Operation Manawa’s Advise-and-Assist Mandate
OPINION: The Government and state agencies
should be more open about New Zealand’s military role in
On the eve of New Zealand’s military deployment to Iraq, Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating told the New Zealand public that the NZDF was determined, as was the Government, to be transparent about New Zealand’s role in Iraq, but would not compromise on the security of those being deployed. However, the official response to the recent revelations of a change in the NZDF’s mandate to include an ‘advise and assist’ capability, to take one example, suggests otherwise—a lack of governmental transparency that is not justifiable on the grounds of security. This kind of obscurantism is undermining the ability of New Zealanders to have a say in Government decisions regarding New Zealand’s military presence in the Middle East region.
On 23 February 2015, Cabinet considered a paper outlining New Zealand’s possible contribution to Operation Inherent Resolve, the US military operation directed primarily against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Cabinet paper describes the operation as being organised around “four pillars”: the Building Partner Capacity (BPC) missions in Iraq; a systematic campaign of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria; missions to ‘advise, assist and accompany’ the Iraqi security forces (ISF) to plan and execute ground operations against ISIS; and other activities in respect to Syria such as training vetted Syrian opposition forces. New Zealand officials had investigated all four pillars in late 2014 as possible options for direct or indirect New Zealand contribution. They recommended the BPC mission as the most appropriate option, partly based on the assertion that “BPC contributions are explicitly about training and do not constitute combat missions.”
Cabinet agreed to the recommendation, thereby authorising the NZDF to initiate Operation Manawa, “a training-focused, Building Partner Capacity Task Unit in Iraq”. The stated purpose of the NZDF task unit is “to train the Iraqi Security Forces so they are able to create an independent self-sustaining military capability for the Government of Iraq and defend their population over the long term.” The task unit was deployed in May 2015 alongside an Australian Defence Force (ADF) task unit, forming the combined force Task Group Taji. Cabinet also approved the deployment of staff officers to Coalition headquarters in Baghdad and Kuwait (Operation Mohua), and additional personnel to a National Support Element, based at Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, that provides logistical support to the Iraq mission (Operation Troy).
The Government’s decision to deploy the NZDF initially faced considerable opposition, both in Parliament and from the public—New Zealanders were divided. Public opinion, whether for or against the deployment, was predicated on the Government’s portrayal of Task Group Taji (and by extension New Zealand’s Iraq deployment as a whole) as a training mission. For the most part, this portrayal continues to be promoted through New Zealand media. However, taking into account the available evidence, Task Group Taji’s current mission would more accurately be characterised as one of train, equip, advise and assist—a more involved undertaking than training alone.
A series of polls published in 2015 that suggests public opinion was initially divided over a training-focused NZDF mission in Iraq.
As outlined in a Pentagon report from December 2016, the overall US-led BPC mission in Iraq is, in fact, composed of two elements: training at the BPC sites, which is focused on equipping ISF personnel and providing tactical training to prepare them for conventional (and stabilisation) operations; and advise-and-assist, which is focused on supporting the ISF through “planning and coordination for operations, surveillance and reconnaissance, communications, and explosive ordnance disposal”. By June 2015, training had generally become the responsibility of Coalition forces, while US forces continued to be responsible for advise-and-assist.
In late 2016, the role of Task Group Taji’s ADF contingent evolved to include advise-and-assist activities, with no NZDF involvement at the time. According to a situation report for Operation Manawa, the NZDF had expressed “considerable interest” in the role as early as 27 November 2016.
In a letter dated 23 August 2017, the NZDF maintained that “[a]s part of the Building Partner Capacity mission, New Zealand has no involvement in any advise and assist support”. In November 2017, after the general election, the NZDF released a ministerial submission which indicates the Government had, in fact, expanded Operation Manawa’s mandate on 21 July 2017 to provide advise-and-assist support to the Iraqi Army’s North Baghdad Operations Command. The North Baghdad Operations Command is co-located with Task Group Taji at the Taji Military Complex, and is primarily responsible for conducting “security operations” in the area immediately north of Baghdad. This responsibility includes the “stabilisation of the Northern Baghdad area against insurgency” and “the protection of the Taji Military Complex”. In the ministerial submission, officials advised the government of the day that a “draft press release could be provided” to announce New Zealand’s expanded mandate to the media—though none was ultimately issued.
