New Zealand’s military role in Iraq remains obscure and largely beyond public scrutiny, despite recent government claims to be more transparent, writes Harmeet Singh Sooden.
Qayyarah West Airfield is a Coalition air base located in northern Iraq, approximately 60 km south of Mosul. The air base was recaptured from ISIS by Coalition forces in July 2016 and rehabilitated to serve as a logistics and support hub for Coalition and Iraqi Army units preparing to retake Mosul. It also took on an offensive role—rocket batteries were stationed there for targeting positions in Mosul, as well as helicopter gunships and artillery for supporting advancing Iraqi ground forces.
New Zealand’s involvement with Qayyarah West during the battle for Mosul was not actively publicised by successive governments or disclosed in any detail.
In 2017, NZDF personnel from Task Group Taji travelled to Qayyarah West in support of Operation Manawa, New Zealand’s contribution to the joint Australian-New Zealand Building Partner Capacity mission in Iraq. Between 2016 and 2018, NZDF air transport missions serviced Qayyarah West as part of Australia’s Air Mobility Task Group. These and other military activities point to a more involved role in Iraq than has generally been acknowledged in official statements.
New Zealanders are, by and large, in favour of more public participation in government decision-making. Democracy in the participatory sense relies on open government and the free flow of information, that is if government policy is to reflect public concerns. This imperative is particularly acute in the case of foreign policy, including contributions to overseas military operations. However, with regards to the Iraq deployment and the missions supporting it, a lack of transparency is compromising the public’s ability to form an independent view on the issue and have input into deployment decisions.
In June 2016, Cabinet approved New Zealand’s training of Iraqi security forces units at Besmaya Range Complex in addition to Taji Military Complex. Cabinet also delegated authority to relevant ministers to consider future requests for New Zealand to conduct training on a case-by-case basis in “alternative secure coalition Building Partner Capacity sites”. In October 2016, ministers agreed that the NZDF could deliver training at Al Taqaddum Air Base. The decision to approve ‘off-site’ training aimed to address the evolving requirements of the Iraqi security forces due, in part, to the operational demands of the Mosul campaign and the Iraqi Army’s reluctance to reduce “operational tempo” by travelling to training locations away from the front lines.
On 25 January 2017, ministers agreed to expand NZDF’s training remit to include Qayyarah West. Approval to train at Besmaya and Al Taqaddum was proactively announced by the government of the day; approval to train at Qayyarah West was not.
In early January 2017, Coalition headquarters in Baghdad had requested support from Task Group Taji for training at Qayyarah West. The requirement was for training beginning in mid-February 2017, tailored for the Mosul campaign.
Defence officials advised ministers that approving this request would “demonstrate New Zealand’s continued flexibility in meeting the evolving needs of the coalition” and “ensure the building partner capacity mission remains relevant and continues to provide maximum value to Iraqi forces.” Approval would also ensure New Zealand’s “continued alignment” with Australia, which had already agreed to the training request, thereby “reinforcing the joint nature of the deployment.”
A year later, at a press conference on 12 February 2018, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed media reports that the NZDF had been given authorisation to train the Iraqi security forces at Qayyarah West. The Prime Minister explained that the information was not initially put into the public domain for “security reasons at the time, and then in the future when an OIA was put in”, the government’s “view was [it] was no longer needed to be kept as secure information, and so…was then revealed.”
The Prime Minister was referring to an Official Information Act (OIA) request made to the Ministry of Defence in August 2017, which the Ministry had responded to on 24 November 2017. A member of the public had requested a copy of the briefing provided to the then-Minister of Defence ahead of a ‘Defeat-ISIS’ meeting held in Copenhagen in May 2017. The briefing mentions the NZDF had been authorised to deliver training at Qayyarah West, but “that NZDF’s training at this site has not been made public in New Zealand”.
When seeking ministerial permission to deliver this training, Defence officials had recommended that no proactive media statement be issued for “operational security purposes” (which they did not specify in writing). Officials stated they would instead “prepare appropriate reactive media lines should the Qayyarah West training become public knowledge.”
