded journalism, which has many problems associated with it, is the practice of placing journalists for extended periods of time in military units. This was no such instance. Instead, it was a government funded junket for a select few media types.
The coverage was boot-lickingly atrocious. Beyond the vapid commentary about dust storms, aborted plane flights and chopper rides, the description of the NZDF focused on the harsh terrain, nasty weather and the need for security. TV viewers were treated to images of Iraqis running around pointing weapons and kicking doors and were told by Iraqi officers via translators that the trainees were determined to fight for their country and fellow citizens. John Key spoke of how awful the place was and how two years was all that he was prepared to keep the NZDF there (the first rotation of NZDF troops is about to leave Taji and be replaced by a new cadre. The composition of future cadres may not necessarily resemble the first one, where 16 trainers are protected by a couple of platoons of infantry along with medical and intelligence personnel).
Although all of the coverage was vacuous, that of a print reporter from Wellington takes the cake for most ignorantly obsequious. Among other gems, she claimed more than once in her reports that the PM as well as herself where outfitted in “full body armour.” Â Photos of the visit suggest otherwise, since Key is seen on base in a flak jacket, shirt, pants and a baseball cap. Most of the military personnel around him were dressed in basic uniforms with no armour or helmets, save Iraqi recruits running drills and his personal protection force (30 “non-deployed” SAS soldiers, which is a bit of overkill when it comes to that sort of thing and makes one wonder from where they were sourced since 30 is a significant chunk of the unit). There is even one photo of Key walking along with some guy in a suit.
According to this particular reporter, her “full body armour” consisted of a flak jacket and a helmet. I reckon that she needs to be briefed on what being fully body armoured entails. And the guy in the suit may want to consider his status if everyone but him in the entourage were given helmets and flak jackets.
The entire gaggle of NZ media regurgitated the line that the NZDF was making a difference and the training was a success. This, after a day at the base and, judging from the tone of their reports, never talking independently with anyone on it (the NZ Â media were accompanied by “minders” at all times).
We are told that 2000 Iraqis have been trained and returned to the front lines and that the mission has been a success. My question is how do we know what success is in this context?’ The NZDF states that Iraqi troops are trained in six week blocks in groups of battalion size. Assuming that the figure of 2000 is correct, that means that over the 5 months of NZDF training at Taji there have been 3 light battalions of 500 troops trained and sent to the front, with a fourth group soon to graduate before the original NZDF deployment ends.
It is a pretty admirable task for 16 trainers to accomplish. With a ratio of recruits to trainers of approximately 30:1, that is a lot of contact hours for the trainers. Given that ratio,Â has there been any burnout amongst the trainers given the cultural differences and widely variant notions of military professionalism between them and the recruits? Have any of the original soldiers sent to Camp Taji in May had to leave, and if so, why? If that is the case, what was the contingency plan?
More broadly, what is “success” when it comes to the training mission? Does success mean that all who entered the training completed the course, or that some significant percentage did? Does it mean that there were no green on blue “incidents?” Does it mean that the recruits came in like rabbits and left like Rambos?
Then there is the issue of post-training success. Has it been confirmed that the troops trained by the NZDF did in fact return to the front and achieve battlefield successes? If so, what were they?
I wonder about that because Mr. Key mentioned that the problem of unreliableÂ IraqiÂ officers still exists (and those are the officers that presumably will lead the NZDF-trained troops into battle, which begs the question why officer training was not part of the mission). He also admitted that the Iraqi Army has not retaken any of the large towns and cities that Daesh has occupied (like Mosul, Falluja and Ramadi), that the NZDF personnel were restricted to the base because of security concerns and that the road between Taji and Baghdad was impassable by land due to the threat of IEDs and/or Daesh attacks. In light of that, what ARE those freshly trained soldiers doing?
One thing is certain: we will never find out from the press junket crowd because none of them appear to have asked questions to that effect or if they did, they chose not to report the answers. Instead, they seem to have taken the NZDF and Iraqi Army’s word at face value.
I will not comment on the debacle of having the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office publish photos of his meeting with Mr. Key in advance of Key’s secret visit to Taji, in contravention of the security protocols imposed by the NZDF and NZ government. As one wag noted, that was not too bad a security breach so long as Daesh only read the NZ Herald (or presumably watched NZ TV or listened to NZ radio).
In any event what is clear is this. With the complicity of major media outlets, Mr. Key has added troop visits to his pandas and flags repertoire of diversions. In saying so I in no way mean to denigrate the work and sacrifice of the NZDF soldiers at Taji or downplay the difficulty of their mission. Nor do I discount the positive impact his visit has on the NZDF personnel deployed, or the diplomatic and symbolic overtones of it. I simply do not think that the visit was about the troops per se. Instead, I think that the trip was a propaganda exercise that was more about burnishing the PM’s image as well as softening up the NZ public for a possible announcement of future changes to the NZDF mission in Iraq (and Syria).
It is a pity that none of those from the press gallery who were invited to join the PM on his meet-and-greet with the troops thought to wade through the fluff in order to cut to the chase of the matter. On the other hand, perhaps that is precisely why they were chosen.
Imagine if Jon Stephenson had been on that trip. I am willing to bet that not only would his reporting have been very different, but it would have set the tone for the entire group to be a little more serious in their scrutiny of the event. Then again, pigs will fly before such a thing ever happens.