Canada’s mission creep in Iraq (and why it matters)

We should support Iraqi troops, but we can’t fight their war for them, argues Roland Paris.
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January 26, 2015
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Last week we learned that Canadian troops in Iraq are spending approximately 20 percent of their effort close to, or right at, the front lines, that they have been calling in airstrikes from those front-line positions, and that there was a firefight between Canadian forces and Islamic State fighters after the Canadians had been fired upon.

These revelations appeared to contradict earlier statements by Canadian military and government leaders, including Prime Minister Harper, who had previously said that Canadian forces would not “accompany” Iraqi troops to the front lines. Chief of the Defence Staff Tom Lawson had also indicated last October that Canadian troops would not join Iraqi and Kurdish fighters in front-line action, nor would they be involved in guiding airstrikes.

Following the revelations about Canada’s new front-line role, General Lawson issued a statement last Thursday:

I understand that there may be some questions about my comments on Oct. 19th about the nature of activities being undertaken by Canada’s Special Operations Forces in Iraq. To be clear, the situation on the ground has evolved since I offered those remarks, and we have increased our assistance with respect to targeting air strikes in direct correlation with an increased threat encountered by the [Iraqi Security Forces].

Our [Special Operations Forces] Personnel are not seeking to directly engage the enemy, but we are providing assistance to forces that are in combat. The activities of Canada’s Special Operations Forces in Iraq…are entirely consistent with the advise and assist mandate given to the Canadian Armed Forces.


Prime Minister Harper echoed Lawson’s remarks, also on Thursday:


We want to help, we want to advise and assist Iraqi forces, particularly the Kurdish forces, to lead the combat themselves.  That’s what they are doing.

Let me be clear.  This is a robust mission.  We’re there to make those guys effective so they can take on the Islamic State and deal with them…

These comments raise a number of questions about Canada’s Iraq mission.

1. Is Canada engaged in ground combat?  

Yes.

The parliamentary resolution that established the mission last October indicated that Canadian forces would not engage in ground combat operations. Last week, Lawson and Harper were walking a tightrope because their earlier statements were shown to be incorrect – Canadian troops, it turned out, were doing things that were not supposed to be part of our mission. Harper and Lawson acknowledged this shift by the end of the week, but insisted that Canadian forces were still playing only an “advise and assist” function, not a combat role. They also pointed out, correctly, that Canadian troops have a right to defend themselves if they are fired upon.

There is no universally accepted, bright-line definition of “combat,” but common sense suggests the following: (1) If you send armed troops to front-line positions where combat can be realistically expected, and (2) if these troops are calling in airstrikes from the front lines in order to destroy enemy positions, and (3) if they are returning fire, even in self-defence, in order to kill enemy forces who are firing on them, then by any reasonable standard you are engaged in combat.

2. Have we witnessed ‘mission creep’?

Yes.

Mission creep is the incremental expansion of a military operation’s mandate. It may or may not also involve the deployment of more forces. A classic case is the role of American advisors in Vietnam, which gradually expanded beyond combat advice to direct ground fighting. Eventually, U.S. troops supplanted local South Vietnamese forces as the principal combatants against the North Vietnamese.

In Iraq, we are a long way from the Vietnam scenario. Western ground forces, including Canadians, still play a relatively small role. Nevertheless, it became clear last week that the terms of Canada’s operation had changed. Canada’s new front-line role – as well as our leaders’ redefinition of what counts as “combat” – unquestionably represent mission creep.

For some people, these changes might appear too small to worry about. After all, Canada still only has a maximum of 69 special operations forces in Iraq. This is true, but there are two reasons to be concerned. First, our national government – regardless of the political party in power – must be forthright with Canadians about something as serious as putting Canadian soldiers into combat situations. Wars, especially long wars (as this one is likely to be), must be rooted in public trust. A lack of forthrightness erodes that trust.

Second, while much of the domestic Canadian debate is focused on what will happen between now and April (when the six-month deadline for Canada’s current deployment will be up for renewal), we should take a longer view, asking ourselves where the operation may be headed in the months and years to come. Limited military operations have an inborn propensity for mission expansion, and I anticipate growing pressure on Western governments to move more of their troops into ground combat roles. Consider the fact that it only took a few months for Canadian leaders to redefine our understanding of “combat.” If we can do that in such a short period of time, where might we end up in three, five, or 10 years from now?

Last fall, I warned of pressures to move Western troops into front-line roles. Some pooh-poohed this warning, but it has been borne out by events. My only surprise is that it was Canada, not the United States, that apparently became the first Western country to tinker with the definition of ‘combat’ and move ‘advisors’ into a front-line role. Based on information now available, Canada appears to be more directly involved in the ground war in Iraq than even the U.S.

3. Why should Canada (and other Western countries) limit their participation in ground combat in Iraq?

Because another major Western ground war in Iraq would do more harm than good.

Canada has a clear interest in training and equipping Iraqi forces to take back their country from the Islamic State, but we should not end up fighting this ground war for the Iraqis.

