Breaking vicious cycles of violence and building virtuous ones in the Middle East

Kevin P Clements


The Prime Minister’s political justifications for sending a New Zealand military training team to Iraq are:

  • to combat the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)
  • to stop their public brutality and
  • prevent them from consolidating and expanding a universal caliphate that would threaten the national sovereignty of other countries in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

The military objectives   are:

  • to train the Iraqi army
  • protect the trainers
  • possibly act as spotters and
  • gather intelligence.

The question is whether a NZ military training mission will contribute anything positive to either of these objectives?

In the first place there is little chance that a modest military   training mission to a predominantly Shi’a army will have any impact whatsoever on the political goals of ISIL or their Saudi and Qatarese supporters.

On the contrary this support will be construed by Sunni’s as the coalition of the willing tilting in favour of Iranian , Iraqi and Syrian Shi’a  interests.

New Zealand will find itself on one side of the Sunni-Shi’a divide and hostage to whatever our US and Shi’a allies decide is in their interests.

John Key argues that the new regime of Haider Al-Abadi is more inclusive than the regime of Nouri Al Maliki. There is little or no justification for this. Both are Shi’a, both have legitimated Shi’a attacks on Sunni civilians and militias and both have turned a blind eye to the Shi’a torture and murder of Sunnis.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al Jafaari who came to New Zealand to request military assistance, is close to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and supported Muqtadi Al Sadr and the Jayeh Al Mahdi militia group.

These groups have systematically attacked and tortured Sunni . If they filmed their torture and slaughter as ISIL does there would be very little to distinguish between them. Both groups are willing to use political violence, abduction and torture for political and religious ends

So the probability of any political success from this operation is negligible .

So the second question is whether our 143 person training mission will succeed in its military objectives?

I have no doubt that our military personnel are well trained and professional as are our American allies. The fact is, however, that the United States has already spent $25 billion worth of American training and equipment over the past 10 years and a similar amount from the Iraqi treasury with absolutely nothing to show for it.

The Iraqi army remains corrupt, unprofessional and committed to the defence of Shi”a interests. The new Iraqi Prime Minister purged 36 top officers for corruption and unprofessionalism but in fact many of these officers were dismissed because they were Al Maliki loyalists.

Mr Abadi has apppointed new generals (in violation of the Constitution and without parliamentary approval)   who are loyal to him. So the idea of the Iraqi army being under the authority of parliament serving the people of Iraq is a long way from the truth. The leadership of the Iraqi army is Shi’a in orientation, heavily politicised   and serves regime rather than civilian interests. The likelihood of NZ’s small mission making any difference to the graft, corruption, inefficiency and unprofessionalism of the Iraqi army is minus zero.

So if this deployment will not advance either the political or military objectives mapped out by John Key then what will it do?

It will inevitably be complicit on one side of the Shi’a –Sunni divide and we may end up unwittingly supporting dictators like Basher Al Assad of Syria since he is aligned with these groups as well.

Secondly, there is absolutely no doubt at all that New Zealand’s symbolic stand will be noted by those we are now at war with ( even in a training capacity) and this will place military and non military New Zealanders in the Middle East at risk of abduction and worse.

Thirdly, we will be adding to vicious cycles instead of virtuous ones. We need to be using our small power status, our seat on the security council, our connections with a wide variety of moderate religious and political Islamic actors to try and find some diplomatic and political solutions to the challenges posed by political extremism.

One thing is very clear violent solutions to violent problems simply generate more violence. Even though its not easy to discern nonviolent solutions to those committed to violence this is likely to yield more positive long lasting solutions than any kind of military commitment. Lets at least give these a try before we find ourselves on the wrong side of history. The reality is that the Middle East is going through a political transformation at the moment. We will not know how this is going to work out for decades. The best we can do at this stage is listen, provide non military humanitarian assistance where this is asked for and be ready to support the connectors rather than the dividers; the peacemakers rather than the warriors.