I've wrestled with this for days and part of me still wishes we could give peace more of a chance, but the limited and precise deployment chosen by the government seems to be the right choice for the time and threat

Watching the news with my five year-old last week, he was asking about sending soldiers to Iraq. He listened to my school-boy appropriate summation and said, "weeeelll, I don't like to shoot people, but on the other hand I do like to help, so..."

Like many New Zealanders, he was torn over exactly how to meet the threats posed by Islamic State and trailed off without a conclusion.

History tells us that Western interventions in the Middle East have tended to be unhelpful at best; America has spread division and death as much as democracy. And the dictum of loving your enemy – so crucial to my beliefs – leaves little room for bombs.

And yet as the days go by I find myself more clearly in agreement with the stance the government has taken against Islamic State. While I would be as equally comfortable (almost) with Labour's approach (supporting the air-strikes but keeping New Zealanders out), I think the Key cabinet has struck the right balance.

The moral balance involves the recognition that in the face of genocide and a well-resourced group with an ideology that allows for no negotiation and little mercy, sometimes lethal force is required as the lesser evil. Usually, bombs just lead to more bombs and death to more death. In fact, that's always the case; there's no such thing as a military solution. But on occasions reactive military force will minimise the bombs and death and I think this is such a case. Indeed, the evidence of the past six months points to the fact that air-strikes by the West and several Middle Eastern countries have halted I-S's advance and, thanks to the Kurds and a slightly less defunct Iraqi army, they are penned in for the moment.

While the second part of Obama's oft-expressed ambition "degrade and destroy" is an impossible dream, the first part seems to be happening thanks to the current strategy. Islamic State's theological need for expansion and its glamour to young radicals around the world is reined in, while the West is not lured into the all-out assault that the terrorists clearly want.

So New Zealand's decision to endorse the air-strikes strategy, send humanitarian aid and a team of trainers seems to fit the needs of the time. As things stand, I would not support the use of significant numbers of combat troops, but then despite what some have said that's not part of the plan.

This is an important point and one even Russel Norman seemed to have missed when he compared this current mission to the Gulf Wars. The use of military force thus far has been limited and is restraining Islamic State, as hoped for. This is not all-out war, so such historical comparisons are out-and-out wrong. As Key has said, the goals for this deployment are not some Bush-esque "mission accomplished" nonsense:

"They [I-S] won't be eradicated. I mean, if your argument is that success is defined by there being no ISIL, then you're not going to get that success in two years... I'm not suggesting in two years we're going to solve all those problems."

Still, I had real doubts about National's plan when it was announced. First, that we are being drawn into the war I-S wants (to boost recruitment, further destabilise the Middle East and bring about the end of the world) step by step. Yet the US-led strategy so far seems to be refraining from the mistakes of former presidents. Here at home, Key was very clear on The Nation that he has put a strict two year time limit on our deployment.

"If after two years we haven't done a good enough job or haven't achieved enough in terms of training trainers and training people, will it make any difference if it's five or 10 years? I mean, in some senses I think this is about making a contribution and leaving. We could be in the Middle East forever if we don't take that approach."

Second, I'd be opposed if anyone seemed to think this was a solution to either Iraq's and Syria's woes or indeed those of the wider Middle East. Yet happily our government at least doesn't claim that. You can see in that first quote that Key recognises that this fight with I-S is not about solving the Middle East's big problems, the long-term debates that lie at the root of Islamic terrorism. Those solutions lie in Jerusalem, in Washington DC, and in Riyadh, amongst others. But those are arguments for another day; this battle is about containing a particular threat from a particular foe. Key again:

"If you just take it from an Iraqi context at the moment, to be resolved, you need the government to build that inclusive government. But to do that, in part they have to have the capability to stand up to those people. And so what we're doing is delivering that capability. But if we fight Iraq's wars, then we involve ourselves in something that we can't hope to solve for them. They have to solve it for themselves, so it's about where is that line."

This is where you can see a distinct difference in the New Zealand and Australian strategies, as I wrote yesterday. When you hear Australian leaders talk, you understand quite how minimal our response really is. Limited soldiers, limited purpose, limited time.

Yes, we could have done a little less; ie humanitarian aid alone. Many democratic countries have chosen that option. But would we be happy if all countries chose that option? Would we be better off without the air-strikes and arms sent to the Kurds? And consider this: If we see this as a short and precise mission, what do we leave when we walk away? Much of the criticism of such interventions is that the West so often makes things worse or leaves a mess behind, as it did after the Gulf Wars. (Indeed, it is precisely because of the failures of past interventions and the hatred they provoked that we are faced with needing to contain I-S now).

