MPs Mark Mitchell and Golriz Ghahraman at odds over withdrawing New Zealand troops from Iraq

MPs have opposing views on whether New Zealand should pull its troops out of Iraq, while an international relations expert says there'll be pressure from the US.  

Defence Minister Ron Mark will soon present to Cabinet his proposal for whether New Zealand troops should stay in Iraq after their deployment was extended in September. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at the time New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel would remain in Iraq until June 2019, and said keeping them there beyond then was a "possibility". 

Now that Cabinet is expected to make a decision next month on whether the troops should stay or leave, experts and politicians are weighing in on what the best approach would be. 

National's defence spokesperson Mark Mitchell said before any decision is made to extend the deployment, New Zealand would need to be asked to stay by the Iraqi Government, and also consider the troops' "important on-going role". 

He said the Government should be "mindful of not leaving too early, and before security and law enforcement agencies have the confidence of the civilian population they are there to protect and the ability to hold the territory recovered from ISIS [Islamic State]". 

He told Newshub: "We need to have a high level of confidence that ISIS could not reorganise themselves and re-establish themselves in Iraq. I believe we could have an important on-going role in the training of Iraqi security services." 

National MP Mark Mitchell.
National MP Mark Mitchell. Photo credit: The AM Show

Green MP and defence spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said her party's position has always been that New Zealand is best-placed contributing to peace and humanitarian aid rather than more militarisation. 

She said the NZDF "does most of its work - and does really good work - in the Pacific and the Antarctic in terms of supporting disaster relief and environmental monitoring and supporting the Antarctic climate change research". 

Ghahraman told Newshub: "We are best placed to keep doing that rather than essentially legitimising the constant perpetual militarisation of the Middle East.

"And in fact, if we were to stand independently on the world stage in terms of those war efforts we would be much better placed to contribute to mediation and peace-building as an independent voice."

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman.
Green MP Golriz Ghahraman. Photo credit: Getty

Waikato University international law professor Al Gillespie said the politics of Iraq right now is "very difficult" and that New Zealand should consider the souring relations between its neighbour Iran and the United States. 

"Right now America's pulling out a lot of non-essential personnel and it looks like there's the possibility for conflict with Iran, although I don't think it will come to that but they're definitely stoking the fire."

Gillespie told Newshub New Zealand needs to be careful not to get pulled into the bilateral engagement that's going on between the US and Iran "and Iraq on the side". 

He said it's also important for the Government to reflect on whether the troops' purpose has been fulfilled before they're taken out. 

"We were there to defeat Islamic State which was a very real threat and it was right for us to be there and we made a very good contribution, and there's been no loss either - not like Afghanistan where we lost soldiers."

New Zealand Defence Force Iraq deployment.
New Zealand Defence Force Iraq deployment. Photo credit: New Zealand Defence Force

New Zealand lost 10 soldiers in Afghanistan, most while carrying out their duties as part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in the Bamyan Province. Three were killed in 2012 by an improvised explosive device. 

Afghanistan has hosted New Zealand military contribution since 2001. Since 2013, the NZDF has contributed personnel - currently 11 - just outside of Kabul to mentor Afghan National Security Forces, and their deployment expires in September. 

Gillespie said he expects the US to pull back from Afghanistan, but "can't see America walking away from Iraq because it's all connected to the Middle East and so America needs a presence there because of Syria, because of Iran and because of Israel".

There are currently 121 New Zealand personnel in Iraq after Cabinet's September decision to extend the deployment but reduce the amount from 143. 

Where they're deployed:

  • 88 personnel at the Taji Military Complex in Iraq
  • Eight staff at officers at Coalition Headquarters in Baghdad
  • Three intelligence officers based in Qatar
  • Up to six personnel providing logistics support for New Zealand's deployment 

Gillespie said there could be pressure from the US to keep New Zealand personnel in Iraq. "I can see the push for us to be involved in Iraq, stronger than the push for us to remain in Afghanistan."

But Ghahraman said she doesn't believe New Zealand's involvement in Iraq is at a level where it's going to threaten NZ-US relations in any meaningful way.

"New Zealand has always been very comfortable saying no to our so-called allies and it's been the right thing to do.

"Nobody's going over there and building roads or schools and hospitals and making sure there's secure governance - we're just training more military."

The Defence Minister said he'll be having discussions with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister about what approach New Zealand should take, taking into consideration the threat of terrorism.