Editorial: Extended Iraq stay the right call despite cost

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A New Zealand Defence Force trainer Taji, Iraq. Photo / NZDF
A New Zealand Defence Force trainer Taji, Iraq. Photo / NZDF

The Government's decision to extend the service of New Zealand soldiers in Iraq beyond next February's deadline is the right one, even though the Prime Minister had previously indicated the troops were on two-year deployment due to end next May. The extension means 143 men and women from the Defence Force will be rotated through Iraq until November 2018.

It is a significant commitment, and was forecast to cost about $57 million by the time it was due to wind up next year. The longer stay will probably double the bill. A heavily-censored review of the deployment considered by the Cabinet in March said the work undertaken by New Zealand Defence Force personnel had been successful.

Since May last year, NZDF soldiers at the Taji Military Base near Baghdad, where they work with Australian forces, had trained some 4000 Iraqi troops. Instruction included weapons training, conflict first aid, human rights and planning for combat operations. Three junior leadership courses were completed and Iraqi medics attended a six-day course.

The review said the military training was having a "tangible and positive impact" on the ability of Iraqi Army units to wage war against the Islamic State or Isis. Groups which had completed training performed better than those which had not been through a programme.

Putting aside the difficulty of evaluating redacted Defence Force assessments of their own work, there are signs that Iraqi forces, supported by coalition air support, are making inroads against Isis.

In Iraq and Syria, Isis' grip is loosening. Insurgents have been forced out of about 55 places they once controlled, including four major cities. An intense fight is being waged for Falluja, the first city Isis controlled.

American officials estimate Isis has lost about 45 per cent of its territory in Syria and 20 per cent in Iraq since the peak of its control in August 2014. This represents more than simply a military setback, for with every town and village that is lost, the group also loses income that comes from taxes and fines. In other words, Isis appears to be hurting militarily and financially.

The Government was under pressure from Washington to expand its contribution to the coalition and facing criticism at home from Labour leader Andrew Little. Mr Little, who has visited the troops, opposes the extension because he has concerns about the capability of the Iraqi Army. There is some justification for his misgivings, given the performance of Iraqi troops in some encounters with the militants. But with expanded coalition resources, and progress on the training front, the recent conflict gains suggest the picture is not as bleak as it has been.

The Iraq commitment involves risks, from insider attacks, assaults on Camp Taji and indirect fire. Thankfully the NZDF group at Taji and at another undisclosed location in Iraq have remained unharmed, despite suicide bomb attacks launched against heavily guarded coalition compounds.

The troops involved in the training and battlefield preparations of Iraqi Army troops remain targets of the militants. The New Zealanders will need to tread carefully for the rest of their stay.

- NZ Herald

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