New Zealand prime minister John Key revealed this week that up to 80 Kiwis are linked to the terror group known as the Islamic State (IS).
Mr Key also discussed plans to rearrange the visa laws governing the return of foreign fighters to New Zealand and upgrade the legislation around the surveillance of terror suspects in this country.
He ruled out sending combat troops to Iraq, however Mr Key indicated that “advisors” would travel to the region to assist in training local allied forces.
As the government moved into its decision on what to do about IS, New Zealand was sitting in an enviable position. Each of our Western allies had already joined the fighting in a combat role, but New Zealand hadn’t.
For this country, but also for the Iraqis, that’s is a very important distinction and one we shouldn’t overlook as we think about what will happen in the region when the bombs stop dropping.
An “advisory” role for our defence personnel in Iraq follows from the experience in Afghanistan where the majority of New Zealand’s activities were weighted towards providing security for reconstruction.
That the New Zealand Defence Force wasn’t heavily involved in major combat operations was crucial from the perception of Afghanistan citizens.
New Zealand now has an opportunity in Iraq to reinforce the message to the world that we truly care about peace and international security. It isn’t that this country is adverse to violence. But that our best role is when we participate the reconstruction of post-Iraq without the baggage of having killed Sunni tribesmen a few days ago.
Put yourself in the shoes of a villager in Sunni northern Iraq approached by two teams carrying reconstruction materials. One team is from the United States and the other is from New Zealand, which would you trust?
Would it be the one that was recently killing other Sunnis and acted exactly you think a Crusader force does, or would you trust the team which had no part in killing and wants to listen to your words?
The point is, for the long war against Islamic terrorism it’s time to start thinking differently about how to end the constant fighting. In order to do this, New Zealand can be part of the problem or it can be part of the solution, but it must not be both.
The US is already shown it is compromised in the Middle East as an arbiter for at least the next couple of decades - perhaps forever. But New Zealand’s unique position could be used to show the region that not all Western nations are war hungry and ready to kill. Such a thing will be extremely important in the coming years because Iraq and Syria are not coming back.
These two countries are experiencing the inevitable breakup of the colonial, post-WWII borders. The region is reforming back along its cultural and tribal affiliations of the past, and the process is causing a lot of pain.
Helping Iraq survive this process will be to misread the situation. That country isn’t coming back. New Zealand is better served spending precious resources on addressing the long term issues of trying to build a platform of negotiation for the warring Islamic sects.
No matter how much it might feel that way, using violence on a terror group in Iraq or Syria won’t stop terrorism from coming to New Zealand. None of their fighters will ever make it down here.
If there’s any threat from Islamic terrorism to New Zealand it is from people who have never travelled to the Middle East. They watch a few online videos, embrace the idea of jihad before shooting a few people in a shopping centre.
These people live right here amongst us. It has already happened around the world – three times just last week. All were self-driven claiming only oblique attachment to the main jihadist ideology.
Throwing a few bombs halfway around the world won’t fix the problem of grassroots attackers. If anything - should New Zealand ever decide to take aggressive action - it’ll legitimise any Islamic terrorism in New Zealand.
The world has to get used to the idea that terrorism is as much a part of modern life as McDonalds and Coke. To treat this threat as if were on parity with Nazism or Communism is wrong and ultimately destructive.
Take a look at the people telling us that Islamic terrorism is an existential threat. Each of them grew up hearing stories of their grandfathers fighting Nazism and each cut their foreign policy teeth on dealing with the evils of Communism. Those were true existential threats.
So of course they think this new threat is the same. It’s the only way they know how to characterise it. They don’t know how to think of marginal threats in a vacuum of existential threats. Young people on the other hand, don’t understand fighting for existence. But it certainly doesn’t feel like this.
The pressure on the Islamic State is already crippling, they’ll be broken as a threat very soon. The real question is what we’re implementing to ensure other groups don’t emerge from the vacuum.
Stopping the production rate of Islamists is going to be the defining turning point for the next generation. It’s going to be tough and maybe impossible. But it’s not going to happen if we continue to make the same violent mistakes as seen over the past 13 years.