The United States has asked New Zealand to provide special operations troops to the coalition against Isis (Islamic State). The Government has said it will consider the request but the Prime Minister has qualified the response, stating that he does not think New Zealand will increase its contribution beyond the company-sized training complement currently deployed at Camp Taji outside Baghdad.
The PM's caution has more to do with domestic political concerns than the practical or diplomatic necessities of the conflict. With a thin majority thanks to Winston Peters' by-election victory in Northland, National cannot risk parliamentary defeat on the issue. But Opposition leader Andrew Little has signalled that Labour is willing to consider sending SAS troops to the fight, so the ground is clearing for authorisation of a new phase of the New Zealand mission.
This was predictable from the moment the NZ Defence Force first deployed to Iraq last May. It was clear then, and it is now, that training Iraqi soldiers is not enough to turn the tide. The training is good and the troops that graduate have improved professional skills, but according to a report prepared by the US Defence Department immediately before Mr Key travelled to Taji in October, they are no better in battle than they were before the training mission began.
The problem lies with the Iraqi Army leadership. Iraqi field rank officers are not included in the training programme and are by and large unwilling or unable to demonstrate the type of leadership skills under fire that are required to make best use of the training received by their soldiers from the NZDF and its allies.
That is where special operations troops like New Zealand's SAS are useful. Among many other roles, they serve as leadership advisers on the battlefield. Because of their exceptional skills and hardened discipline, SAS teams serve as force multipliers in the field by adding tactical acumen, physical resilience and steadfastness of purpose to the fight. They lead by example.
New Zealand's major allies already have special operations troops on the ground in Iraq and in some instances, Syria. The Australian SAS now serves as forward spotters for the RAAF's FA-18s undertaking ground attack missions in Iraq. It is also fighting alongside Iraqi troops in the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of the Sunni heartland that is Anbar Province (119km from Camp Taji).
US, UK and Canadian special operators are conducting advisory, forward targeting, search-and-destroy and long-range intelligence missions against Isis in north and western Iraq in conjunction with Kurdish and Iraqi forces. These are the allies that the NZSAS trains with regularly and works the closest with when on foreign missions.
Like its counterparts, NZSAS tend to spend much time in or near overseas conflict zones whether that is publicised or not, usually following the typical military rotation pattern of threes: a third overseas, a third preparing for deployment, and a third on home duty after deployment. A platoon-sized group (30-40 soldiers excluding officers) is available for foreign deployment at any given time.
Credible reports already put the NZSAS in theatre in small numbers. They may not be based in Iraq (which gives the Government plausible deniability when asked if there are SAS troops on the ground in Iraq), but the focus of their mission certainly is. Given the logistics involved, it would be unusual if the SAS has not been working behind the scenes for their eventual participation in more active combat roles.
It will be odd if New Zealand refuses to send its most elite soldiers when asked for them by its major allies in a UN-sanctioned multi-national military coalition. Troops such as the NZSAS need regular combat experience to sharpen and maintain their skills. Since part of their specialness is versatility in a wide range of combat environments, the SAS would be keen to test its troops in the mixed urban/desert, conventional and unconventional battlefields of Iraq and Syria.
Leaving the SAS in New Zealand is akin to leaving a Bugatti in the garage. Much has been invested in their combat readiness. They are trained to fight and lead others in combat (such as during the anti-terrorist mission in Afghanistan). It would be counterproductive for them to be idling in Papakura when there is a just cause to be fought against enemies of humanity who commit atrocities and wreak misery on those they subjugate.
Thanks to the Wellington and Washington agreements New Zealand is once again a first-tier military partner of the US, alongside Australia, Canada and the UK. Most of New Zealand's major diplomatic partners are members of the anti-Isis coalition and some, such as Norway and Denmark, have also contributed special operations troops to it.
As a temporary member of the UN Security Council, New Zealand has been vocal in its condemnation of Isis and in calling for a united diplomatic and military response against it. It consequently has no real option but to accede to the request for the SAS. It may be mission creep but this was mission creep that was foreseeable.
Critics will say New Zealand has no dog in this fight, that it is neo-imperialist foreign intervention on behest of corporate interests that only serves to show how subservient governments like National's are when it comes to pleasing the US. If so, then there are 59 other countries in that category, to which can be added Iran, Russia and the newly formed Sunni Muslim anti-terrorism coalition that includes Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan.
It may be politically difficult to sell the deployment to domestic audiences. The mission will be very dangerous for the troops involved. It will raise New Zealand's target profile amongst Islamists and could invite attack at home. But it is a necessary, justifiable and ultimately right thing to do.
Paul G. Buchanan is a strategic analyst and director of 36th Parallel Assessments, a geopolitical risk consultancy.
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