If, within the next two years, Islamic State is contained and (best case option) is falling apart from within, then the West has stopped, or at least contained, the threat of its genocide. Job done, New Zealand and others head home. That, of course, whacks this mole, but leaves Iraq still in a parlous state.

While, again, some critics act as if Maliki is still in charge there and nothing has changed in the past six months, there is some hope the new government will be more inclusive. Not much evidence yet, perhaps, but a hope at least.

So knowing this mission does little for Iraq and what comes next, what choice does New Zealand make? Does it try to leave some legacy of skill behind? As I said, Labour has a point that you do nothing, because the 'something' is just a waste of money and time. The Iraq government and army won't suddenly be free from corruption and sectarianism in two years. But it's just as reasonable a choice to at least try to contribute some good.

If we were the only ones contributing I'd agree it was a waste. But look at our small contribution as part of the trainers and resources being sent by other countries, from Norway to Spain. Perhaps Iraq is unsustainable as a country, but if that's true more lives will be lost in the realignment. And perhaps not. Either way, at least a more disciplined military may help provide a little more stability than would otherwise exist.

And yes, to some extent the "club" exists. Just as much as exists when it comes to climate change, sanctions and tax evasion, it exists when it comes to groups of violent people eager to bring about the end of the world.

If you look at Key's comments, you might argue they are full of some rather heroic, glass-half-full assumptions. This could all end very badly yet. And of course none of this even begins to be resolved until Israel and Palestine find some resolution, the US changes tack in the region and Islam makes room for some degree of enlightenment.

But for the violence and need directly in front of us, it's a reasonable strategy for today. The tragedy is that there seems to be little will to find a strategy to give us peace and justice tomorrow.

Comments (21)

by Raymond A Francis on March 02, 2015
Raymond A Francis

You say bombs don't work

Check your history books, 'cause they did work to end the war with Japan, so far 

by Rich on March 02, 2015

The war with Japan ended with the atom bombs which removed the regime's ability to engage in organised resistance, followed by a seven year occupation during which time Japan's political institutions were completely rebuilt. Japanese militarism was confined to Japan, was relatively novel and the Japanese people were willing to accept a new political system modelled on that of the Western allies.

It would be possible to impose such an occupation in Syria/Iraq, but it would be more like the 1945-90 Soviet occupation of East Germany than the US occupation of Japan. You'd need to liquidate most of the population of fighting age, set up an efficient police state (probably run by Americans of Syrian/Iraqi origin, as the Soviets did with Germans who grew up in the USSR like Markus Wolf) and impose a state-controlled denomination of Islam with appropriate teachings). In 50 years, you might have a stable secular society. Meanwhile, everywhere else in the muslim world would be seething.


by mikesh on March 02, 2015

So ,,, ,,, ... we don't like Islamic State's version of "shock and awe". But then, I guess they didn't like our version very much either. If one is beaten up often enough one will usually strike back with venom.

The only solution to the "middle east problem", that carries any moral conviction, would be to remove all western military personnel from the region and leave the locals with the freedom to choose their own paths. If doing so leaves us without access to the oil fields, well ... ... ... tough. We all have our crosses to bear no doubt. 

by Alex Coleman on March 02, 2015
Alex Coleman

While, again, some critics act as if Maliki is still in charge there and nothing has changed in the past six months, there is some hope the new government will be more inclusive. Not much evidence yet, perhaps, but a hope at least.

Fair enough, and I'm glad you're explicit about it. But I do think that given it is the central point, (you have a quote from Key saying much the same thing),  'hope' is not a plan.

Too weak sauce for me at any rate. The facts I can see, via news reporting, is that the talk of unity is heavily outweighed by the actions on the ground.

eg http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2015/02/28/399610/Iraq-truck-blast-kills-11-soldiers#pq=cENote

“We call on the people of Tikrit to leave their city within 48 hours to wrap up the battle of the revenge for Speicher,” said Ameri.

Speicher is a military base near Tikrit from which hundreds of soldiers and military officers were kidnapped and then executed by ISIL in June. 

That's a head of Badr, warning Tikrit citizens of what is coming. And note that he frames the assault not as a liberation, but as reprisal.

You can go back to when IS were closer to Baghdad, (no one really thinks they could take Baghdad) and were pushed out. The militia who pushed them out used similar language about 'get out, we're coming'. When they took villages back, the homes of Sunni were burnt and prominent locals executed. They justified this on the grounds that 'We warned them, so everyone who stayed is Daesh,'

The claim isn't that the new guy is just like Maliki, it's that Maliki wasn't like he was by accident. Iraqi politics is what it is. The Sunni do not trust the Shia, and genuinely think they should still be running the joint. The Shia genuinely think 'NOPE'. 

