Over the next month, New Zealand will deploy 143 troops to Iraq, working with 330 Australians to train Iraqi security forces in the fight against Islamic State.
On Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that the first of those additional Australian troops will start heading to the Middle East from Wednesday April 14.
The joint mission will be mostly based at the Taji military complex, 30km north of Baghdad, and is due to be fully operational by mid May.
In the days since, some of those NZ troops have been waiting in Australia to deploy to Iraq in the advance party.
Australian soldiers are already serving in Iraq with bipartisan support. But it is a different story in NZ, where the decision to send troops to Iraq has polarised the parliament and public opinion, and rudely exposed the antipathy between Prime Minister John Key and Opposition Leader Andrew Little.
The danger is that as long as the bickering in NZ continues, politicians risk deepening public divisions – rather than focusing on the needs of the NZ Defence Force personnel.
Claims of secrecy over legal protections for NZ troops
There is a running spat over the failure of the NZ government to conclude a Status of Forces Agreement with its Iraqi counterparts, an omission the Opposition claims will place NZ Defence Force personnel at greater risk when carrying out their mission in Iraq.
In recent days, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee confirmed that a “satisfactory” form of legal agreement had been reached with Iraq’s government, though no details will be released to the public due to “security concerns”.
Labour’s defence spokesman Phil Goff says that “whole pattern of secrecy” is not good enough, and argued the agreement should be released so New Zealanders can judge if the protections were sufficient.
These recent disagreements mirror the divisions and unseemly scenes in the NZ Parliament when the troop deployment was announced in late February.
Prime Minister Key emotively contrasted the dissenting stance of the Labour Party with their counterparts across the Commonwealth, and challenged the Opposition Leader to “get some guts” and to “join the right side.”
Despite the atrocities and war crimes carried out by Islamic State, Labour’s Little has opposed the deployment, saying the mission is “futile” and there is “no case” to send troops to Iraq. Labour and other opposition parties emphasise that vast amounts of blood and treasure has already been invested in the Iraqi army, to no obvious positive effect.
The Chief of the NZ Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, was drawn into the fray when asked “what impact it would have on the morale of the troops to know half of the Parliament opposed the deployment”. His response focused upon the public support for the NZ defence personnel.
Divided public opinion
A poll on the day of the announcement indicated that the public is also divided on the issue, with 46% of those polled offering unequivocal support for the deployment but 32% saying it is not New Zealand’s fight.
One can understand the reluctance of many Kiwis to deploy NZ troops to Iraq. They are concerned about the risk of bringing Islamic State’s malevolence to the streets of New Zealand and putting Kiwis overseas in harm’s way.
They may be persuaded by those who assert that there is no existential threat to New Zealand from Islamic State; that the government is pandering to the United States and the United Kingdom; and that New Zealand should leave well alone, at least militarily.
But if people also believe the claims that NZ Defence Force personnel will not be properly protected in Iraq without a Status of Forces Agreement, will the public division in New Zealand grow even further? And is that claim about a lack of proper legal protection really justified?
How important is a Status of Forces Agreement?
In real terms, the NZ Labour leader’s insistence about the importance of a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) is just politicking.
A SOFA is a Rolls Royce solution to the issue of how to protect our forces from the legal system of a host nation.
For more than a decade in Afghanistan, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) including Brits, Aussies and Kiwis were protected by an agreement that was not a SOFA.
Instead, they were protected by Military Technical Agreement (MTA). The MTA included provisions about who had primary jurisdiction over ISAF forces if they committed criminal or disciplinary offences or damaged civilian property. These and other provisions prevented military personnel from being at the mercy of the Afghan criminal courts and some fearsome Afghan prisons.
The MTA was imperfect and became dated as the mission in Afghanistan expanded. But it survived intact despite repeated requests to amend or revise it. This was especially important as the relationship between ISAF and the Afghan government became more difficult, and the calls to withdraw foreign troops increased.
The fact is some host nations do not like to commit to a SOFA because it can imply a loss of power and control, which will be unpopular domestically. There are various alternatives to a SOFA that essentially serve the same purpose, including an exchange of diplomatic letters, which Little derides as insufficient.
Ultimately, the title of the agreement is irrelevant. What is crucial is that any agreement accurately and properly reflects New Zealand’s intentions, that is to protect Kiwi troops from the Iraqi courts. Thereafter, it is essential to have good people in country to robustly defend New Zealand’s interpretation of the document.
My own experience as a Royal Air Force Legal Adviser in Afghanistan included many a discussion with government officials about the wording and interpretation of the MTA.
New Zealand has assumed a seat on the United Nations’ Security Council. With great power comes great responsibility. This includes making difficult decisions about the use of force in an already combustible region.
Now that the deployment of the NZ Defence Force has been given the green light, it is time for the whole of parliament to take a break from the political point-scoring.
If all parties have our troops’ best interests at heart, as they have all claimed, then they should be working together to ensure Kiwi military men and women are afforded the very best preparation and protection for their difficult mission ahead – which is possible, with or without a Status of Forces Agreement.