The expanded mandate authorises the NZDF to support the ADF’s “Advise and Assist unit”, a “small team” whose “mentoring support” activities at the North Baghdad Operations Command include “planning and coordinating operations, planning and conducting logistics functions, integrating coalition resources into missions, and conducting training needs analysis as well as training design and delivery.” Specifically, the ADF unit has provided advise-and-assist support to the ISF with: the planning and execution of large-scale clearance operations; air-land integration, for example coordinating Coalition air assets in support of ground operations; accessing Coalition intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, such as drone imagery “to identify enemy locations and activities” and provide “overwatch” during operations; and improving counter-IED training by incorporating lessons learnt from the field. In a May 2017 briefing to then-Defence Minister Mark Mitchell, the New Zealand Ministry of Defence noted ADF personnel in their “Advise and Assist” role “do not accompany Iraqi Security Forces during offensive operations or engage directly on targeting roles.”
In the cover letter accompanying the ministerial submission, the NZDF implied that NZDF personnel had begun advise-and-assist activities in the intervening months: “New Zealand is now involved in ‘advise and assist’ support to the North Baghdad Operation[s] Command”, but this “support does not change the scope of New Zealand’s Building Partner Capacity mission in Iraq”. According to the letter, advise-and-assist support offered by future rotations of Task Group Taji is to remain the same as outlined in the ministerial submission until changed by the New Zealand Government.
ADF officers Capt. Nathan Small (left) and Maj. James Ellis-Smith from Task Group Taji-4’s ‘Advise and Assist’ Unit conduct mission planning for the Iraqi Army’s North Baghdad Operations Command at Taji Military Complex, Iraq, on 29 March 2017. Photo: Cpl Kyle Genner / Commonwealth of Australia
In a letter dated 5 April 2018, the NZDF clarified its position, this time implying NZDF personnel have yet to commence advise-and-assist activities. The letter states that Australia sought NZDF support in an advise-and-assist capacity on an “‘as needed’ basis”—support which “so far has not been required”. If requested by the ADF and “approved by the New Zealand local command”, the NZDF’s support would “probably take the form of one to two personnel at a time”, who would work alongside ADF personnel to advise and assist the ISF in “the planning and coordination of operations; the planning and conduct of logistics functions; the integration of military resources into missions; the analysis of training needs; and training design and delivery.”
On 12 February 2018, Stuff Circuit published a story on previously unpublicised changes to Operation Manawa’s mandate. The story includes a conflicting statement from former Defence Minister Mitchell: “The New Zealand Defence Force was given a strict mandate to train Iraqi soldiers for the fight against ISIL, as well as to train stabilisation forces, and to the best of my knowledge they adhered to that mandate. There was no change in that mandate beyond what was announced publicly and all troop training was carried out behind the wire as stipulated.”
At a press conference on the same day, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealed she had been advised in a “scant briefing” of “a change that allowed forces within Taji, within the camps, to provide a mentoring role”. Indeed, Mitchell himself was one of the ministers who had authorised this change to Operation Manawa’s mandate. Despite media requests, Ron Mark, the incumbent Minister of Defence, made no public comment on the matter.
When asked if she was confident the NZDF was being “clear and transparent with the public”, the Prime Minister told reporters that “at least from the advice that the past Government received, in their view [the NZDF] hadn’t extended beyond the mandate that they were given”—presumably true but beside the point. The question-answer session shed no light on why consecutive governments had not informed the public of the change in mandate to include an advise-and-assist role, or specifically what that role entails. Previous changes to Operation Manawa’s mandated training audience and locations in 2016, for example, had been proactively announced by the Beehive.
The NZDF took the position that ministers in the current Government “did not require any special notification of the provision of assistance to Australia”, leaving unanswered when incoming ministers were first informed of the NZDF’s advise-and-assist role. From an NZDF perspective, “the nature of New Zealand’s mentoring role has not changed since the Building Partner Capacity mission commenced”—the mission’s “focus has always been on mentoring [sic] members of the Iraqi Security Forces”.
Though technically accurate, the NZDF statements are misleading. There is a qualitative difference between mentoring defined as (a) an activity that is oriented towards training the ISF to conduct offensive operations, as the term has been presented to the public, and (b) an activity that, in addition to the training, includes involvement in the actual conduct of offensive operations (albeit in a limited fashion), as per the mandate that the term actually represents.