It's a fantasy to think that western trainers can fix that with some short courses for their military. Iraq has a parliament too, the PM can't just do what he wants, even if what he wants was 'unity'.

I also think that by committing in a largely symbolic fashion, the west is tying itself to not being able to effectively criticise the Iraqi government. If in the next few weeks the Shia militia do commit war crimes in Tikrit, will it get the western coverage IS crimes get?  Will western govts tell Baghdad that they just lost our assistance? Of course not, we have committed and saying that would be to admit we were wrong.


by Tim Watkin on March 02, 2015
Tim Watkin

Raymond, I'm sure you know the decades of debate behind that statement as well as I do. There are plenty of arguments that as to whether Japan was done anyway and how much longer the war would have lasted and whether the death of nearly quarter of a million people meant fewer died in the long run.

Perhaps. But if that's a solution to you, or an example something that "worked", I'm gonna disagree.

by Tim Watkin on March 02, 2015
Tim Watkin

Mike, I acknowledged the part the horrors of the Gulf War played in the rise of AQ in Iraq and then Islamic State, but are you really just going to say comme ci, comme ca? If you abuse, you have to expect to be abused? That way leads a spiral of destruction. And as many have pointed out, I-S is striking back mostly against other muslims, not westerners. You can be as complacent as you like about Islamic anger at the West, but this is not a 'clash of civlisations' war, but the advance of a terror state and a hideous ideology which is mostly suffered by other muslims who interpret their religion differently.

I wonder how far you take your own ideology of leaving locals to choose their own paths. Would you have stayed out in Bosnia and Rwanda? Would you have let the local Jews sort out their own problems with the Nazis? Or, and I ask this genuinely, are you saying that the Middle East is different? I too believe in the long-term near neighbours will need to step up more... and the less Western intervention in the long-term is part of the solution. But was at pains in this post to make the case that fixing the Middle East over a long time requires a different response to the direct problem of stopping the I-S horrors today.

by Tim Watkin on March 02, 2015
Tim Watkin

Alex, I'm not convinced that article is as damning as you paint it. In the context of the previous offences you mention of Sunnis being victimised and killed, of course that's not good. But you could also take from that story that the Iraq army is actually more effective than it was and is doing some of the heavy lifting itself. And, for what it's worth, here's an article with a quote from the PM talking about a "liberation" and suggesting that the warning was for Sunni militants (but also that they could receive a pardon if they walked away).

That's just painting in another part of the picture, but not to pretend that all is sweetness and light. Of course sectarianism runs deep and will take, well, who knows how long to fade away. Ask the Irish.

The point is that could take years or generations, but that's not the purpose of this mission; I was pleasantly surprised that Key clearly understood that and wasn't just trying to spin some kumbya nonsense.

I think your Sunni/Shia argument is something of a strawman; no-one's saying this will solve that. The point of this coalition – or so it seems as this point – is just to contain and degrade IS. Its existence and even NZ's deployment doesn't mean Iraq won't fall apart or be dismantled in an orderly fashion or doesn't (seem to) undermine a nuke deal with Iran etc.

So the question is, just because you can't solve Iraq, does that mean you don't fight IS? It seems to me that if you distinguish the two clearly and have a clear mission focus on the latter, then this response makes sense. Or are you concluding that because Iraqis live in a stuffed state, they don't deserve our intervention?

Admittedly, yes, a lot could yet go wrong and the religious conflict may yet overwhelm any efforts. But I think it's exaggerating a bit to say it's a plan just based on hope; some examples of violent sectarianism (while certainly giving pause) is not reason to offer some (pretty minimal) support to a regime that in rhetoric at least seems to be more willing to unify than Maliki?

by mikesh on March 02, 2015

The holocaust occurred because of WWII. The rest of the world didn't know the extent of it until the war was over. And much of WWII may have been averted if that war crazy leader Winston Churchill hadn't declared war on Germany. 

As far as the middle east is concerned some-one sooner or later has to lay down their arms and say "enough is enough". (Perhaps we need another Lysistrata.) That some-one has to be west I think because, really, it's not our country. Let them make their own decisions, and they do by fighting a civil then that's their choice.

As for the comment that it's muslims fighting muslims, that's only because western troops are well protected and fight mainly from the air. And in any case many of those who have lost their heads have been westerners.


by william blake on March 03, 2015
william blake


it it seems the Iraq army is perpetrating its own genocide, so if the Kiwi's are going to train the Iraqi soldiers in international law rather than how to throw a hand grenade, that would be a moral position and better for humanity. It would depend on the Iraqi soldiers paying attention to their lectures, passing the tests and remembering them in the heat of battle.

