9 Oct 2015

Shining a light on New Zealand in Iraq

8:16 am on 9 October 2015

Power Play - The Prime Minister's top secret visit into Taji Camp this week has provoked further questions about why New Zealand is in Iraq, and what benefit the 143-strong deployment will deliver.

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A soldier walks down an alleyway in the Taji Camp. Photo: Pool picture

The flying visit was more a PR exercise for the Prime Minister, and a morale boost for the soldiers on the ground, rather than any kind of opportunity to gauge the effectiveness of what the New Zealand troops are doing, and the full extent of the conditions they live in.

In saying that, impressions from the few hours we spent watching the training sessions and talking to both the New Zealanders and the Iraqi trainees were of a professional, well-organised and focused programme.

What was surprising was the access journalists were given; beforehand, it seemed we would just get to briefly talk to a few of the trainers and maybe one Iraqi trainee, but when we arrived at the training camp, we were pretty much given free rein, with the request we didn't disrupt the training sessions.

Some New Zealand soldiers were cautious and didn't stray far from the practical details of the training, but others were happy to share more personal details about life in Taji Camp, as well as the challenges and rewards of training the Iraqi soldiers.

Iraqi troops training in urban clearances and tactics.

Iraqi troops training in urban clearances and tactics. Photo: Pool picture

One trainer told me defence force personnel were falling over themselves to get on the next deployment to Taji Camp as it was seen as a such a great opportunity, and he himself found the experience tremendously satisfying.

Another question we asked all of the trainers was how safe they felt, as that was one of the major risks raised by opposition MPs when the deployment was announced at the start of the year.

The PM's delegation did not get the true feeling of what it would be like working in Taji, security-wise, being surrounded at all times by crack SAS soldiers.

However, each of the New Zealand trainers and other support personnel we spoke to said they felt safe within the confines of the camp.

This was easier to believe having seen the heavy fortification and the fact the New Zealanders work within a compound within the walls of the 36km camp itself. That's not to say it is "massively safe", as stated by the Prime Minister, after his visit.

The trainers were also asked whether they felt vulnerable to "green on blue" attacks from the trainees.

They said it was something they always were aware of, and the training process was tailored accordingly; for example riskier drills such as live firing would not be done until quite late in the six-week course, when the trainers had had time to assess the trainees and build a rapport with them.

They were also positive about the commitment and attitude of the Iraqis, saying they were keen to learn - mostly because once they left the camp they were straight back into direct combat with Islamic State.

Building good relationships is not relied upon, however; about half of the deployment is force protection for the training team, known as "guardian angels", dotted around the training grounds or in massive Australian Bushmasters, heavily armoured infantry vehicles.

Iraqi troops training trauma care.

Iraqi troops being trained in trauma care. Photo: POOL

The Iraqi trainees themselves were friendly, keen to tell us they were going to smash Islamic State and take back their country.

Bravado aside, we were told privately by the New Zealanders that one of the major challenges was exploding the myths Islamic State has built up around itself, about its reach, its power and its numbers.

One of the tasks of the New Zealanders is to help put the reality into perspective for the Iraqi troops, many of whom believe the rhetoric.

Giving a more detailed insight into the workings of Taji Camp, within the broader US and coalition efforts, is a report from the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Defense, released at the end of last month.

Given the billions of dollars the American government is spending on Iraq, the Inspector General is providing oversight for that spending, and the operation in general.

While the report does acknowledge the five training programmes being run in Iraq are going to improve the skills and capability of the Iraq Army, it identifies a number of practical problems, and weaknesses within the leadership of the Iraqi Army - details of that last point were not given in the public report, but are discusser further in a classified appendix.

Taji Camp is the main depot for the Iraqi Army's equipment, with a network of warehouses; however the Americans are not being allowed access to all them, particularly where ammunition is being stored.

Despite the US knowing large amounts of ammunition have come into the Camp, all of the training camps around Iraq say they are short. The report says that raises the possibility ammunition is going to militias the US has not agreed to support.

Another problem is the living conditions for Iraqi trainees in three camps the inspectors visited, including Taji.

At Besmaya, the Iraqi brigade commander said the soldiers had "terrible living conditions". That was backed up by the coalition trainers who said the facilities had no running water, no power, and were tremendously overcrowded.

In Taji, the trainees were living in the Iraq Security Forces Engineer and Transportation schools but the commanders would not turn on the power or water, as noted by the report "supposedly because of funding issues".

One Iraqi Brigade Commander told inspectors the poor living conditions were probably the main reason trainees were going AWOL.

While the Iraqi Government is responsible for its soldiers quarters this could still breed resentment, if the trainees compare their conditions with the facilities the US soldiers and others, including the New Zealanders, are living in - by no means palatial, but at least with the basic necessities.

Back in New Zealand, opposition parties used the trip to question the merits of the deployment; perhaps somewhat redundant given it is now in full swing and very unlikely to last past the two year deadline.

The Prime Minister said improving the capability of the Iraqi force was the main purpose of the mission, but it was also to get all of the New Zealanders home safely.

The latter will be easy to judge.

700 soldiers from Iraq's 76th Brigade marched out from the Taji programme in June after an eight week training programme, and we were told by various defence force personnel they were doing well back out in the field and their training was being put to good use.

As second, third, or even fourth-hand information, it is not so easy to judge.

It is fair to say the New Zealand troops are committed to the task and take great pride in what they're doing.

They say they will measure the success of what they've done by sending out trainees who may be able to survive the fighting they will inevitably face, as a result of the training they have received.

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