Mark Mitchell has completed his first trip to Iraq as Defence Minister, saying Kiwi trainers are having a significant impact on the morale and quality of Iraqi troops. However, Mitchell warns the battle to defeat Islamic State won’t be easy, and is coming at a significant human cost, as Sam Sachdeva reports.
Mark Mitchell is no stranger to Iraq.
Before entering politics, the current Defence Minister helped to set up a security programme for the country’s interim government - work which included uncovering mass graves and withstanding a five-day siege by local militia.
So when he says New Zealand is making a difference in the fight against Islamic State, it is with some degree of expertise.
Mitchell made his first trip to Iraq as minister last week, visiting the 106 Kiwi trainers, force protection elements and other Regular Force soldiers at Camp Taji near Baghdad.
Kiwi troops first headed to Iraq in May 2015 and have trained over 23,000 Iraqi soldiers.
Last year, then-Prime Minister John Key announced the deployment would be extended by 18 months to November 2018, despite some criticism of “mission creep” from opposition parties.
Speaking at the National Party’s annual conference, Mitchell said he was aware of questions about the value of the mission and what New Zealand could achieve.
“I know that when we sent the troops up there, we wondered what sort of impact we were really going to have in terms of taking on Isis, and I can tell you from my own experience back in 2003 when I was in Iraq...we had massive challenges.
“There was very poor discipline, there was almost no motivation, and they were deeply corrupt, so you had a very ineffective security force.”
'Three-headed monster' no more
In contrast, he said the Iraqi troops he saw at Taji were “highly motivated, highly disciplined and very proud of what they were achieving” in the fight against Isis.
“When our troops first went in there on this training mission, the Iraqi troops saw Daesh as some three-headed monster that was brutal and evil and extremely powerful, that they had no hope of taking on and defeating.
“And now you see the numbers in terms of what they’ve done - they’ve liberated 60,000 square kilometres, they have a core belief in themselves and they now have got a capability that we have helped give them through our training and actually even just being there gives them the moral support too to go out and do this job.”
Showing the audience photos of his visit, Mitchell said the levels of professionalism among Iraqi troops had increased significantly since New Zealand started training them.
“If you look at these young guys, they’re turning up, they've got boots on, their uniform is consistent, they’re holding their weapons properly, they look you in the eye, they’re determined, they’re proud of what they're doing.
“Even three years ago, if we’d been there they would have turned up with flip flops, with Kiwi safety boots on, they would have had pieces of their uniform missing, half of them wouldn’t turn up for training, and you probably couldn’t trust the other half that did turn up for training.”
However, the improved standards do not take away from the risks that the Iraqis face in the fight against Isis, as Mitchell outlined.
“The young guys that you’re meeting on this trip and you’re shaking their hands and talking to them, by Christmas time another 20 or 30 per cent are going to be dead.
“This is the challenge that they’re having to go out and deal with and they’re having to face: some of the young guys that we see on that slide now, come Christmas time more than likely won’t be with us.”
'Full annihilation' needed
Mitchell said New Zealanders should be “deeply proud” of the work Kiwi troops are doing in Taji, but warned there was more work to be done.
It was unlikely Isis would be defeated by the end of 2018, with the toughest part of the fight - in the Euphrates Valley - yet to come and stabilisation of the region also vital.
Mitchell said he could not predict what decisions the Government would make about extending the mandate, but discussions would need to begin next year.
The ultimate goal was the “full annihilation” of Isis in both Iraq and Syria - a phrase he said he used advisedly.
“The mission is actually to make sure that none of these guys ever leave Iraq or Syria, because another global problem we face is the returning of foreign fighters, and that’s starting to become a big issue now for a lot of our coalition partners.”
The foreign fighters issue is on many minds, with one attendee asking Mitchell and Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee what was being done to prevent any from coming to New Zealand.
Brownlee said the Government maintained watchlists with “quite a number of people”, allowing them to inform “others who have an interest” of their possible departures and prevent them from returning.
He, like Mitchell, warned that the fight against Isis would not be easy - and was in fact starting to become more relevant to the Asia-Pacific.
“The sad thing is that sort of element is hard to eradicate completely - whether it has the same name in the future, some of what it’s about will remain, and of course we’re seeing some of it starting to slip into areas in our own backyard, particularly quite a bit of concern in the southern provinces of the Philippines at the moment.”