And what about Iranian field commanders directing Iranian troops? That is going to end in tears, including more Israeli ones?

by Tim Watkin on March 03, 2015
Tim Watkin

Mike I'm not sure what point you're making with your comments about WWII. While the West (in the form it took then) didn't know about the concentration camps until late in the day, the hatred of Jews was hardly a secret. The Warsaw ghetto was set up in 1940. But my question was whether you really think locals should always be left to solve their own problems or whether there's a time for others to intervene.

From your answer about leaving them to it and letting them fight a civil war if they want, I take it to mean you would just stay out regardless. I think that's politically impossible but also incredibly heartless, to say you'd just leave people to their fate. It's one thing not to inflame (I opposed Bush's invasion of Afghanisatn post 9/11), but quite another to abandon people.

Sure, most of the Middle East's problems would be solved by one side laying down its arms; ultimately you need that to solve any violence. But at the heart of those problems is the Israel - Palestine question, and while you can argue the US stokes tensions, it has also spent huge efforts trying to resolve it. Point being, it's not a West v Middle East problem and would continue even if the West wasn't involved and ignored it.

And the fight within Islam has been going on before Westerners turned up for this fight; again, it's a fight that would be occurring whether the West was there or not.

by Alex Coleman on March 03, 2015
Alex Coleman

I think your Sunni/Shia argument is something of a strawman; no-one's saying this will solve that.

I'm not actually arguing anyone *is* saying this mission will solve that, so I hop you'll forgive me a wee chuckle at the strawman allegation. :)

What I am saying, is that the sectarian nature of the war is paramount. It isn't something we can push aside till later. How the war is fought, the goals of the people we are aligning with, matter.

It isn't about us. When we align with the Baghdad government, we align the West with their interests. The unity rhetoric is not being matched on the ground. Not the ikrit battle starting now, Shia militia, led by the Commander of the Badr, with advice from the Qods force general invading the Sunni heartland and traditional stronghold of the Baathist movement. It's all very well to say 'just ignore that, look at it as the Iraqi Army standing up' but how the Iraqi stands up matters to Sunni. 

A few days ago a Sunni man who had fled Tikrit with his family was found, alongside his 5 sons, dead with bullets to the head and hands tied in the Shia area he had left to. The Iraqi police are right now doing 'clearing operations' in Sunni areas around Baghdad on the orders of the Minister of the interior. Who is, you guessed it, a member of the political wing of the Badr Brigade. 

But none of this matters because the PM, who just happens to not want western troops or aid in the fight for Tikrit, says that Sunni tribes should trust him. 

Would you trust him, if you were them?

This is the argument that I am making. It's about current day Iraq, with current day Iraqi politics being what we need to get a grip on. Analogies with WW2 or whatever are irrelevant. 

If the way ISIS is defeated in Iraq alienates Sunni further that will not weaken ISIS.

And if we are not aiming to fix the problem or do much other than degrade ISIS, then is it worth aligning ourselves with what is happening anyway? In order to what? Make ourselves feel better when we watch it on the news?





by Alex Coleman on March 03, 2015
Alex Coleman

And from your link:

Al-Abadi offered what he called “the last chance” for Sunni tribal fighters, promising them a pardon during a news conference in Samarra, 95 kilometres north of Baghdad. His office said he arrived in Samarra to “supervise the operation to liberate Tikrit from the terrorist gangs.”

“I call upon those who have been misled or committed a mistake to lay down arms and join their people and security forces in order to liberate their cities,” al-Abadi said.

That's pretty double edged from the PM isn't it? 'Last chance' to show support for the govt. Sunni tribes (not just ISIS) of Tikrit need to surrender now, or?

by mikesh on March 03, 2015

From your answer about leaving them to it and letting them fight a civil war if they want, I take it to mean you would just stay out regardless. I think that's politically impossible but also incredibly heartless, to say you'd just leave people to their fate. It's one thing not to inflame (I opposed Bush's invasion of Afghanisatn post 9/11), but quite another to abandon people.

Tim, I don't think it's heartless to leave the two sides to find their own solution. Without outside intervention by militarily strong countries like the US one side or the other would probably hold up the white flag and some sort of settlement would very likely be reached. What is heartless is egging them on by providing support to one side, particularly if that support takes the form of barbaric practices like bombings, drones, etc.

