Hard News by Russell Brown


Haphazardly to war

Here's the thing: what is happening now in the parts of Iraq and Syria controlled by Islamic State (or Daesh, or whatever you choose to call it) does represent the kind of proximate crisis that had to be fabricated to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Even if Mosul does eventually subside into the grinding, banal, corrupt state of  affairs that persists in the IS "capital", Raqqa – where the foundations of law and education have dissolved and rape seems to have become a principal means of interaction for the forces controlling the population – it will still be awful. Comparisons with any recognised state – even the dreadful Saudis – seem facile in the circumstances.

And yet, after the Peshmerga retook towns in northern Iraq, most of the Sunni Arab residents fled for Mosul. They rightly feared reprisals. Shia militias associated with the Iraqi government (and, in turn, with Iran) seem even more vengeful. Meanwhile, IS has taken provocative steps to make enemies of the states of Jordan and Egypt, which have sworn revenge and are likely to be unfussy when they take it.

The potential for the New Zealand troops being dispatched to Iraq to train other soldiers – and the force protection that will accompany them – to be caught up in something in which we should want no part is evident.

This is, as Jon Stephenson's reporting has demonstrated over years, what happened in Afghanistan: our troops handed innocent people into the arms of torturers. We also know, most notably via Nicky Hager's Other People's Wars, that the promised boundaries on what roles our personnel would and would not take dissolved before boots even hit the ground.

And we know, beyond any doubt, that IS exists as a direct consequence of the actions of the US-led coalition after 2003 in Iraq. The movement grew in the occupier's brutal prisons. We made the monsters.

IS is different to al Qaeda. It is unique in that it relies on controlling populations and territory – without land and cities it has no caliphate – and at some point before too long regional ground forces will, with US air cover, attempt to retake Mosul.  That will presumably be an unthinkably bloody event.

What would our hundred-odd troops provide? Officially, training for an Iraqi army that has had no end of training. Realistically, we will be there as moral accompaniment for the Americans. We will present ourselves as another enemy for a group that goes to extraordinary and brutal lengths to cultivate enemies.

The New Zealand government's haphazard series of justifications for joining the war have come nowhere near the weight commensurate with what we're actually doing. Even this, in an interview with Kathryn Ryan, the Prime Minister could offer only as a prediction that the deployment was planned for two years. And what were we seeking to achieve? He said:

"Sunni, Shia and Kurds harmoniously sharing power and working together in Iraq."

Even if things go as well as they possibly could, that seems an unlikely outcome.

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