On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Gerry Brownlee
Youtube clips from the show are available here.
Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee says New Zealand troops are “absolutely not” involved in combat in Iraq.
Brownlee confirms NZ troops have travelled outside their camp at Taji to another camp at Besmaya, and can’t rule out training operations in the future requiring them to go outside Taji again.
New Zealand has not been asked to be involved in any rebuilding of Mosul, but Brownlee cites the Christchurch rebuild as good relevant experience.
Lisa Owen: As the battle for the Iraqi city of Mosul heats up, the government has been keen this week to talk up the role of Kiwi troops in the fight against IS. Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee has just returned from talks in Paris with the 13 countries that make up the global coalition to counter the Islamic State. New Zealand has about 140 defence personnel in Iraq training locals to fight IS. Gerry Brownlee joins me now. Good morning, Minister. The bid to take Mosul is making inroads. What credit do you think New Zealand can take for that?
Gerry Brownlee: Well, the Australia and New Zealand training team there have put through around about 12,000 Iraqi soldiers over the last 18 months and some of those are almost certain to be on the front line of Mosul at the moment.
So what do you think happens next there? Predictions are weeks, maybe months, the city will be taken back, but then what happens?
Well, I think that was one of the focuses of the talks this week. Essentially, I think it's the stabilisation of the retaken territory and the re-establishment of civil government that becomes the most important thing. And the consideration this week was what role does the military have in ensuring that happens. From our perspective, we've already made a commitment that within the training perimeters that we've set for our people, training of gendarmerie or police for stabilisation efforts is something that we will be happy to take on.
I want to talk about that training a bit later. But the fact is that that city is physically devastated. I think there's been about 1200 air strikes in the last couple of weeks and it's only going to get worse over the next few weeks. Are you open to being involved in rebuilding? Physically rebuilding?
Well, we would, of course, through our Ministry of Foreign Affairs receive any proposals that might be out there where they think New Zealand may be able to help. You know, I can tell you from the Christchurch experience that rebuilding is not a straightforward prospect, although given that it's war damage and not from a natural disaster, probably some of the requirements for the rebuild wouldn't be as strenuous and strictly enforced as we have had in Christchurch. But it is a big effort. It will be a huge international effort, I am sure. But what will also be essential is making sure that civil government is stable and that the Iraqi economy can prosper in the way that a country with its resources should prosper.
So it sounds like you're open to, perhaps, having some kind of initiative like we did in Afghanistan with engineers involved in rebuilding, digging wells, developing schools — that kind of stuff?
Well, that's not on the table at the present time and so it hasn't been considered by the government.
So you haven't been asked, but would you be open to it?
No, we haven't been asked. But let's see if any requests come through. One of the features, I think, of the driving of Daesh out of Iraq has been the fact that the Iraqi government has wanted to do that alone. They haven't asked for troops on the ground, boots on the ground. They have asked for the training, which we were happy to participate in. They have asked for the air strikes assistance, and the rest of it, though, has been carried out by the Iraqi security forces, and they've been very very successful over the last 12 months.
But presumably if you're involved in the coalition, which is carrying out air strikes which is destroying the physical character of the cities and what have you, you're not just gonna walk away and leave it razed to the ground, are you?
Well, as I say, let's see what comes of the next three, four, six months, whatever it takes to clear out Mosul and to re-establish civil government. It's not something that you can predict as happening on a particular day. And then, of course, the formation of civil government is going to be a challenge as well.
Now, you talk about them not requesting boots on the ground. I need to ask you. Are New Zealand special forces calling in air strikes or involved in any combat operations in Iraq?
No, they're not.
Absolutely not. Look, I've been fascinated by some of the statements that are being made by various people who take an academic interest in what the New Zealand military might be up to, but I can categorically tell you that they are not involved in combat activity. We have been quite open with New Zealanders about the possibility of, at times, SAS soldiers being in Iraq for personal security for visiting VIPs and also for looking at the force protection required for our trainers. They are not involved in direct combat or calling in air strikes or any front-line activities at all.
So are they in northern Iraq at the moment, which is being reported by international media?
I don't know why they've reported that. That's certainly as long way from where Taji is where we expect them occasionally to be.
Exactly. Are they there in northern Iraq?
No, cos northern Iraq is where the conflict area is.
Yeah. I just want to make sure that we're not playing what some commentators have called 'semantic gymnastics' here. So they are doing nothing other than, potentially, being involved with the trainers in Taji?
That's right. Their role is to look at the force protection and to provide that as it's required. Their interest is always in the greatest safety of New Zealanders.
OK, well, let's talk about the training. You are training Iraqi soldiers at the moment. You're talking about assisting what you call stability forces. What does that actually mean?
Well, in any conflict, once the conflict itself was over, then maintaining rule of law is extremely important, and that's generally a policing operation. So part of stability is more along the lines of policing, but probably more of a gendarmerie approach as opposed to the police that we know here in New Zealand. The difference being that the gendarmerie have a slight, I suppose you'd say, distance from police towards military.
So where would you do that? Would that all happen inside the wire, as you say?
