NZ's Iraq contribution 'grossly overstated'
New Zealand journalist Jon Stephenson, who was in Baghdad 10 years ago when the US launched its 'shock and awe' campaign on the Iraqi capital, says the achievements of Kiwi troops and engineers in the country have been "grossly overstated".
Speaking on Firstline this morning, Mr Stephenson said the poor planning of the invasion and its aftermath prevented much work from being done, and New Zealand's contribution was made to please the US and its allies.
"One always wants to speak with respect to people who put their lives on the line, and go overseas to a warzone, and certainly the engineers that we sent there, they did put their lives on the line," says Mr Stephenson.
"But the reality is that it was a… I wouldn't say a publicity stunt, but an operation done with very strong public relations results in mind. Those engineers really made very little headway in terms of reconstruction.
"I think it's fair to say that their achievements there were grossly overstated."
New Zealand officially condemned the invasion, which marks its 10th anniversary tomorrow. It was later claimed in a US embassy cable, released by Wikileaks in 2010, that New Zealand had agreed to send 60 engineers and 100 armed soldiers because "New Zealand's absence from Iraq might cost NZ dairy conglomerate Fonterra the lucrative dairy supply contract it enjoyed under the United Nations Oil for Food program".
- VIDEO: Jon Stephenson on Firstline
Mr Stephenson, who has reported from other countries in the region such as Afghanistan, says there weren't enough troops left in Iraq following the capture of Baghdad to ensure the country's stability.
"What we saw was a very poorly planned operation. There weren't enough troops planned for post-invasion, there was a very light presence after the invasion, a lot of the troops withdrawn.
"There was also very poor planning in a sense of not seeing how the country would be directed, how it would be channeled into the so-called democratic age that it was planned [to be]."
In his view, the coalition forces made a string of additional errors that compounded the lack of troops, including the use torture and sexual abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad.
"A very serious mistake was disbanding the Ba'ath Party," says Mr Stephenson.
"They took a very strong de-Ba'athification approach, took away all the leadership whether or not they supported Saddam. They were certainly efficient people that knew how to run the country, and they disbanded the Iraqi army.
"All of a sudden you had these people who had very influential roles, well-paid roles, roles where they had a lot of self-esteem, they fired them all. You had a lot of very well-trained people with access to weapons who were upset. It was a no-brainer they were going to go and oppose what they saw as the occupation of their country.
"Finally I think the abuse, the things like Abu Ghraib which really upset the local people, the way they were treated, very quickly earned America a place not in their good books, but a role that they came to despise."
The coalition's mistakes continue to have a detrimental effect on Iraq, 10 years after the invasion.
"Iraq is very high on the world's list of failed states," says Mr Stephenson. "It's not at the top, but it's you know, half-a-dozen or more places down the list… The internal politics, after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, most of the Sunni in Iraq were marginalised. The Shia, who are the bulk of the population, were favoured.
"So in effect, there's a lot of discontent there, there's a lot of discontent between the ethnic groups – the Sunni, the Shia, the Kurds – and I think with the situation in Syria in particular, we're looking at a future of strong instability in Iraq – possibly even civil war."