NZ ‘confident’ of Iraqi government and soldiers, Brownlee says
Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, who has just returned from 48 hours on the ground with New Zealand forces stationed at Camp Taji in Iraq, has expressed confidence in the ability of both Iraqi troops and the country’s government to deliver a modern, free Iraq.
Mr Brownlee sat down with Corin Dann from TV One’s Q+A on his return from the secret mission to the camp, which is located 30 kilometres north of Baghdad.
The minister said a recent incident in which Iraqi soldiers fled the town of Ramadi as ISIS approached did not suggest they didn’t have the will to win – despite what the US Defence Secretary concluded after the Ramadi incident.
“Don’t focus too much on Ramadi. The reality is that ISIL’s been beaten back by about 25% of the ground that they previously held, by Iraqi security forces,” he said.
“In that environment, with all the tension that’s there in a war zone, I certainly would not look into the eyes of those young recruits and call them cowards. They are far from it.”
Mr Brownlee said despite the fact the US Government had spent $25 billion in training Iraqi troops to date, the current mission was different because of a new government.
“We’re certainly more confident of the regime of Mr Abadi,” he said. “We think he’s doing his best to try and bring together two very disparate groups of people in the name of a modern, free Iraq so the people can go about their business in the sort of way that we might expect.”
RAW DATA: Q+A transcript: Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, interviewed by Corin Dann
Watch the interview here
GERRY Yes, and I’m also confident in their professional assessment of what security is required as they go about their training task. And I think the guys up there are doing a splendid job, and they really do understand the nature of the place and the risks that they could potentially face.
CORIN So what did they tell you? Did you get a chance to talk to them there first-hand? What were they telling you? Any problems, any threats that they were worried about?
GERRY Look, I did speak to them, obviously at length and was in contact with a lot of soldiers who were there just to let them know that from New Zealand we do support what they’re doing; we see it as important. What the young soldiers were saying is that it’s good to have an opportunity to do what they’re trained to do. These are particularly the force protection people. And I suppose what they were most interested in is what people thought about what they’re doing back here. As for their own security, I think they well understand the circumstances that they’re in, and they do take all of the precautions and do all of the things, the routines, the way of operating that the military has that would be suitable to the circumstances.
CORIN Are they under any threat from mortar attack? We’ve seen ISIS using bulldozers and truck bombs, all sorts of new methods of war. I mean, how worried are they that Taji could come under that sort of attack?
GERRY Well, one of the important units that New Zealanders in support of the training mission are doing is involved in the intelligence gathering and information seeking, and they’re extremely good at it. So, yeah, you’ll get cells of ISIL supporters who may be around about the military base. The military base itself has a secure perimeter, which is patrolled. And then the SOSi complex, which is basically a compound within a compound, also patrolled, is much more secure again. That’s where the New Zealanders are.
CORIN So you’re saying they are aware of ISIS insurgents right near the base?
GERRY Well, they don’t become an insurgent until they take some action, but, look, you’re in a country where ISIL has an enormous amount of reach all over the place. How much territory they have is the disputed issue and what authority they have. But remember that this is not a traditional style enemy that turns up in uniform and is easily identified. They’re much more insidious than that. But our guys, for example, their accommodation is in units that are underneath two feet of concrete up above them, so that would protect them in that event. And as they move around the base, they do carry personal weapons, and there is, of course, all the patrols in there as well. But that intelligence looking at outside of the base, looking at movements, understanding what’s going on, it’s pretty important as well.
CORIN Does that include the whole blue-green attack? You know, the whole idea that the trainees could turn on our guys? That must be part of the intelligence.
GERRY Blue-green attack is something that is naturally flagged as a possibility, and you’ve got to be awake to it. But what I was able to observe is the rapport that New Zealand and Australian soldiers have got with the trainees and the efforts that they’re making to expand that rapport. They’re just small things, like learning how to give various commands and instructions in Arabic – has been significant. That’s an initiative that the trainers have put in place themselves. While they are training, you’ve got protection people there who try to strike that balance between being available should an incident occur and out of the way to allow the training to occur. Some of the times these guys are firing with live rounds.
CORIN Live firing, yeah.
CORIN So what about these Iraqi trainees? How many people are being trained?
GERRY The 76 brigade, they’re currently about 700 who are being trained. They will graduate along with another group, making a total of about 1200 very shortly. They are generally younger recruits.
CORIN And they’re off to the front line after they’ve done this, are they?
GERRY Well, that’s a decision for the Iraqi security forces. We don’t participate in that discussion, but they will be going into the fight where it’s required.
CORIN So the big question is, and we’ve heard this from the US Defence Secretary, who questioned the will of those Iraqi forces in Ramadi, and we’ve heard Ron Mark call them cowards, what was your sense, and what is the sense of the New Zealand troops? Do these guys have the will to fight?
GERRY Well, I tell you what – in that environment with all the tension that’s there in a war zone, I certainly would not look into the eyes of those young recruits and call them cowards. They are far from it. They know what they’re doing, they know what they’re going to face, and they look to me pretty damn determined about what they’re going to do. They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t want to contribute to it. And I think it’s the sort of discipline that this type of training instils in them. And talking about discipline, it’s going through those drills – how do you form a battle plan attack, how do you quickly put together your IED equipment, how do you make sure that your gas mask is ready to go?
CORIN But they may have that on the base, but when push came to shove in Ramadi, they ran.