Well, we'd expect so. But, look, that's a question that has still to be answered. We've expressed an interest or a willingness, I should say, to provide some of the training. Just how that is to be done is yet to be determined, and that is a decision that the Iraqi government would make.
I understand some of this is still up in the air, but that's important because the government has always maintained that we're going to be inside the wire, in the safe zone, as such. So there's potential here that you might be training police away from that safe environment.
Look, we've set out some conditions for what makes a safe environment. We know that Taji airbase meets those requirements. We recently gave authority to New Zealand defence trainers to go to Besmaya, which is a base south of Baghdad to participate or to facilitate some artillery training for Iraqi security forces. That is also a secure base. So we look at all of those venues on a case by case basis in making a decision about whether or not our people would be deployed there.
When you talk about Besmaya, that might be a secure location camp that you're going to, but, obviously, they have to travel there, and it's 50-odd K's away. How dangerous is that, and have we had any problems?
It's 50 K's. It's south. And they travel by air, generally at night, and take all the normal precautions that you'd take if you were, for example, travelling from Baghdad into Taji at the present time. So while there's not a huge presence of Daesh in that area, you still take the precautions necessary.
How many times would our trainers have been there and have there been any issues?
Well, I understand some trainers went down to Besmaya, but because of the advance of the attack on Mosul, some of the training was curtailed. So, I can't give you an actual number, but I know that they were briefly there and that they did travel through the Black Hawk helicopter operation.
Because some critics would say that’s already mission creep right there. You’re travelling outside of Taji when that was our original commitment. You’re going to another base. We’re now talking about training stability forces, and with Besmaya, we’re moving into heavy-weapons training as well, aren’t we? So is that mission creep already? We’re seeing it.
I don’t think so. It’s all training, and what our commitment was was to provide training. Look, step back to the lead in all this being taken by the Iraqi Government and their desire to carry the fight themselves but their requests for assistance. As far as the coalition is concerned, the United States is the lead operator there, and I think the Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, has done an extraordinary job over the last 18 months of making sure everyone stuck to their knitting. So we certainly have made a few decisions that are an advance of Taji, but they still have those same conditions applied to them, and that is that they are seeing our people in secure circumstances as possible and that it is of a training nature, not a combat nature.
But that’s not behind the wire. When you’re travelling by air, you’re not behind the wire.
Yes, it is. Well, let me be clear. When they travel from Al Minhad Air Base, either directly into Taji or Al Minhad to Baghdad and then into Taji, they’re not behind the wire then either. You have to get to some place before you can be behind a wire, and that’s always been the case.
If we’re taking on new training responsibilities, training potentially a police force, they’re not going to be behind the wire either, and that, critics would say, is mission creep. You’re changing the parameters.
Look, I don’t accept that, and I think the real point is that that sort of exercise doesn’t happen until areas have been cleared of Daesh, so we’re some time away from that just yet.
All right. Well, let’s be clear, then. What is New Zealand’s aim in Iraq? What is your objective measure of whether we have succeeded in whatever our role is?
Well, firstly, the reason that we were attracted, as the Prime Minister said in your opening, was that Daesh is a particularly evil terrorist organisation that had claimed a caliphate – in other words, a body of land – to be their state. They were very well organised, well financed, well, I suppose in many cases, trained and well supplied by people who are prepared to give their life for the philosophy, which is effectively a perversion of Islam. That poses a threat to the whole of the world’s order in many ways, because it wasn’t necessarily confined to the caliphate. Their ability to use social media to radicalise people in other countries, and we’ve seen examples of how that can happen, means that no one is exempt from that type of organisation. And so there was a need to ensure that their desire to overtake Iraq, you know, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, was put to one side, and the Iraqi Government have picked that up.
Minister, that is the big picture, and so what I’m asking you is about our cog in the wheel, about NZ’s specific aim in Iraq and what objective measures you’re going to use to determine if we’ve been a success. So the role you say we’re playing at the moment is just in training, so what is the end goal, and what is the measure as to whether we’ve met that goal?
Well, the first point I’d make is that our commitment is to December of 2018 in that training role and that we would certainly have a very broad public conversation about any changes of the nature that you might be thinking, but they’re not on the cards at the present time beyond the training of stabilisation forces. Our end goal, of course, would be like everyone else’s – to ensure that there is a stable civilian civil government in Iraq and that that country is able to— people in that country are able to go about their daily lives to enjoy the prosperity that a country like that should offer and therefore a greater contribution to the world’s well-being. It’s very interesting to watch those people you see on the news when the liberation forces have been through and you see the relief on their faces. You know, I think it helps you understand what a terribly oppressive regime and terribly frightening and violent regime Daesh really is.
Minister, we’re out of time. I want to ask you very quickly before we go – has Ash Carter asked you for anything else in terms of resources?
No. What he’s suggested is that we do look at how we contribute to stabilisation, and there will be more and more as the situation changes and consideration of that comes to the fore, and I think the willingness of all the ministers who were at the most recent meeting to do that all is well for the future of stability in Iraq and hopefully Syria as well.
Thank you very much for joining us this morning, Minister. Appreciate your time.
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