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Breaking down Canada’s military training mission in Iraq

Following the announcement to pull Canada’s CF-18s from Syria and Iraq, Steve Saideman offers answers to six frequently asked questions on the next stage of Canada’s battle against ISIS.

By: /
11 February, 2016
Kurdish soldiers wait for the arrival of Canada's former Prime Minister Stephen Harper (not pictured) during his visit in May 2, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

The past week has been pretty interesting in Canadian defence and foreign policy as the Prime Minister announced Monday that Canada would focus on training in Iraq while taking out some (not all)* of the planes dedicated to the bombing effort.

There have been many questions raised about the training effort and many opinions offered. So, I’d like to offer a few answers. To be clear, I am not an expert on the specific skills to be transmitted or the nature of the training exercises, except in terms of the broadest categories.

* I had been advocating that the government keep at least the recon (Aurora) and refuelling (Polaris) planes as they are, in the military jargon, low-density/high demand enablers.  In other words, there are few of them and they have much valued added. Glad to see the government keep them there, even if it adds a soupçon of incoherence since they are integral to the bombing effort.

Q: Does this mean this is a combat mission?

Not really. The defence minister was more straightforward than the previous government that doing training at or near the front lines means that our troops may come into contact with the adversary and will be prepared to return fire. But the CAF trainers will not be deliberately seeking out contact with the adversary. That is the bright shiny line, rather than combat or not combat. The Canadian planes will still be facilitating combat, so Canadians will still be involved with combat. Confusing, but Canadian troops, special operations forces or otherwise, will not be seeking out combat. As far as we know (SOF folks are supposed to be secret so I cannot speak to the entirety of their mission).

Q: Is this training like that the CAF did in Afghanistan?

Depends on the when and where. In Kabul from 2011-2014, yes. In Kandahar from 2005-2011, no. While Canadian troops were in Kandahar, a key part of the effort was to embed small numbers of Canadian troops into battalion-ish sized formations of Afghans (these 600 or so units were called Kandaks). These trainers were called Omelets for the acronym Observer, Mentor, Liaison Teams [OMLT or ELMO in French], and they played a very important role in training and facilitating the combat efforts of the local forces (see the France section of this book).

Q: Why Aren’t the CAF embedding and training at and beyond the front?

Why aren’t the CAF omelet-eering as they did in Kandahar (see here for a piece advocating such)? I would suggest three reasons:

1. When Afghan units with Canadian mentors went into battle in and near Kandahar, there were Canadian units going into those same battles. If something went wrong, like the mentored Kandak broke and fled, there would still be very reliable forces nearby to make sure that the small numbers of mentors would not be surrounded, captured and perhaps killed. There are no Canadian battlegroups to accompany mentored Kurdish or Iraqi regular units. So, sending OMLT like units into battle with the local forces would be a big, big risk.

2. Which gets to the second problem: there is probably much less trust in Iraq. While Canada did not suffer from green on blue attacks in Afghanistan where the trained attack the trainers, that possibility is quite present in Iraq. More importantly, Iraqi units have broken and fled when attacked by ISIS, so doing some embedded mentoring now with them (and their Iranian pals) requires more trust than we have.

3. Speaking of the Iranians, a third problem happens when one embeds with local units: one might be present amidst war crimes. The Danes were reluctant to do OMLTs in Afghanistan because they were worried that the Afghan army units might commit atrocities, and then the Danish trainers would appear to be complicit (see the aforementioned book). The risks are much, much higher since the Shia dominated Iraqi government has engaged in significant ethnic cleansing AND they are reliant on Iranian-backed militias (and perhaps some Iranian forces). Not good.

Q: Why not embed with the Kurds?

Yes, we find the Kurds to be more reliable. But again, they will not be accompanied by Canadian battlegroups so still probably much legitimate concern about what might happen. One other thing: we are nearly at the end of the line for the Kurds — that they are unlikely to fight for territory that they don’t see as Kurdish. Which means that since they have retaken most of the territory that they see as theirs, they will not be doing much of the fighting in Iraq down the road. So, it may not make that much sense to invest a lot and to risk a lot for the Kurds.  

Q: Training is the long term solution?

No, not really. The government is not lying about this, but somewhat missing the point. This is because the long term solution is about governance — the Iraqi government needs to decide to work with the Sunnis (and Kurds) to share power, so that the Sunni population no longer sees ISIS as a least worst alternative to the Iraqi government. That is the solution to the Iraqi front.  The Americans have had damned little leverage on this whether they had 100,000 troops in theatre or none, so Canada cannot really influence this (humility is a big theme for me these days despite my endless book promotion). Oh, and we have very little to build on in Syria, but this training effort is aimed solely at the Iraqi front. 

Q: So, we shouldn’t train?

No, we should. It is the least we can do. It is actually something that Canadians do quite well. The units Canada trained in Afghanistan seemed to have performed quite well (Kandahar has not fallen yet while, um, Kunduz, did). The war against ISIS is not an easy one, and if our goal is to degrade ISIS and we are unwilling to send large conventional forces of our own, it does make sense to make the local forces better so that they can confront ISIS. Just don’t expect miracles.

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