In response to an OIA request dated 8 May 2018, the NZDF explained that officials had recommended against a media release “in order to minimise the risk to any NZDF personnel travelling to or operating at that location”. A factor in the NZDF’s consideration was the geographic proximity of Qayyarah West to Mosul and the increased level of Iraqi and Coalition operational activity in the area at the time. A proactive media release, the NZDF determined, would “publically announce NZDF intentions, and potentially introduce increased risk to NZDF personnel.”
At the February 2018 press conference, the Prime Minister also informed reporters that “no training from New Zealand forces [had] actually occurred at [Qayyarah West]”. Following media enquiries, the NZDF confirmed no New Zealand soldiers had been deployed to Qayyarah West “to deliver training or take part in the attack on Mosul.”
In OIA responses dated 3 May and 29 May 2018, the NZDF stated it “had the necessary permissions to deliver the training, but the need to conduct it was overtaken by operational imperatives.” Mosul was recaptured “before this training support was required” and the Iraqi security forces were subsequently redeployed farther west to Tal Afar. Consequently, “no training [or] re-training was conducted by Task Group Taji at Qayyarah West”.
The Iraqi Prime Minister officially declared victory over ISIS in Mosul on 10 July 2017, and announced the beginning and end of the Tal Afar offensive on 20 and 31 August 2017, respectively. At some point around this time frame, the security reasons cited by the NZDF for not putting information into the public domain would likely have lapsed. However, it was an OIA request from a private citizen rather than governmental initiative that led to the Ministry of Defence publicising New Zealand’s training mandate at Qayyarah West.
On 3 April 2018, the NZDF provided a “[d]efensive” question-and-answer brief on the Iraq deployment to the incumbent Defence Minister in case ministers were “asked further information about deployments by the media”. The media brief puts forward the justification that even when operational security reasons do not apply, “information is sometimes not publicised [by the NZDF] where the deployment or change in deployment is very minor in nature”, because of “the dynamic nature of the environments in which NZDF personnel are deployed”.
Even so, the NZDF temporarily updated its website on 22 May 2018 with a reference to Operation Manawa’s mandate to train at Qayyarah West, whilst noting that “no NZDF personnel have conducted training at [Qayyarah] West as yet”.
The website update followed the recommendations outlined in a ministerial submission dated 29 March 2018, advising the Minister of Defence on the “public releasability of information” regarding ongoing NZDF deployments, in line with the current government’s “desire for greater transparency from all departments”. Officials were of the opinion that a “soft launch” of this information would be preferable to a “standalone public release”. They suggested simply updating the Ministry of Defence and NZDF websites in advance of the upcoming UNMISS announcement (made on 23 May 2018), which they felt “would be a logical point at which to release the information”.
The Ministry of Defence and NZDF also resolved to put in place procedures to ensure their websites would be updated “to reflect any new deployments or major changes to deployments” and release redacted “deployment cabinet papers…within six weeks of consideration by Cabinet.” Officials determined these steps would “provide additional assurances to the New Zealand public regarding ongoing transparency around Defence Force deployments.”
In its OIA response of 29 May 2018, the NZDF also disclosed that its “records indicate two NZDF personnel from Task Group Taji travelled to Qayyarah West airfield 22–24 July 2017, as part of a reconnaissance team to conduct a detailed analysis of the Building Partner Capacity task.” The statement itself does not preclude NZDF personnel having travelled to Qayyarah West at other times, whether for training-related activities or other purposes.
Indeed, the Australian Department of Defence published a series of photographs for public relations purposes that suggest an earlier, undeclared NZDF presence in Qayyarah West. Photographic metadata indicates the photographs were taken on 15 February 2017 – mostly at Qayyarah West – by an Australian army photographer with Task Group Taji. One photograph depicts a New Zealand Army soldier, reportedly from Task Group Taji 4, in a Royal Australian Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft en route to Taji Military Complex from Qayyarah West.
Two photographs raise the possibility of Task Group Taji’s visit to Qayyarah West coinciding with the visit of Major General John Frewen, the commander of Australia’s Joint Task Force 633 (JTF633), who was photographed meeting with key Coalition partners.
