In a recently-released report to Cabinet, the New Zealand government paints a positive picture of its military training mission in Iraq – New Zealand’s contribution to the Global Coalition to combat the so-called Islamic State (ISIL). According to the report, Iraqi Security Forces are making military gains against the terrorist group in Iraq – reclaiming up to 40% of ISIL-held territory - “due in part to the increased capability of Iraqi forces and the air support provided by coalition partners.”
Defeating terrorists on the Iraqi battlefield is not the hard part. After all, the US, Government of Iraq and international partners have fought and won a similar campaign before. But herein lies the problem. Unless and until the Government of Iraq and its global coalition partners, including New Zealand, get the political strategy right, ISIL and its ilk may still prevail.
Sadly, this huge expense of blood and treasure is needless waste. Why? Because ISIL’s progenitors were defeated on the battlefields of Iraq once before. But the US and its partners did not fight hard enough on the political front, and that failure has strengthened ISIL today.
Back in 2003, the US had just completed its invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Not satisfied with toppling Saddam, the US set about dismantling the entire one-party security state underpinning his violent authority. The army and security system were obliterated. Those tainted by past association with Saddam’s Baath party were banned from politics and government, including many Sunnis, disproportionately represented in the Baathist regime.
By 2004, Sunni regions were in full revolt against the new Government of Iraq and its US enablers. Jihadist militants also joined the fight, including Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its junior partner, Islamic State. Through the promise of constitutional and security system reform, backed by a US military surge and vast investments in Iraqi military training and hardware (over $24 billion from 2003 to 2012), the US and Government of Iraq ultimately brought this insurgency to heel. Armed with this new political promise, Sunni tribes and militias turned back towards the state and against jihadist extremists seeking to hijack the insurgency. As a result, by 2009, the Government of Iraq, backed by 80,000-100,000 armed Sunni militiamen, quelled the insurgency, and with it, AQI and Islamic State in Iraq.
Though not a party to the US invasion of Iraq, New Zealand was a partner in helping build the new Iraqi state, with the previous Labour government contributing 60 troops to the costly reconstruction effort. A decade later, New Zealand troops are back, this time closer to the front line. It begs the question – what are we doing wrong?
As with the first insurgency in 2004, the battle against ISIL in Iraq is fundamentally not a military struggle, but a political one. Military contributions may help us to seize territory from ISIL, but won’t help us to keep it. Only sustained political engagement will bring about the local security and stability that Iraqis deserve.
However, there are some substantive differences in the current anti-terrorism campaign. Today, there is no hope of a US military ‘surge’. The vast reconstruction funds provided by the US are a thing of the past; while low global oil prices and the high costs of war make a robust statebuilding project unlikely. At the same time prospects for renewed Sunni Awakening, the likes of which turned the tide after 2004, are slim. So much political damage has been done in the interim. Today’s insurgency exists precisely because past governments in Baghdad reneged on the promised reforms that proved so critical to addressing Sunni concerns the first time around.
The current military effort against ISIL is only serving to deepen the wedge between marginalized Sunnis and other Iraqis. Coalition airstrikes are claiming civilian lives along with the ISIL fighters – as many as 700 based on the most credible estimate. The paramilitaries leading the ground war against ISIL are not themselves Sunni, but Shiites and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Both groups have committed violent abuses against Sunni civilians, as reported by the likes of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. The government has done little to hold its proxy armies to account, reinforcing Sunni estrangement from the rest of Iraq. We should not be surprised, therefore, when the Carnegie Mideast Center warns that ISIL continues to enjoy significant legitimacy amongst Sunni populations under its brutal authority.
It's time that New Zealand joined the political front line. Given our close collaboration with Iraqi Security Forces, New Zealand has a special responsibility to help end impunity for war crimes and other violations of international law committed by all armed groups, not just ISIL. New Zealand’s new diplomatic representative in Baghdad can help push for stronger efforts by the current government in Baghdad to investigate and punish abuses by its military, security and militia forces, particularly against Sunni populations. New Zealand can use its position on the UN Security Council to increase international pressure on the political front, holding the Government of Iraq’s feet to the fire for the promised reforms so essential for an inclusive political bargain. We’ve been a vocal advocate for concerted political action in Syria; let’s add Iraq to the Security Council discussion.
New Zealand can also expand its engagement across the full range of Global Coalition efforts in the fight against ISIL. The Coalition Stabilization Working Group is one such forum where New Zealand could meaningfully engage and strategise on ways to prod Iraqi government and power brokers on needed reforms, and support the recovery of conflict-affected communities. New Zealand could protect its current military investment with a matching financial commitment – $65 million - towards victory on the political front.
Some may argue that by virtue of not having been party to the US invasion in 2003, New Zealand bears no responsibility for fronting the considerable costs of reconstruction today. However, by directly encouraging and enabling current military efforts to retake ISIL-held territory, New Zealand shares some responsibility for the additional damage these operations cause. As the New Zealand government’s own report to Cabinet contends, reconstruction costs for the recently-liberated city of Ramadi alone could be in excess of US $10 billion, “ten times the total provincial reconstruction budget for 2016.” If left unattended, the rubble of Ramadi will become fertile soil for ISIL or the next terrorist movement to prey on communities’ neglect and disenfranchisement. It’s in New Zealand’s moral and national interest to foot part of the bill to stave off the next generation of insurgency.
Or, we could carry on as we have, winning the military battle against ISIL and losing the war.
Bio: Darren Brunk is the Humanitarian Coordinator at the Council for International Development (CID). The views of the author are his own and are not necessarily representative of the views of CID or CID members.
Photo Credit: NZDF