Reply to PM’s statement on deploying troops to Iraq

“The decision of any Government to send troops to a conflict zone is a very serious one, and it is right that this House takes time to consider it, to debate it, and, ideally, to vote on it, but we will not have that chance today.

“We will at least have a chance to talk about it today, but the truth is this decision was made some time ago. The Governments of Australia and Iraq were told about the decision last night, and the people of New Zealand have been told about the decision and the details of the deployment of New Zealand troops to Iraq this afternoon.

“But as I say, it is very clear: this decision was made some time ago, and I venture to suggest it was made for a range of different reasons that have not been outlined today.

“Labour’s position is clear: we should not send troops to Iraq. There is no case to do so. We have all seen the images coming out of Iraq, the images from the Islamic State, its barbarism, its brutality, and its evil, and there would not be a New Zealander sitting in their home who has seen those images whose stomach would not have been turned by what they have seen.

“Let us be clear about what we are dealing with. They call themselves Islamic State, but they are not a State. They want to establish a caliphate, a medieval form of social organisation and control. They are not within a single border; they run across borders.

“They are cultural, they are ethnic, they are religious, and they are driven by a number of different motivations. They are not a nation State in the way that we typically recognise; they are a grouping, an organisation, a movement, and they draw their support accordingly.

“Islamic State is not confined to Iraq. It is in Syria, it is Libya, and—as we know, and as the Prime Minister acknowledged—its adherents can turn up anywhere in the world. Islamic State is a repository of the dispossessed, the marginalised, the fanatical, the extreme, and, yes, the evil, but it is not a conventional enemy and the circumstances in which we are being asked to fight it or train others to fight it in Iraq are not conventional.

“We are told we are sending troops to train the Iraqi army. The Prime Minister says they will be behind the wire but we know they will not be. They cannot stick there, they cannot stay there, that is not all they will do. They will not just be behind the wire; they will be exposed to the much wider conflict; it will not be just the soldiers we send to the Iraq, it will be Kiwis travelling around the world.

“So we need to ask ourselves—and a Government exercising this decision in a responsible way will ask itself—what it is that we are being asked to do, or that our people are being asked to do, that will put our people at risk that has not been tried before? What is it they will do that will succeed where others have failed? After 10 years of training of the Iraqi army by the US army, after $25 billion of assistance to the Iraqi army, what impact will we have, what can we hope to achieve?

“In the weeks that the Prime Minister has been talking about this issue since his speech at the end of the last year the case has not been put. New Zealanders are none the wiser and we do not support the decision. Where does Islamic State come from? It comes from a number of factors.

“The first is the failure of the Iraqi army—an army that is demoralised, that is poorly led, poorly organised, riven with corruption, and it has been like that for 10 years – yet we think that by sending a very modest force as part of a multinational group we are going to achieve what the US army has not been able achieve for 10 years.

“Islamic State comes from the failure of Government—the Iraqi Government, which has struggled to come to terms with the responsibility of being an open and transparent and diverse Government. It comes from the failure of Government to change Iraq as a nation State and rebuild its economy.

“So young Muslims are shut out of a future, shut out of a livelihood, and they retreat to the hands and the arms of Islamic State. We will not fix the Iraqi army and those whom we join up there—and it will not be the soldiers of 62 other nations; it will be five nations—who will not fix the army. It is disorganised, it is broken, it is treacherous, and it is corrupt.

“I take the Iraqi Foreign Minister, Dr al-Jaafari, at his word when he says that the request for assistance is not just for military assistance; in fact, it is not even the priority. He diplomatically told us that civil reconstruction is equally important if not more so, and it is clear to me that that is what is more important. We will not defeat—no one will defeat—Islamic State through the Iraqi army.

“We will only deal with it when we deal with the underlying causes and the underlying unrest that is spread across that region. There is something useful we can contribute and it is about turning Iraq into a functioning, viable nation State.

“To do that, they need an effective Government. Dr al-Jaafari was very clear. They need advice on good Government and assistance with economic reconstruction. They know that they need to move away from dependency on oil. They know that they need to build an agriculture sector. They know that they need to build horticulture and industry.

“Those are the things that will last a long time,  that will build a nation State, that will give confidence to a people and enable them to take back their land and control of their country. New Zealand has a reputation abroad as an honest broker. We have not won our seat on the United Nations Security Council for no reason at all.

“We won it overwhelmingly in the first ballot, hands down, because of our reputation as a responsible, reputable global citizen. We have the opportunity to provide leadership in a way that we have not for a long time. We should do that.

“We should do that on this issue to help rebuild Iraq. We should do that to turn back the militants, the extremists, the fanatics who pose a threat to world peace. That is what we can do when we provide assistance with civilian reconstruction to countries like Iraq.

“It is wrong to say that the only request for assistance was for military assistance, because that is not where the request stopped. There is another point: when we send our troops to this conflict zone without clarification, understanding, or certainty about the status of those troops in that country, we are exposing them to even greater risk.

“If we cannot achieve a status of forces agreement with Iraq, then that says something about that country and the support for this mission by those people, and we should not expose our troops to that risk and to that threat.

“We have a unique opportunity for moral leadership to show that there is a different way, a long-term way, and a lasting way to address the conflicts and the hatreds that exist in the world and in that region, and that is through supporting nation States—fledgling nation States, in some cases—to come to terms with their responsibilities, rebuild their economies, rebuild their communities, and give themselves the confidence and the means to repel the evil that is represented by Islamic State.

“We have turned our back on that option. Labour is opposed to sending troops to Iraq.”

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