Why are we sending troops to Iraq?

ANDREA VANCE
Last updated 15:07 22/02/2015

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New Zealand is off to war in Iraq. We're all indulging Cabinet ministers who are pretending - at least until Tuesday - that they are still giving it serious thought. While they do, there are are five questions worth pondering.

Why?

"We've got to be part of standing up against Isis," is the simple, tailored-for-TV rationale. 

Going after the bad guys was also how the war on terror was sold to the Western public. Prime Minister John Key probably genuinely motivated by daily horrors in Iraq and Syria. But the reality is that coming to the aid of the Iraqi people is advantageous  - if not necessary - to New Zealand's geo-political interests. Despite his insistence there was no pressure from allies, Key was more truthful when he said it was "the price of the club."

Joining 'the club" in Iraq might give us the warm and fuzzies. But easing our conscience should not be the driving factor. Iraq is not desperate for the New Zealand Defence force's token gesture - and is asserting its sovereignty in the pre-deployment negotiations. 

Are we really needed? 

Almost certainly no. The US army have sent up to 200 troops to Taji (where Kiwis are likely to be based) in a $1.6bn program to put 5000 Iraqis through basic training. What they lack - as US media recently reported - is equipment. The Washington Post relayed an absurd scene in which soldiers yelled "bang bang" and bashed hammers to simulate enemy fire. New Zealand is in no position to donate weaponry or equipment. After talks with the Labour party this week, it became apparent Baghdad rather have assistance in capacity building. 

Don't mention the war?

Key's soothing mantra - this is a non-combat mission, there will be no boots on the ground - has numbed public debate. The contribution is at the bare-minimum of what the Government could contribute. Nevertheless, convincing the country that troops will be benign bystanders is a public relations master-stroke. This is a conflict that will see ordnance dropped on civilians and innocents caught in the cross-fire - and New Zealand will be in the middle of it, whether troops or firing weapons or not. 

What happens next?

We'd all love to know. Baghdad estimates it will take three years to get the army ready. Other world leaders talk of a lengthy engagement. The Government says Kiwis will pull out after two years - but how easy will it be to walk away from allies if the mission to defeat the caliphate is half-finished?

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Regional experts suggest coalition forces will only defeat IS fighters with help from Syria's pariah president Bashar al-Assad, which is profoundly unpalatable.  And, it's doubtful force alone will stop the spread of the malignant ideology. The return of Western powers is likely to push alienated Sunni into extremism. It certainly won't heal the sectarian and tribal rifts - between Sunni, Shia, Kurds - constitute an inclusive Government or foster a national civic identity. 

Are Kiwis at risk?

Naturally, in a war zone, Kiwi troops are in harm's way. The risk to all Kiwis in the region is escalated - as the recent beheading of two Japanese nationals brutally demonstrated. Japan paid dearly for contributing humanitarian aid.  IS has threatened to flood other coalition countries with a revenge wave of foreign fighters. However, that they would make it as far as New Zealand is in no way certain. 

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