Mark praises troops after Taji trip

Defence Minister Ron Mark at the range in Camp Taji. Photo: Supplied.

Defence Minister Ron Mark says a visit to Camp Taji has convinced him Kiwi trainers are both valued and wanted by Iraqi forces, but not that he was wrong to oppose their initial deployment.

Mark has also indicated the importance of Iraq’s reconstruction and recovery to New Zealand and other allies, saying it will have a direct effect on our safety at home.

Earlier this month, the Defence Minister visited NZDF deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates for the first time.

The Government is due to make a decision by November on whether to extend its training deployment in Iraq.

Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First were all critical of the National government’s original decision to head to Iraq, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has not tipped her hand so far as to her preference.

“We often say this, it’s a trite thing to roll out, ‘New Zealand punches above its weight’, but can now say with absolute surety that nations out there, some ten to twenty times the size of us figuratively speaking, really value and could not imagine operating without us.”

Speaking to Newsroom, Mark said his visit had allowed him to get a clearer picture of conditions on the ground and the role of NZDF personnel.

“It’s one thing to read reports, and to have wads and wads of paper and maps and everything - it’s something completely different to hit the ground, smell the air, meet the people then get the briefings in-country.”

He had spoken to a number of Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defence Minister Erfan al-Hayali, and believed New Zealand’s efforts were “highly valued” by both local and coalition forces.

“We often say this, it’s a trite thing to roll out, ‘New Zealand punches above its weight’, but can now say with absolute surety that nations out there, some ten to twenty times the size of us figuratively speaking, really value and could not imagine operating without us.”

Mark has not always been as glowing: in 2015, he cited criticism of Iraqi forces from US Defence Secretary Ash Carter when asking whether Kiwis could make a difference in the country.

"Does he not realise you can't train cowards to fight?", Mark said.

“Based on what I knew at the time, I don’t think my decision was wrong at all - not at all. Ask me today, have we done a good job? We’ve done a hellishly good job, and it’s valued.”

Asked whether he regretted his comments, he said the Government had failed to provide enough information to opposition parties about the scope of the mission and the work that would be done.

“If you lock people out and you’re not inclusive, you don’t trust people, then you get a different result…

“Based on what I knew at the time, I don’t think my decision was wrong at all - not at all. Ask me today, have we done a good job? We’ve done a hellishly good job, and it’s valued.”

Mark was accompanied by Labour’s Andrew Little and National’s Simon O’Connor, and said he intended to remain as inclusive as possible when it came to judging New Zealand’s military role.

“If Parliament’s called upon to say yea or nay to what we’re doing in this space, I’d like our men and women in uniform to know they have the majority support of the Parliament, and that’s not something that’s happened in the past.”

The Iraqi Armed Forces had also changed dramatically for the better in recent years, in large part because of New Zealand’s work.

“They’ve [Iraqi commanders] said different army, different defence force, different leadership, and it reflects in the successes that they’ve had.”

Mark said he would report back to Cabinet on his experiences and their bearing on the decision on whether or not to extend New Zealand’s deployment, although he did not yet know when that discussion would take place.

“If you still allow people to live in abject poverty and insecurity where there’s no running water and there’s no access for schools and no access for health services, then just watch Isis return.”

Following his Middle East trip, Mark headed to Europe for a range of security meetings, including a gathering of defence ministers whose countries are taking on Islamic State (Isis).

Former Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee last year hinted at a role for New Zealand in the reconstruction of Iraq after a visit there. Mark said the Government would first need to know what role the Iraqi government wanted it to play, but acknowledged New Zealand’s safety was tied in part to that of the country.

“We all agree and of the understanding peace and stability in our parts of the world will be directly affected by what does and does not happen in Iraq...

“Stability, peace, security and prosperity will only come post-Isis, and will only last post-Isis, if all of those fundamental human rights, needs and government services are provided.

“If you still allow people to live in abject poverty and insecurity where there’s no running water and there’s no access for schools and no access for health services, then just watch Isis return.”

Issues facing Iraq which New Zealand could possibly assist with if asked and able included infrastructure, training police, and supporting governance within the country.