I have just returned from a visit to Camp Taji in Iraq to meet with the New Zealand troops and see for myself the situation they are dealing with.
As many of you know, I was vocal in my opposition to the deployment of our troops in a country which has endured under a barely functional Government and an army that has failed to perform. That said, I think most New Zealanders want us to be part of the effort to rid the world of ISIS and the conditions that allow ISIS to survive. That must be a co-ordinated international effort, mandated by the UN with a goal that would be achievable.
It was great to see first-hand the work our men and women are doing. They are doing the job asked of them and they are doing it with the incredible skill and professionalism kiwi soldiers are renowned for. Camp Taji isn’t exactly a Top Ten Holiday camp. It’s pretty much concrete blast walls and sand and dust. I have great pride and respect for our folks as they work to train Iraqi soldiers and support the efforts for a safe and secure Iraq.
My doubts about the Iraqi army remain. Sure, I saw and met some Iraqi soldiers who were keen and determined, and trainers were confident they would be good soldiers. But officers (including a senior Iraqi officer) talked of local troops who lacked commitment and discipline. Recent successes against ISIS have entailed the efforts of the counter terrorism service, which is not part of the Iraqi Army, as well as Shia militia groups who also do not come under the army’s command. There are some tough challenges coming up in Fallujah and in the biggest city ISIS occupies, Mosul. These will be the real test for the Iraqi army.
Andrew Little speaks about operations with Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating at Taji.
Seeing first-hand the reality of war.
What became really apparent in all my meetings and discussions is that the NZ government’s decision that our commitment will go for two years only totally ignores the situation in Iraq. Iraq government officials and officers from other armies were pretty clear the task in Iraq is a huge one.
It was interesting that the Iraqi Minister of Defence talked of the need for help in the years ahead with civil reconstruction, and even help with the effective running of government itself. It is for our government to now front up and tell us of the demands being made of us and what their response is.
Andrew Little addresses the troops.
Tomorrow I’ll be seeing another side of the conflict in the Middle East. And it is here I believe New Zealand can do much to alleviate the suffering much of the world is embroiled in. The Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan is home to more than 80,000 refugees who have fled the conflict in Syria. It is from camps just like this that the emergency intake of 750 refugees that the Government finally agreed to last year will come from.
I’ll be spending time with the people who keep the camp running, the doctors and nurses stationed there and from the refugees themselves. I want to hear their stories so when I’m home I can share them with you. I feel passionately that New Zealand’s efforts must focus on humanitarian assistance. Labour has pledged to double our refugee quota and I am convinced this is where we can do a lot of good.