The fourth edition of the NZ Army Journal, dated 19 February 2018, features a research paper on the relevance and implications of incorporating advise-and-assist functions within Operation Manawa. The paper was written by an NZDF member of Task Group Taji-4, whose identity is protected as required by NZDF policy for soldiers serving in Iraq. The author argued for Operation Manawa’s mandate to be amended to include advise-and-assist, which is typically “a characteristic of BPC missions”, but warned of a “media or reputational risk” to the NZDF: “There is potential for media to misconstrue, or the public to misunderstand, the responsibilities and roles of the A&A [advise-and-assist] teams and link what the NZDF are doing to combat operations conducted by the US and other coalition forces”, if the NZDF is not forthcoming and does not “clearly define and accurately portray the limitations of the A&A team and emphasise that there would be no change to current operating requirements.” A viable alternative for mitigating such a risk would be to minimise media exposure of any NZDF advise-and-assist role. This option was not discussed in the paper.
The paper’s author also raised the possibility of NZDF personnel being “inadvertently...linked to ISF actions that fall outside of the stipulated operational mandate or NZDF ethos”, for example “if an ISF element undergoing A&A was to breach the Laws of Armed Conflict” and commit war crimes while conducting offensive operations. The “reputational risk” of being associated with such actions could increase, the author surmised, if the NZDF advise-and-assist team were to compromise on autonomy by integrating with its “more ambitious” ADF equivalent. The risk could be mitigated by “strict guidelines” that limit the NZDF to “the development of staff processes or providing logistical support”, drawing the line at involvement in “kinetic or targeting operations”. While Operation Manawa’s advise-and-assist mandate permits involvement in ISF operations, the scope of this involvement is prescribed by the rules of engagement (ROE) derived in part from this mandate. The ROE are classified on the grounds of protecting the security and defence of New Zealand, and are therefore not available for public review.
At the same press conference in mid-February 2018, the Prime Minister also indicated that the current Government has made no decisions with regards to Operation Manawa’s mandate, having “simply inherited the existing arrangements”. Deferring responsibility of the current nature of the deployment to the previous government, she said the present Government’s role is only to “consider what happens in November , when that mandate comes up [for renewal]”, not the decisions of the past. The Prime Minister nevertheless sympathised with a reporter’s remark that it is the present Government’s “responsibility to oversee what’s going on at the moment—whether it was your decision or not, you should be fully across what [the NZDF is] actually doing out there”.
As the smaller contributor to Task Group Taji, New Zealand’s continued participation in the BPC mission at Taji is contingent on Australia’s, whereas Australia has the capability to sustain its operations without New Zealand support. Given differences in the two countries’ foreign policy and domestic concerns, New Zealand has taken diplomatic steps to retain “force autonomy” from Australia over its military commitment in the eventuality their mission parameters diverge (for example, with regards to mission caveats or an exit strategy).
In effect, the Government appears to have adopted its predecessor’s public relations strategy—one that mischaracterises Task Group Taji and New Zealand’s Iraq deployment overall as a training-only mission.
Soldiers from the Iraqi Army’s 59th Brigade inspect Humvees being transferred by the US Army’s Task Force Grizzly with support from Task Group Taji 7’s Logistics Company at Camp Taji, Iraq, on 23 July 2018. Photo: Spc Audrey Ward / US Army
Such a strategy is in contrast to the spirit of a recent workshop hosted by the NZDF on transparency and accountability with regards to military operations. In his opening remarks to participants, Lieutenant General Keating expressed the view that the principles of transparency and accountability are “central to the very idea of democratic governance.” If government is to be accountable to the citizenry, then decisions of government must be transparent and open to public scrutiny. Keating spoke of the challenge of finding the “right” balance between “the exercise of meaningful [public] participation and oversight of the military”, on the one hand, and “satisfying the legitimate needs of the military in [the] pursuit of security” on the other. The NZDF and the Government, he intimated, do not “hide behind security as an excuse to avoid transparency and accountability.”
When the NZDF disclosed the existence of Operation Manawa’s advise-and-assist mandate, it undoubtedly did so having determined that disclosure under the Official Information Act would not prejudice New Zealand’s international relations or operations security, nor endanger the safety of soldiers or the New Zealand public. With regards to domestic security concerns, officials had advised in the 2015 Cabinet paper that any “military contributions to the coalition could result in New Zealand being named by [ISIS] as a target” but that such “risks should not, on their own, be the reason not to respond to the [ISIS] threat.”
