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The Nation: Patrick Gower interviews John Key

On The Nation: Patrick Gower interviews John Key

Prime Minister is categorical that New Zealand will stay in Iraq two years and no more: “I think this is about making a contribution and leaving… We could be in the Middle East forever if we don’t take that approach.”

Key at odds with Australia in giving time commitment. Key: “I’ve made it quite clear, for instance, to the Australian prime minister that we’re out in two years”. Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop (see Bishop transcript): “It’s not useful to put a time frame on it, that will just play into the hands of the terrorist organisations”

Key says it’s probable that Australia will stay in Iraq longer with a different training partner, but expects Islamic State to be less prevalent in two years.

“If your argument is that success is defined by there being no ISIL, then you’re not going to get that success in two years.”

Wanted training rather than accompany and assist role because “if we fight Iraq’s wars then we involve ourselves in something that we can’t hope to solve for them. They have to solve it for themselves.”

Doesn’t rule out some kind of retaliation for New Zealand’s involvement in the war against IS.

“In some senses, yes,” this is a religious war

Says doing nothing was not an option: “A stronger ISIL, in all the advice I’ve seen, presents a far greater threat than actually the threat of doing nothing”

Patrick Gower: Prime Minister, good morning

John Key: Morning, Patrick.

Prime Minister, an official New Zealand contribution to help the war against Islamic State now. I want to talk first about retaliation and direct retaliation that seems to be from the Islamic State. Are you expecting that – some sort of high-profile killing either here or abroad?

Well, they can’t rule out that there will be what would be— more likely, I suppose, in the first instance, would be some sort of threatening video. I don’t have any advice on that. I haven’t seen anything. There’s nothing floating around the ether that I’ve seen, but, you know, equally I can’t absolutely say these guys won’t do that, because that’s their modus operandi. That’s what they’ve done in other countries. They want to run a propaganda campaign that is intimidating. But in a funny kind of way, if you think it through from this perspective, we pride ourselves on having an independent foreign policy. But if we ultimately say, ‘Well, we’re going to kowtow to the threats from ISIL,’ isn’t that in the end meaning that they run our foreign policy? And do New Zealanders really want to say that a terrorist group is going to control whether we make a contribution to making the world safer?

Sure, so you’re expecting or ready for some sort of video where, for instance, Jihadi John stands up and says, ‘Here’s a message to New Zealand. Here’s a message to John Key’? What at that point—?

He certainly could do that.

Yeah, and when that— if that happens, what will you say to New Zealanders after making this decision?

Well, I’ll say the same thing I’ve been saying all week, which is we send our forces there to be part of this training contingent firstly because we care about what’s happening to Iraqis and Syrian nationals and people that are caught up in this horrible thing. But we actually do it as much for ourselves as we do it for them. You see, in the end, this is the difference between ISIL and probably anything else we’ve seen – they’re out there contacting and using social media to target those 35, 40 people, and they’re saying to them, ‘Come and fight for us. But if you don’t fight for us, undertake a domestic terror attack.’ We know our people travel to the region, particularly places like Malaysia and Indonesia, where there’s big Muslim populations and where there are lots of foreign fighters who have come from those countries and will return. We know that New Zealanders themselves work and travel in the Middle East region—

Sure. So we’re doing that to protect New Zealanders, so isn’t a stronger ISIL—?

A stronger ISIL, in all the advice I’ve seen, presents a far greater threat than actually the threat of doing nothing and saying, ‘Well, we’ll just leave them to their own devices.’

And very quickly, would New Zealand ever pay a ransom?

No. We don’t pay ransoms.


Because we put at risk every other New Zealander if we do.

Now, on another issue that wasn’t raised this week – you’re talking about a stronger ISIL. One of the things that drives the Islamic State is religion or religious fanaticism and the desire for the apocalypse. They want an invasion over there. They want an American-led club to go in there.


We’re giving them what they want, aren’t we?

