The implications of 143 NZ Defence Force personnel on a mission to train Iraqi troops to fight Isis (Islamic State, Isil) was the subject of a forum at Parliament last night, organised by foreign affairs specialists Diplosphere. Among the respected commentators presenting their views were Robert Ayson (professor of Strategic Studies at Victoria University), Terence O'Brien (former diplomat and senior fellow at Victoria's Centre for Strategic Studies) and Professor Robert G Patman (a professor of international relations at Otago University.)

Edmund Burke once said political decisions often involve a choice between intolerable and disagreeable options.

These words certainly resonate when we ponder the Key government's recent announcement that New Zealand will send about 140 troops to Iraq to begin a "behind the wire" mission in May to help the Iraqi government increase its military capability to battle ISIL jihadist fighters.

The militant Islamist ISIL emerged as one of the most formidable armed opposition groups to the Assad dictatorship in Syria in 2012, and has rapidly expanded its sphere of operations since so that it now controls parts of Syria, northern Iraq and some areas of Libya.

The avowed aim of ISIL is to establish a caliphate, a global order that would be led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and involves an extreme interpretation of Islamic law.


To this end, ISIL has enthusiastically engaged in crimes against humanity in the areas under its control.

The Key government foreshadowed its willingness to act by indicating in November 2014 that it would consider any formal request from the Iraqi government for military training assistance.

But New Zealanders seem to be divided on this issue. A TVNZ opinion poll released this week found 48% of participants supported a military training mission, with 42% against and the rest undecided.

It has to be frankly acknowledged that the deployment decision by the Key government contains a number of risks.

These include the concern that New Zealand military assistance would make little difference to the capabilities of the Iraqi army; New Zealand military personnel face the very real prospect of being killed in what is a dangerous security environment in Iraq;

New Zealand as a country risks making itself a serious target for ISIL terrorism; that New Zealand has undermined its reputation for independent decision-making by caving into intense external pressure to join the international coalition opposed to ISIL's terror activities; and that New Zealand has no national interest in addressing the threat of ISIL and is therefore participating in 'other people's wars'.

All of these points and more have been made recently. They reflect deeply held concerns about the wisdom of the Key government's deployment decision.

But a refusal to join the international campaign against ISIL also presents substantial political and strategic risks for New Zealand.

First, the brutal activities of ISIL - beheadings, stonings, almost total disregard for the social and political rights of women, and burning alive its victims - are the very antithesis of everything that New Zealand stands for in an increasingly interconnected world.

How can a country which prides itself on its support for international human rights and the rule of law actually decline to contribute to military efforts to stop ISIL's repressive behaviour?

Second, in its successful bid for a UN Security Council seat in October, the Key government slammed the 'paralysis' of the UN in dealing with major international problems like the rise of ISIS and the Ukraine conflict, and pledged to give greater representation to the views and interests of small states in the UN.

It is a pledge that Mr McCully recently repeated in his first major speech to the UN Security Council. Given that commitment, and that many states are potentially vulnerable to threats from ISIL, the Key government risks its losing credibility if does not follow through on multilateral efforts to curb ISIL.

Third, and not unrelated, New Zealand and other smaller states must be prepared to take on a more active international role as globalisation deepens. Relying on the great powers alone to solve problems like ISIL will no longer work.

Indeed, one could argue in light of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and Russian support for the Assad regime since 2011 that the great powers have been part of the problem. At the same time, New Zealand must not resign itself to defeatism and despair in the face of atrocities by ISIL.

Are we really confident that by refusing to participate in a military campaign against ISIL New Zealand would be immune to terrorist threats?

Thus, the deployment decision by the Key government involves considerable risk. But sometimes the worst risk in politics is not take any risk at all.

In my judgement, New Zealand does have a distinctive national and international interest in countering the rise of ISIL but this effort should not be simply confined to restoring the political status quo in the region.

New Zealand and other like minded members of the Security Council should press for a UNSC resolution to authorise the possible use of force against ISIL and that, in turn, could provide as a diplomatic platform to address the political problems that have helped fuel the rise of ISIL

Robert G. Patman is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Otago.