Opinion – After more than seven years, the end is finally in sight for New Zealand’s anti-Isis deployment in Iraq.
The government recently announced that the remaining two personnel deployed to Iraq and Kuwait as part of the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria will be withdrawn by the end of June 2023.
The mission has lasted far longer than the original two years that were planned.
John Key, New Zealand’s then National Party Prime Minister, initiated New Zealand’s contribution towards the multilateral coalition when he sent 143 soldiers to Iraq in February 2015.
Upon committing the troops, Key famously challenged other parties in Parliament to “get some guts and join the right side” by supporting the deployment.
At the time, New Zealand’s involvement in the anti-Isis mission was opposed by the Labour, Green and New Zealand First parties that were then in opposition.
Key was initially adamant that the deployment would end within the two-year period – but Andrew Little, Labour’s leader at the time and now the minister in charge of intelligence services, warned of the potential for ‘mission creep’.
Little’s warning turned out to be prescient.
Jacinda Ardern, who succeeded Little as Labour leader shortly before she became Prime Minister after the 2017 election, extended the mission in 2018. The extension came despite Isis losing all territory it had previously held in Iraq by the end of 2017.
To be fair, the number of New Zealand troops deployed to Iraq gradually fell over time. And the last remaining 45 New Zealand soldiers who were directly involved in training Iraqi soldiers at the Taji military base, near Baghdad, were withdrawn in early 2020.
New Zealand’s embassy in Baghdad, opened in 2015 to support the deployment, also closed in 2020. But the government seemed unwilling to pull the plug on the operation altogether. A handful of New Zealand troops based in Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar continued to be deployed to the anti-Isis mission.
Some parallels might be drawn with New Zealand’s deployment in Afghanistan, which lasted for 20 years and finally ended with the withdrawal of the remaining six soldiers in 2021.
New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan began with the deployment of elite Special Air Service (SAS) troops for a 12-month mission in late 2001, followed by a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in 2003.
As with Iraq, the mission was repeatedly extended by various New Zealand governments – always with the view that the job was not quite done.
Ardern’s “Isis remains a threat” justification from September 2018 was a case in point.
Of course, there were differences with Afghanistan too. While ten NZDF soldiers died in Afghanistan, no New Zealand lives were lost in Iraq. There was also no equivalent to the controversial October 2010 incident known as Operation Burnham that caused the death of five Afghan civilians.
This is something to be thankful for. To some extent this can be explained by the fact that New Zealand soldiers largely operated ‘behind the wire’ training Iraqis at Camp Taji.
But New Zealand’s mission was far from risk-free.
Citing Kurdish sources, The Guardian reported in 2016 that New Zealand SAS soldiers were also deployed in Iraq. The claim that was met with only a qualified denial from Gerry Brownlee, the defence minister in the National-led government in power at the time.
Moreover, Camp Taji itself came under repeated rocket attacks in early 2020, killing two US troops and a British medic. The attacks were thought to have been conducted by Iran-backed groups in retaliation for the killing by the US of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani in January of that year.
After losing all of its territory in Iraq by 2017, Isis faced a similar defeat in Syria in 2019.
But like al-Qaeda before it, Isis has also inspired an ideology. To some extent, this ideology has inspired sympathisers to commit terrorist attacks well beyond Iraq’s borders.
While most of these were in Europe, this past weekend marked the first anniversary of an Isis-inspired stabbing attack that left eight wounded at an Auckland supermarket.
The perpetrator, Ahamed Samsudeen, was a Sri Lankan national who had come to New Zealand as a student in 2011. He later gained refugee status, although this was later revoked.
While in New Zealand, Samsudeen apparently self-radicalised with the help of Isis propaganda. He was arrested at Auckland Airport in 2017, from where authorities believed he was attempting to travel to Syria.
Samsudeen was held in prison on remand for a total of four years on relatively minor charges, before being released and shadowed by police in 2021 who shot and killed him during his knife attack.
New Zealand passed new counter-terrorism laws after the Countdown supermarket stabbings which criminalised the plotting of terrorist attacks.
In Iraq itself, the past week has illustrated that huge challenges remain despite Isis’s defeat.
Baghdad saw some of the worst violence it has seen in years, after supporters of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and rival Shiite groups loosely backed by Iran battled each other in the capital’s fortified Green Zone. The clashes resulted in 30 deaths, along with hundreds of injuries.
Iraq has been without a government since elections in October 2021, in which al-Sadr’s party won the largest number of seats – but not a majority. Al-Sadr’s announcement last week that he would leave politics essentially triggered the violence, while his pleas for calm a day later largely stopped it.
It remains to be seen whether the political deadlock can be broken, but civil war is not off the table if clashes between the groups resume.
In themselves, Iraq’s domestic political problems have little direct relation with either Isis or with New Zealand.
But the country’s ongoing political crisis, combined with economic malaise that was only exacerbated by Covid-19 – youth unemployment reached a record 27 percent last year – provide a recipe for discontent.
New Zealand appears to have some awareness of this: while the military deployment is ending, the government is pledging to “refocus” the commitment to “non-military workstreams to continue the fight against violent extremism and address the longer-term security and humanitarian challenges faced by the government and people of Iraq”.
These are fine words, but the extent of New Zealand’s future assistance seems to be limited to a small, $NZ4m contribution over the next three years – which is unlikely to go far, given the scale of the challenges that Iraq faces.
Any notion that New Zealand is leaving Iraq for good needs to be set against the fact that the anti-Isis contribution that John Key originally announced in 2015 was New Zealand’s third Iraq-related mission in 30 years.
It followed missions to support the Gulf War in 1991 and the dispatch of New Zealand Defence Force engineers following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.
This may be the end of the road for New Zealand’s military deployment to defeat Isis.
But it is unlikely to be the last Kiwi mission to Iraq.