In the absence of countervailing security reasons, it is an open question why the New Zealand Government, unlike its Australian counterpart, is reticent about the full breadth of Task Group Taji’s mission, that is to train, equip, advise and assist the ISF. Regardless, it is left to the public to encourage the Government to act in the public interest with respect to New Zealand’s military intervention in Iraq. To that end, the need for reinvigorated public debate is all the more pressing as the Government deliberates on whether to extend Operation Manawa’s mandate beyond 30 November 2018.
US Army Maj. Gen. Walter Piatt, the Deputy Commander of Transition of CJTF-OIR, and the command team of Task Group Taji attend an operations brief at the Iraqi Army’s North Baghdad Operations Command in Taji Military Complex, Iraq, on 21 June 2018. NZDF personnel are partially visible, seated on the right. Photo: Spc Audrey Ward / US Army
In response to a media enquiry in mid-2016, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade released a draft document from 29 April 2016 entitled “Upcoming Deployment Decisions”. The draft lists three main options for New Zealand’s Building Partner Capacity (BPC) mission in Iraq with regards to its original mandate which was to expire on 31 May 2017: “[c]onfirm withdrawal from BPC mission at conclusion of two year mandate (with no replacement); or [r]eplace BPC contribution with smaller/targeted Advise and Assist mission or other smaller training mission; or [e]xtend BPC mandate by 12 months”. In the end, the Government opted to extend the BPC mandate by 18 months to 30 November 2018.
When Operation Manawa’s advise-and-assist role was first publicised by Stuff Circuit on 12 February 2018, the NZDF received a number of enquiries from media outlets. In an unpublished response to a Newswire question, the NZDF denied the New Zealand public had “been misled on the true nature of NZ’s military role in Iraq”.
In OIA responses dated 29 May and 28 June 2018, the NZDF released a question-and-answer media brief on the Iraq deployment produced on 8 March 2018 and additional points from a version of the media brief that was provided to the Minister of Defence on 3 April 2018, respectively. The media brief confirms that NZDF personnel serving in Iraq “do not have the mandate to engage in the targeting process” in terms of “providing targets or intelligence for the purpose of identifying targets for airstrikes, drone strikes or other action”, and NZDF personnel “do not advise, assist, or accompany any Iraqi security forces involved in combat operations”.
The media brief also explains approval for Operation Manawa’s advise-and-assist role was not announced to the public because “publicity was not seen as necessary” given “the task is entirely consistent with the BPC mission mentoring and training” mandate and is “not resource-intensive, involving a very small number of personnel” already deployed in Iraq. In general, “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, on 22 May 2018, the NZDF updated its website to include a reference to Operation Manawa’s advise-and-assist role “to provide mentoring to Iraqi Security Forces inside the Taji Military Complex at the North Baghdad Operation[s] Command (likely a team of one to two personnel at a time, providing specific mentoring to staff on planning and coordinating operations; planning and conducting logistics functions; integrating coalition resources into missions; conducting training needs analysis and training design & delivery).” The role had been approved in July 2017 but not yet undertaken (as at 5 April 2018). The update to the NZDF website coincides with the Government’s efforts to increase transparency of New Zealand’s military deployments, as reported in a Stuff article published on 23 May 2018.
At a post-Cabinet meeting press conference held on 11 June 2018, the Prime Minister acknowledged “there have been bits around the edges where people have contested” whether the mandate had expanded beyond what the public had been led to believe. In her opinion, however, the mandate “seems to have stayed relatively intact”.
According to the NZDF, as a decision made by the previous Government, Operation Manawa’s mandate will “continue to apply until the mandate expires or the new Government makes a different decision”. The current Government is in “regular discussions with coalition partners on all aspects of operations” and is considering whether to extend and adjust New Zealand’s Iraq mandate. As a number of New Zealand’s Coalition partners have indicated an intention to remain in Iraq until 2019, it is the Government’s “hope New Zealand will remain too.” For all intents and purposes, the Government appears satisfied with the inclusion of Task Group Taji’s advise-and-assist role as part of New Zealand’s Iraq mandate, at least until its expiry in November 2018.
This article was first published in Stuff on 28 May 2018.