No. I think if you look at the genesis of what’s been happening there – I mean, ISIL is a group that wasn’t very large 18 months ago. In fact, it was very, very small. They’ve always been there in some sort of form. But it bounced out of the previous Iraqi government – the Maliki government – and basically what happened with them was because they excluded everyone, there were plenty of people that felt resentment from that, they joined ISIL, and initially they bounced, actually, into Syria. Then when they got stronger, they came back into Iraq. So you’re absolutely right – this is on one level driven by religious belief and the beliefs of some people that the teachings of the Koran basically go out there and argue, you know, that they can carry out these actions.

So it’s a religious war in some senses, isn’t it?

In some senses, yes. And the Islamic people – well, the people of the Islamic faith – would reject that. So for instance, the UAE Foreign Minister when he came to see me says that there are plenty of clerics from the UAE who go out there and say, ‘Yes, you can point to this particular cleric who wrote in the teachings in the Koran, but we reject that as being incorrect and, in fact, people should stand up to that.’
But there’s no question they have at the core of it— Look, their magazine that they use to— as a propaganda device – it’s called Dabiq, and Dabiq is the site of the battle.

Sure, and you’re playing into their hands in some senses. They want a crusade to go in there. They want an apocalypse. They say that’s going to cause the apocalypse.

But I think you’ve got to look at what we are doing, so we are training Iraqi forces.

So we’re training—That’s the coalition. You’re part of the coalition.

Sure, we’re part of that wider group without doubt, but we are training Iraqi forces, and it’s one of the reasons why I think the right logic is to train Iraqi forces and not take the option that some people have suggested, which is send the SAS, put them in their fight, actually – Iraq’s battles for Iraq.

So why is that? If you feel so strongly about this – we saw you in the Parliament talking about Jordanian pilots being burned alive, people being beheaded, children fighting – if you feel so strongly about it, why not send in the SAS in some kind of role? We know the Iraqi ambassador wants them there.

Yeah, he does.

They’d go and do— You know that he wants them there?

Well, I’ve just seen his public comments he does.

Yeah. And they could do an accompany or assist role. They could help advise on the retaking of Mosul. Why not? What was the reason why you didn’t want to send in the SAS?

And some countries are. I mean, some countries are going the advise, assist and accompany role.

So if you feel so strongly, why not—? Why not that?

Yeah. Because I think, in the end, this is a very long-term issue. I’ve been saying that for quite some time, and I’m not suggesting in two years we’re going to solve all those problems. As I said in the Parliament earlier in the week, I think it plays some role. But my view is for this position, if you just take it from an Iraqi context at the moment, to be resolved, you need the government to build that inclusive government. But to do that, in part they have to have the capability to stand up to those people. And so what we’re doing is delivering that capability. But if we fight Iraq’s wars, then we involve ourselves in something that we can’t hope to solve for them. They have to solve it for themselves, so it’s about where is that line. So the counter option or counter-factual to not fighting their wars in some people’s minds is do nothing, but the trouble with doing nothing is we’re already exposed to the risks of these people.

So it’s a middle ground? You don’t want to send in the SAS, and you don’t want to do nothing. But how is this going to achieve stability? What is the evidence that these trainers – 16 trainers – are going to help achieve stability?

Well, firstly, there are 16 trainers, but there are also a lot of other people that do train, so it’s not quite as simple as that. There’s force protection, but everybody else is largely involved in training. They’ll train a lot of people over a period of time, and they’ll train the trainers, so in the end when we leave, hopefully they’ll be more self-sufficient, if not totally self-sufficient. So that a) helps. But secondly, actually, when we have been training people in Afghanistan, and the CDF made that point, I thought, fabulously well at the press conference earlier in the week, we actually do such a good job that we can take people from a very low skill level and deliver them to be a much higher skill level.

So what will it look like in two years’ time? What will Iraq, in your view, look like in two years’ time with this?

