Should Canada’s exclusion from anti-ISIS meeting be worrisome?

Canada’s contribution to the anti-ISIS campaign was always going to be small, so is being left out a sign of strained relations with the U.S.?

By: /
January 19, 2016
A Canadian Armed Forces CF-18 Fighter jet arrives at the Canadian Air Task Force Flight Operations Area in Kuwait on October 28, 2014. REUTERS/Canadian Forces Combat Camera, DND/Handout

Monday, we learned of a meeting in Paris this week about the future of the anti-ISIS effort by the significant contributors to the current effort, and that Canada is apparently not invitedThe natural questions to ask are: why and so what? It is easier to answer the second than the first, but I will try my hand at both.

Before starting out, one thing needs to be clear: this is not the first time Canada has been left out of a major meeting aimed at figuring out the future of an allied effort. In 2002, there was a meeting of the "Quint" to set NATO's agenda about the future of the various Balkan missions (Bosnia/Kosovo/Macedonia). The Quint included the five largest providers of troops — U.S., UK, France, Italy and Germany. During the military mission in Afghanistan, things had changed quite a bit as it was no longer about the size of the force but where the countries' troops were and what they were doing. As a result of Canada's key commitment, Canada was at the table and some of the bigger contributors were either not invited or simply not that relevant (Italy, Germany).

With that caveat in mind — that this is nothing new — what is going on now? My first question was, when I heard the news, were the Australians invited? Why? Because their force posture is not that different than Canada’s at the moment. While considered the second largest after the U.S., it is composed of 300 soldiers, Special Operations Forces, six F/A-18s, a tanker and an airborne warning and control aircraft. Canada has a similar air package — six CF-18s, a tanker and two Aurora recon planes — 69 or so SOF, and heaps of logistics people but no other soldiers. To answer the question, the Australians have been invited. Basically, if it is about current commitment, then the Canadians should be there. And then I learned the Dutch were also going to this meeting, and they have eight F-16s and some trainers on the ground. 

So, yes, there is something going here besides the old Balkan rules about the size of the deployment. Everyone is pointing to the U.S. being upset about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's commitment to pull out the CF-18s, including National Post columnist Matthew Fisher who is citing highly placed sources in Europe.

I had not heard that the U.S. was this miffed. I don't remember similar upset when Canada pulled out of the much more significant contribution in Kandahar. But if the U.S. is this upset, I am still surprised that it would exclude Canada, since Canada’s commitment is still in the air. Excluding Canada might lead to a much smaller, less helpful Canadian training mission. Still, given that other similar players are included, it does seem likely that the exclusion here is about the CF-18s and perhaps that the Canadian government has taken longer to figure out the next steps than its allies would like. 

How significant is this exclusion? 

Not much and very.  Not much since Canada was always going to be in the position of a strategy taker and not a strategy maker in this campaign — the contribution was always going to be small and risk averse —  so either the old Balkan rules or the newer Afghanistan rules of who matters would limit how much the Canadians would be heard. The exclusion is very significant in that it is a sign that the U.S.-Canadian relationship is strained, even if the prime minister is about to have a state dinner with U.S. President Barack Obama. It will ramp up criticism of the government — that the honeymoon is over. That latter part, of course, we knew already. 

Given that this government promised to improve relations with the U.S. after years of Stephen Harper hectoring about pipelines, this is not a good start. Should the government have made a faster decision? I am not sure, since 
calls for passion and impatience are just, um, dumb, and this government had to spend its first month running off to four summits. Still, figuring out a training mission is on the low end of the complexity spectrum. Harper announced one in 2010 with little of the homework actually being done— Kabul only became Kabul-centric ultimately. So, this government could have made some kind of decision and figured out some of the details later.

In sum, this dynamic of excluding lesser players from the strategy sessions is not new, Canada has been excluded before, but this is still pretty strange and quite unfortunate. Trudeau and his team have some explaining to do.