There will be quibbling, as is customary whenever Canada fields soldiers carrying loaded firearms, about whether the troops “advising and assisting” Kurdish forces in northern Iraq are actually in combat. It may be in the Liberal government’s political interest to assert that, although Canadians have exchanged fire with the enemy — we don’t know how often, that’s a secret — these have been “defensive” actions only. The truth is much simpler, as it has been since the Conservative government launched the mission in 2014: Canada is at war. That’s what it means to provide intelligence, targeting for airstrikes, refuelling, aerial surveillance and leadership on the ground, at the front. To call it anything else is dishonest. It’s also a great disservice to the soldiers risking life and limb.
THE TRUTH IS MUCH SIMPLER ... CANADA IS AT WAR.
If we acknowledge that Canada is at war — and, reading between the lines of recent remarks from Brig.-Gen. Peter Dawe and an “update” Monday from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, this conclusion is inevitable — then certain other conclusions also become inevitable. The first is that the Liberals either did not know, or knew and did not care, when they promised last year to remove Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 jets from “combat” in Iraq and Syria, that this would soon prove to be an empty gesture.
The campaign pledge to end Canada’s role in coalition bombardment of ISIL positions — based on the specious notion that bombing was somehow more aggressive or combative than, say, refuelling or targeting — did not withstand scrutiny from the get-go.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to replace the CF-18s with a more robust ground training mission, it was pointed out that ground training was both more dangerous than flying bombing runs and no less combative, given the nature of modern war. Humanitarian work and training require force protection; force protection requires intelligence; intelligence applied requires pre-emptive action, which sometimes mean bombing.
In an integrated command, such as the coalition against ISIL is, there is no distinction between the left hand and the right. They work together.
There can be no effective training of ground troops in a shooting war without accompanying those troops into combat, a point made during the election campaign. This was a central lesson of the Afghan war. Canadian trainers in Kandahar found they needed to join Afghan trainees on the battlefield to be credible. Trainers from other nations, who stayed mostly behind the wire and out of harm’s way, got little traction, Afghan contacts told me at the time.
Perhaps because it made so little sense upon examination, the vow to pull the CF-18s was not popular with most Canadians, polls indicated in 2015. But it did have an obvious political benefit: it helped make a vote for the Grits more palatable to the more pacifist-minded New Democratic Party voters who were the Liberals’ main strategic target in Campaign 2015.
The CF-18 withdrawal reflected Trudeau’s genuine desire to keep Canada at some remove from a conflict that had, after all, begun with president George W. Bush’s catastrophic decision to pre-emptively invade Iraq in 2003. Likewise the “whole-of-government” approach to Iraq introduced in February, including a boost in of humanitarian assistance and a tripling of the special forces contingent, was in keeping with the PM’s desire for Canada to have lasting impact on the ground, rather than “just bombing.”
The arguments that there is no such thing as “just bombing” in modern warfare, as applied by the U.S.led coalition in Iraq and Syria, that bombing is precisely targeted, and that it protects allies on the ground, fell on deaf ears. Last winter, when the Liberals could have changed course and left the fighters in place, they chose not to, the political imperative of keeping this signature promise apparently outweighing military considerations, frank speech and common sense.
Yet now Canada is at war outside Mosul, with soldiers on the front lines of what appears to be ISIL’s last stand as a wannabe state with its own territory — and, thanks to the lack of independent reports from the scene, something that can only be done with relative security through an embed program, we know next to nothing about it, beyond the scraps of mission data parcelled out on a Defence website.
Transparent and accountable? No. This is neither.