We have learned hard lessons, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the sometimes-counterproductive effects of deploying massive Western ground forces as front-line combatants in Muslim countries where there is widespread suspicion and resentment of Western power, even from our nominal allies. The deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat troops in Iraq did not solve the terrorism problem in that country; it exacerbated it.

It would be much smarter to focus on providing support, training and equipment to Iraqi forces so that they can wage this war themselves. We need to be aware, however, that we will face constant incentives and temptations to provide more direct, on-the-ground assistance. We must resist these temptations.

This is not to say that direct combat would never be warranted in Iraq. To lay down such an injunction would be too absolutist. No one can predict the future. If, for example, there turned out to be no realistic prospect of dislodging the Islamic State with local forces, we should revisit our strategy. But we must not allow our strategy to drift. A series of incremental steps, all seemingly minor, could take us to a place where we never intended to go. Canada has no interest in slipping into the open-ended quagmire of a Mideast ground war.

4. Don’t Canadian trainers need to accompany Iraqi forces to the front lines in order to perform their “advise and assist” role?

Not at the present time.

In their statements last week, Harper and Lawson implied that a front-line role is integral to the “advise and assist” mission. Defence Minister Rob Nicholson added that the Harper government would not place “limits” on this mission. These statements, however, are problematic.

In the final years of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, for instance, our troops trained Afghan forces in military facilities “behind the wire” and did not accompany Afghan forces on tactical operations.

Indeed, the U.S. government indicated last week that American troops currently in Iraq are not being deployed with Iraqi units to front-line positions. Rather, they are training Iraqis “behind the wire” at four major military bases. The assertion that deploying Canadian troops to the front lines is an inevitable element of “advising and assisting” is, therefore, misleading.

5. If there are no front lines in the Iraq war, does it make sense to talk about training Iraqi forces “away” from the front lines?

The premise of the question is wrong: There are front lines, zones of fighting, and zones of relative stability.

Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic State holds significant swaths of territory and has entrenched its defensive positions in many parts of Iraq. Although there is skirmishing in some places, the training of Iraqi forces can take place in relatively secure areas.

6. Is Canada doing enough to support the training of Iraqi forces?

No, we should do more.

Australia, a country with about two-thirds of Canada’s population, has deployed approximately 200 special operations forces to the region – roughly three times more than Canada. If we are serious about training and equipping Iraqi forces to wage this war, we should put our money where our mouths are. Canada should substantially increase its contingent of military trainers in Iraq, while simultaneously clarifying and tightening guidelines on the deployment of these forces to front-line positions.

7. Should Canada renew its six-month mission in April?

Probably, but our decision should consider what might happen in Iraq beyond the next six months.

The six-month deadline is helpful because it compels us to revisit the mission and our goals. However, it also provides false reassurance. Canada could, of course, withdraw its forces from Iraq at the end of six months, but in practice it would be politically difficult for any Canadian government to do so, particularly when our allies are recommitting to this campaign. If anything, the deadline distracts us from important questions about where the larger operation is heading over the longer term. The government of Canada has an obligation to ensure that the larger campaign is well-conceived and achievable.

8. Should Canada continue its fighter jet mission in Iraq?

A qualified yes.

The risk of mission creep in air operations is limited, and coalition warplanes have succeeded in halting Islamic State’s advance in Iraq. As long as Canada’s CF-18s can play a useful role, it is reasonable to continue this deployment, provided we remain convinced that the overall mission is achievable, and that there are not more compelling demands for the CF-18s when we have to make this decision.

9. Beyond deploying combat forces, what else could Canada do to address the problem of violent extremism in the world?

A whole lot more.

Canada’s international security policy is narrow and reactive. We tend to wait for crises to occur before we respond, and then to focus on the military dimensions of this response.

There is a broader problem: fragile and failed states that are either wracked by conflict or teeter on the brink of violent unrest. If these conditions are allowed to fester, they can become breeding grounds for transnational radicalism. Lack of security is only one problem faced by these countries; poor governance and lack of economic opportunity may also be drivers of unrest. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted last week, the international community should be doing more to address these problems before they erupt into security crises.

Many states in the broad swath of territory extending from Africa’s west coast, through the Maghreb and parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Mideast, to Central and South Asia, suffer from varying degrees of fragility. Preventing these countries from becoming the next global emergencies requires a more comprehensive approach than we have recently practiced.

Of course, Canada must also maintain combat-capable military forces, which are a kind of insurance policy in an uncertain world. Indeed, we should reinvest in our military and reverse recent cuts. Further, we must be willing to deploy these forces, including in combat roles, when it is in our interest to do so.

But the challenges posed by fragile states are not just military ones. Employment for young people, education against radicalization, investment to promote sustainable market-driven growth, and governments that serve their people rather than preying on them, are also important. If our toolkit consists only of military instruments, that is all that we will use. In the long run, however, we cannot kill our way to a safer world.

Canada can and should be a leader in an international campaign for a more comprehensive approach to the problems of failed and fragile states.

For more from Roland Paris on Canada's mission in Iraq, listen to his interview on CBC Radio:

A version of this post originally appeared on the CIPS site.