Between June and December 2016, New Zealand C-130H Hercules aircraft flew 68 sorties as part of Operation Teal, and 13 sorties between May and June 2017 as part of Operation Takahe, conveying unspecified freight and military personnel to airfields in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of those airfields was Qayyarah West.
According to a set of decision briefs prepared for Australia’s military command in 2016, Operation Teal was New Zealand’s contribution to “peace and security” across the Middle East. As part of this contribution, Operation Teal provided air mobility to the JTF633 Air Mobility Task Group through an NZDF C-130H Fixed Wing Task Unit. The task unit consisted of a C-130H aircraft and mission support elements based at Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. The NZDF’s intent was to provide air transport in support of New Zealand, Australian and Coalition operations in the Middle East Region, and direct any residual effort to US Air Forces Central Command (USAFCENT).
Primary tasks included supporting New Zealand and Australian operations such as the integrated New Zealand-Australian Building Partner Capacity mission in Iraq and the movement of Coalition personnel and equipment in the wider Middle East. Secondary tasks included being prepared to support Coalition air transport requests and assist with contingency evacuation plans in extremis.
Referred to as the “lifeblood” of Coalition operations in the Middle East region, these C-130 logistics missions have received limited media coverage in New Zealand.
New Zealand C-130 aircraft assumed the same air tasking profile as their Australian counterparts. A Cabinet paper prepared by New Zealand officials indicates the NZDF was authorised to carry “[Iraqi] Army units undergoing training” or re-training, but prohibited from conducting flights into Syria or transporting “detainees [and] anti-personnel mines”. Some aspects of New Zealand’s C-130 tasking in the paper remain classified.
Qayyarah West’s “primary mission [was] to supply food, fuel and ammunition to…coalition troops in northern Iraq, and to equip the Iraqis.” Supplies and personnel were pre-positioned at the air base to support the Iraqi government’s offensive to recapture Mosul. The NZDF has declined to release the itineraries and manifest of its Hercules missions, maintaining that “[l]inking locations with dates and cargoes would breach operational security, [thereby] putting future operations at risk.” One cannot, therefore, rule out the possibility that the NZDF delivered munitions and troops to Qayyarah West in support of combat operations during the Mosul offensive.
In February 2018, the Ministry of Defence prepared a background briefing for the Minister of Defence on New Zealand’s military contributions to the US-led Coalition to counter ISIS. In the version released to the public in August 2018, the bulk of an annex summarising the NZDF’s counter-ISIS deployment footprint has been redacted and an annex on classified deployments has been withheld in its entirety. Unredacted portions of the briefing indicate that while the majority of NZDF personnel deployed in support of New Zealand’s activities in Iraq are “focussed on training”, a number are “focussed on planning, logistics, intelligence and legal activities” (mainly as part of Operations Mohua, Troy and Pukeko). Although no NZDF personnel are authorised “to engage in a direct targeting role or directly participate in offensive operations in Iraq”, evidently some are tasked with the indirect support of combat operations in a non-training capacity.
For example, as part of its Building Partner Capacity mission, New Zealand has been facilitating the transfer of military equipment to the Iraqi Army provided through the Pentagon’s Counter-ISIS Train and Equip Fund (CTEF) programme. At Taji Military Complex, NZDF logistics personnel from Task Group Taji have been involved “in the planning and then the actual delivery of that equipment to the Iraqis”, who use it “to train and then, subsequently, conduct their operations.” Task Group Taji’s mandate was also expanded in July 2017 to include an advise-and-assist role.
In a functioning democracy, the military operates on behalf of the public and is ultimately accountable to it; the government and media outlets enable accountability by keeping the public informed of military affairs. Despite taking steps towards being more transparent than its predecessor, the current government has been less than forthcoming on the extent of NZDF operations at Qayyarah West. Its stance is not entirely justified by the need to protect information on the basis of operational security or diplomatic sensitivity. It is, however, consistent with the governmental narrative given primacy by the media – one that emphasises New Zealand’s overall counter-ISIS role as a training mission in Iraq, while downplaying New Zealand’s other contributions to offensive operations. Under such circumstances, meaningful public debate on the legitimacy of New Zealand’s military intervention in Iraq is unlikely to take place—contrary to what the principles of democracy demand.
An unedited version of this article is available here.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.