GERRY Well, Ramadi was, I think, one of those circumstances where we’re still trying to piece together exactly what happened. Now, I want to make it very clear that we’re not going to get into a battle around these things, but there is a psychological aspect to some of this as well, and when you’ve got an insidious force like ISIL that has such severe violence and you have probably less than optimal leadership, as was the case in Ramadi, then you can get a result—
GERRY Let me say – don’t focus too much on Ramadi. The reality is that ISIL’s been beaten back by about 25% of the ground that they previously held by Iraqi security forces. And I think the sweeping statement that was made by Mr Mark is incredibly unfair.
CORIN But he was only really reiterating what the US Defence Secretary said about Iraq – those Iraqi soldiers. I wonder how much damage has that done. I mean, do the Iraqi soldiers know that there is this view now that the world thinks that they’ve got no will to fight, so people are questioning the whole point of being there?
GERRY Well, I think the Iraqi soldiers see the trainers there, and it’s not just us – it’s Great Britain, it’s Spain, various other countries from Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the United States – who are all participating in that. And I think they’ll be able to work out that, yeah, politics is one thing and people will say things for public effect, but I tell you what, again, you get on the ground, you see how tough it is and you look into the eyes of those people.
CORIN Do they know, though, that people think they’re cowards?
GERRY Well, some of them have obviously looked at the media and they see those comments being made, but they see also the respect that the New Zealand and Australian trainers, their US trainers and the Spanish trainers, et cetera, afford them, and I don’t think they would feel like cowards, and they shouldn’t, because they are courageous people. When I spoke to them, I made that point to them. You can’t be there and feel the tension and know that these guys have signed up to go into battle and reach such a conclusion. It’s quite unfair.
CORIN Do you feel the need to try and placate the comments that Ron Mark and others have made? Did you feel the need to say to them that, in fact, this isn’t what all New Zealand politicians think?
GERRY I don’t think that was necessary, because they know it’s the New Zealand Government who’s putting a considerable amount of resource into place to support them in their efforts. They’ll be able to work that through.
CORIN So you believe even though the US spent $25 billion trying to train Iraqi troops, you believe that this mission, and that you’ve now seen first-hand, can lead to a more peaceful Iraq?
GERRY I think one of the problems that the US faced, and they’re aware of this themselves, is that the government of Iraq at the time did not have the will to ensure that the security forces were properly organised, were properly resourced, and that was also a government that was steeped in deep corruption, which saw limited amounts of resources getting to the right place.
CORIN And it’s not corrupt now? Do you have confidence in the Iraq government now?
GERRY Well, we’re certainly more confident in the regime of Mr Abadi. We think that he’s doing his best to try and bring together two very disparate groups of people in the name of a modern, free Iraq so the people can go about their business in the sort of way that we might expect.
CORIN What can you tell us about the exit strategy for New Zealand? At what point do the warning signs go off and we have to go? You said before that there are ISIS operatives right next to the base.
GERRY There could be, is what I said
CORIN Could be.
CORIN So if that’s the case, I mean, what level of threat and what confidence can you give to the New Zealand public that you can get these guys out?
GERRY I would like to put that into context because I don’t want families of our soldiers thinking that they’re surrounded by these people. They’re far from it. But you will get little cells of people who are ISIL sympathisers, and that will be the case throughout Iraq.
CORIN That’s obviously not enough of a warning sign to trigger us getting out, though, is it?
GERRY Well, the intelligence and particularly the use you make of cyberintelligence is going to be one of the keys to understanding the movements of this organisation, and New Zealanders and Australians working with the US are doing a very good job in that regard.
CORIN Again, though, where’s the warning sign? Can you give us any sense of what it would take for us to have to go?
GERRY Well, one of the problems in all of this, and I’ve just expressed the view that cyber is extremely important in all of this, I have no doubt that our opponents in this, and I say that, ISIL, they really are at war with the rest of the world in many ways because of their terrorist threat. They will want to know that sort of thing, and I’m not about to tell them that we’re due at any time to cut and run.
CORIN So you think they’ll watch— This is the type of propaganda and psychological war you’re saying we’re in, that they’ll be watching this?
GERRY They most certainly could be, and we’re there for the commitment that we’ve made, and I think I want to state again our guys are doing an extraordinarily good job. They’ve very professional soldiers, and I include the Australians with us in that group. You know, they’re together a very effective training mission.
CORIN So half your battle in some senses is you’re trying to get a message to ISIL, aren’t you?
GERRY Well, I don’t know if I’m the person to give a message to ISIL, but New Zealand as such has said, ‘We’re not tolerating this stuff. We don’t want you terrorists in our country. We don’t want you radicalising disaffected people in New Zealand or any other country, and we’re not interested in you using your perverted views of the Islamic religion to attract the disaffected from around the world into what is a very violent lifestyle.’
CORIN Some may say that’s putting us at more risk.
GERRY I don’t think so. I think, you know, you can either turn your back on this or turn a blind eye to it, pretend it’s not happening, or you can be active in rooting out these people and doing something about it. And as the Prime Minister has said numerous times, we’ve got people on a watch list here. They are being watched. And while we won’t make changes to our legislative system that starts to impinge on the liberties of ordinary New Zealanders, those people need to know if they put a foot wrong, then they’ll be clobbered.
CORIN Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, thanks very much for your time.
GERRY No worries. Thank you.