Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
The Canadian government kept discussing "not combat" "troops not accompanying" and the like when it sent a handful of Special Operations Forces [SOF] to Iraq last year. In January, they tripped over these distinctions when it was learned that CANSOF were spending something like 20 percent of their time near or at the front lines, including facilitating the bombing campaign by lasing (using laser designators to paint) targets.
Why? The whole "no boots on the ground" mantra and this "not near the front lines" was an effort to minimize the risks the SOF were facing even as they acknowledged this was somewhat risky. Not mitigate but downplay how risky their activities were.
This week, the risks — the chance of something bad happening — became costs this past Friday as one CANSOF soldier was killed and three injured by the folks Canada is trying to help.
And with his death, the effort to minimize risks continues: “They weren’t on the front lines,” Jason Kenney told CTV on Sunday. “[They were] 200 metres from the front.”
To be clear, I am not opposed to the deployment of SOF to Iraq and even to the frontlines. Using the most experienced, most skilled, best equipped, best trained troops is a key way to be effective AND reduce the actual risks. These soldiers are supposed to be better than the average infantry soldier — they can do more damage and provide more support while exposing themselves to less danger.
The problem is that the government fell into its own trap that there would be few risks and therefore the public and parliament should not mind. But there were and are real risks — not the chimera of mission creep — but of accidents taking place on the battlefield. Friendly fire is not inevitable, but it is also not unlikely. More British soldiers were killed in the 1991 Gulf War by American fire than by Iraqi attacks. Canada's first casualties in Afghanistan in 2002 were due to American planes breaking their rules and dropping bombs on a Canadian unit.
This stuff is almost certainly more likely in a coalition operation where the relationships between the various friends on the ground are far less institutionalized, practiced and prepared.
Is this a problem for the Harper government? Probably not. Why? Because in the aftermath of the attacks in October in St. Jean and Ottawa, the Canadian public is probably willing to pay some kind of price to stop ISIS. Given that there has been some progress in Iraq, where talks of offensives by the Iraqis, Kurds (and Iranians) indicate that the tide has turned for the moment, this suggests that the air campaign, combined with the training effort on the ground, has helped to stop ISIS's momentum. Which makes the price being paid a bit more tolerable than if ISIS was still moving forward in Iraq.
Another reason why this week's events may not hurt the Harper government: it puts the Liberals into a tough position. Liberal supporters are divided on this mission, so news about it is unlikely to be helpful to the Liberals as they seek unity in the face of the next election.
More casualties might change these dynamics, but at the moment, the events in Iraq are not bad for Harper's domestic political situation. The decision to renew or not the Canadian deployment of planes is coming up, so we shall soon see if Harper wants to go to the exit. My bet is on a renewal, but Harper has shifted quickly before, so it is possible that the Canadian Forces will come home. The only thing that I would clearly rule out is the deployment of a larger, conventional Canadian contingent that has combat as its day job.