It’ll depend massively on how successful the new government – the Abadi government – is, but I would say, in my view, you’ve still got a very strong chance that they will be building more unity with the different groups, with the Kurds and with the Sunnis, working alongside the Shiites. It won’t be perfect, but you’ll see more. I think ISIL will be less prevalent, actually, in Iraq because—

Less prevalent?

Yeah. They won’t be eradicated. I mean, if your argument is that success is defined by there being no ISIL, then you’re not going to get that success in two years.

So if IS isn’t defeated in two years, as you don’t think they will be, will New Zealand stay on?

No, because, in my view, it’s the difference between an ISIL which is massively powerful and strong. If you think about what was happening even only about six months ago – they had an unrelented march to a territorial gain. I mean, whether it’s Mosul or anybody else— any other place, that’s what they were doing. The air strikes actually stopped that. It’s forced them to act like a normal terrorist group. So our role is to degrade them. Of course, a perfect world would be to say ISIL would go away, but in some form, those teachings have been around since 600. So, really, and, I mean, it’s a bit unrealistic for a New Zealand prime minister to say, ‘In two years’ time, with a small, modest contribution we’re going—‘

But are we out, then, in two years’ time?

Yes. And so the question is, well, why in two years and why not longer? Firstly, the Americans themselves are saying they don’t want to be there for a long time. They want it for two years. But secondly, if after two years we haven’t done a good enough job or haven’t achieved enough in terms of training trainers and training people, will it make any difference if it’s five or 10 years? I mean, in some senses I think this is about making a contribution and leaving. We could be in the Middle East forever if we don’t take that approach.

So how concrete is this? How concrete is this?

Look, I’ve made it quite clear, for instance, to the Australian prime minister that we’re out in two years. That’s our mandate that we’ve got. That’s what we intend to follow through. And I actually fully expect that it’s quite probable Australia will stay longer, so they’ll either backfill with more people of their own or maybe they’ll find another training partner or whatever. But, yeah, I think the thing with New Zealand is that we have been a reliable and dependable country to do things to help people. Whether it’s Ebola nurses or Iraq or reconstruction in Afghanistan, we’ve been there. Ramsay, you know, in East Timor, you name it – we’ve done it. But we’re a small country, we’ve got a limited amount of capability, and I think we deploy it for a period of time and not forever.

But all of this assumes that our involvement in Iraq makes things better.

Well, it will.

Can you—? You can give the New Zealand public an assurance this will make it better; it won’t make things worse?

I give the New Zealand judgement— the New Zealand public my best assessment and judgement, which is 60-odd countries, you know, bound together doing a variety of different things is likely to degrade the effect of ISIL.

Name, then, one intervention in the Middle East by the West that has made things better.

Well, one intervention could be the pressure they put on Maliki to make sure that he stood aside and—

No, but one historic intervention – one time that the West has gone into the Middle East and made things better.

Well, let’s take— Well, Afghanistan – if you go into Afghanistan, in Bamiyan Province, it is a vastly different place to where it was when we went there over a decade ago.

And with respect, many will say that Afghanistan is not a successful intervention. It’s still civil unrest all over the show there.

Yeah, look, you’re dealing with long-term issues. Always in these countries there’s a degree of corruption. You’re dealing with people that, you know, struggle alongside each other. But in the end in Iraq, I’m quite confident that we’ve got this right in the sense of we’re doing something that’s appropriate, we’ve got it in the safest position we can, actually, we’re making a contribution that will be valued, but it’s not forever.

And one final question – have the SAS been in either Syria or Iraq up to this point?

Well, not so far as— I don’t follow their every single move. You honestly have to go and ask the CDF. But as a contingent, a group, have they been over there? No, but I can’t be 100 per cent sure that as part of the recce when they looked at it one person wasn’t ex-SAS or whatever. But as a group, my advice is no, I don’t think so, but you have to absolutely check with the CDF.

Have they been in Syria?

I don’t believe so, no. I haven’t had any advice in Syria.

Prime Minister, thank you for your time this morning.

Thanks very much.


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