Canada in Iraq: Mission Confusion?

Steve Saideman looks at what exactly are our soldiers are doing in Iraq.

By: /
20 January, 2015
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

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

On Monday, we got a clearer idea of what Canada is doing in Iraq and so we are now more confused.  How could clarity provide confusion?  Let me explain by focusing on what we learned.

  1. We learned that Canadian Special Operations Forces engaged in a firefight with ISIS

  2. We learned that CANSOF are near/on the front lines about 20 percent of the time, as they assist the Kurds/Iraqis.

  3. We learned that CANSOF are using laser-designators to help the planes drop their bombs accurately on targets (GPS bombs are, in my amateur understanding, good at fixed targets, but moving targets are best hit when spotlighted by laser-designators — some knowledgeable Air Force types can tell me if I am wrong on that).

  4. That the CF and CANSOF were incredibly transparent on Monday.  Which is really, really interesting (see below).

Canadians seem to be confused because they were told by their government that there would be no combat operations.  The government seemed to indicate that the CANSOF mission to advise and assist and train the Iraqis would not involve stuff on the front line.

I have not had the chance to check my previous columns, but I think I raised the question of what “Assisting” meant.  Anyhow, Roland Paris, director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa, amongst others, is calling this mission creep.  I have many problems with that term, but given that this seems to be the mission all along the way, the mission did not creep — it was just not what people thought it was.

One of the problems in this week’s discussion of deployments is boots-on-the-ground vs. no-boots-on-the-ground — with a key exception — that SOF don’t count as boots on the ground.  That the Special Operators wear flip flops or sneakers or float on hoverboards, but do not count as troops in popular discussion of deployments.  We have known since September that Canada had SOF in Iraq.  They were “assisting.”  Well, what kind of assistance is most useful when the other side is on the offensive?  If you have 60 SOF or so, perhaps the most useful would be serving as forward air controllers to facilitate the air campaign.  And that seems to have been the case.

What happened last week was not a combat operation in the sense that Canadian Forces did not plan an attack but got attacked and responded with force.  Which is fine and to be expected.  But this is effort is not so similar to the combat Canada experienced during the blue helmet days of peacekeeping as the CANSOF were participating in combat — targeting the ISIS troops/assets on the ground so that the air campaign.  Is that combat?  Certainly.  Is it participating in ground combat ops?  Kind of.  I think that will be the government’s fudge — that the Canadian Forces in Iraq on the ground are not engaged in offensive operations — that they did combat but not combat ops.  Which is slicing things finely and making them look silly.

The really big news, in my opinion, is that the CANSOF folks were pretty transparent Monday, which the CF does usually but only rarely when it comes to Special Ops.  And now the government is in a bind.  Pretty much everything the officers said at their press conference can be used to raise questions about the government’s policies:  will the mission be extended? How much combat will the CANSOF folks experience? Did this exceed the mandate (even though the parliamentary vote was one of expressing support and not about approval)?

My guess is that the firefight forced the openness as it would get out that the Canadians did engage in combat.

An earlier version of this article first appeared here.

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