The point I was making about WWII is that we didn't enter that war to fight antisemitism, as you seemed to be suggesting with your comment about  Nazis and Jews. And the two situations don't seem all that different. The bellicosity of Churchill seems to find a reflection in current attitudes in the US.

by william blake on March 03, 2015
william blake


Combined US and Iranian support for the Iraq military/ militia, supercharged diplomacy and favours being called in.

If they can blitzkrieg the IS and rout them back into Syria without settling sectarian scores, this could be the just war that you are hoping for Tim.


by barry on March 03, 2015

I agree that Daesh are an abomination but I am still opposed to our being involved.  We will be supporting one side in a sectarian conflict of which the best can be said is that they are the lesser of two evils. 

It seems that we will be training the Shia militia as well as the regular army.  I can't see them being able to train enough for long enough to make a significant difference.  The best that we can hope is that all our soldiers make it home alive without having been involved in any scandals.


by Tim Watkin on March 03, 2015
Tim Watkin

Alex, I'll always forgive a chuckle, but you did actually write that it's "a fantasy to think" that western trainers can fix the sectarian problems... so it sounded like you were claiming someone was thinking that.

Of course it's not about us; I tend to think while the 'global threat' argument can't be shrugged off it's probably the least of the arguments in favour and may come to nothing much. But I only partly agree with your point about alignment. Given the widespread opposition to IS in Iraq and the region, I don't think being willing to degrade them is going to put us on the wrong side of history or earn the wrath of many Sunni. I think you're transposing the mistakes of the past on this case whereas, as you say yourself, it's this specific issue that matters.

For me, your best point is:

If the way ISIS is defeated in Iraq alienates Sunni further that will not weaken ISIS.

You'd be a fool not to worry about that. I don't know the ins and outs and potential for offence well enough to know exactly what the wrong way may be, but I take your point. Yet again, that may have been an issue in the Gulf Wars etc, but I'm not sure yet whether it's really a problem here.

And your final question... to stop genocide. There's nothing about war that makes me feel better, but saving the lives of Iraqis and Syrian being murdered by IS adherents is the purpose.

by Tim Watkin on March 03, 2015
Tim Watkin

Mike, are you seriously saying IS would have just stopped their advance if the Shia in Iraq had held up the white flag? If so I think you're ignoring the evidence. Did they sort out some settlement with the Yazidis or any others they have decreed apostates. What's more there are more than two sides in this fight... And Is need no "egging on"; this is a mission from God for them so they're driven by conviction. You really need to realise this isn't about the West.

As for the rest, you seem determined not to answer my question about when and how to act. If you really are happy to abandon people to their fates, God help you when they've come for the gypsies, gays etc and then it's your turn.

by Tim Watkin on March 03, 2015
Tim Watkin

William, that is the hope. I fear it won't go as well as all that and I'm loathe to say any war is just... any violence creates more injustices by its very nature... but every now and then it's the lesser evil.

And Barry, that's as good as it gets some time. There's hardly ever a side of the angels in a fight, but sometimes stopping the greater evil is achievement enough, isn't it? And it's not as if we are taking the Shia side against all Sunnis given the Sunni opposition to IS. So I'm not sure we're really taking sectarian sides, as you describe it.

And while I hope our soldiers make it home alive, I'm not convinced that's all we can hope for. I'd like to also hope that IS is degraded and more lives saved than lost.

by mikesh on March 04, 2015

Mike, are you seriously saying IS would have just stopped their advance if the Shia in Iraq had held up the white flag? If so I think you're ignoring the evidence.

There is no evidence. We really don't know what the situation would be if there was no western presence in the middle east.

by Tim Watkin on March 05, 2015
Tim Watkin

Well, if you're going back hundreds of years Mike you might have a point. But I still don't think you can say 'because of the sins of Richard the Lionheart and Lawrence of Arabia or even Dwight Eisenhower we shouldn't act against IS'. Sins they were and lessons must be learnt and, as I've said, involvement should be limited and only in certain circumstances. Just because wrongs were committed in the past, doesn't mean you refrain from action for the rest of history.

And I think you're plain wrong to suggest Islam wouldn't have violent extremists if the West weren't there. Where I think you're missing the evidence is suggesting that one side would hold up a white flag. Iraqis are fighting for their tribe or sect or country, while IS members are purposefully trying to provoke the West to draw recruits, fulfil prophesy and demonstrate their faith. None of that has anything to do with the West.


by mikesh on March 06, 2015

And I think you're plain wrong to suggest Islam wouldn't have violent extremists if the West weren't there.

I didn't suggest that at all. But if they wish to fight one another then that's their business not ours. Non interference is not heartless since it only gets their dander up seeing us supporting one side or the other, and makes things worse, quite apart from the barbarity of fighting with bombers and drones.  

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