Is Canada at war in Iraq? Of course. The government has declared the Islamic State (ISIL) a deadly threat to people we want to help and to ourselves. So the government has despatched elements of the Canadian Armed Forces to the region to assist in a coalition effort to arrest the progress ISIL has been making and to build up Iraq’s ability to take on and eventually defeat it. That’s war by any definition.
But does war mean combat? Not necessarily. As wars go these days, countries pick and choose the parts they will be involved in, reflecting their level of commitment and the value they can add to the collective effort. In Canada’s case, the government has decided that our contribution will be of two kinds: to attack ISIL from the air and to improve Iraqis’ ability to fight on the ground. Air attacks are certainly combat, but advising and assisting others to fight effectively is not combat – it’s advising and assisting.
The air campaign
First, the air campaign. It takes several kinds of aircraft: CF-18 fighters to strike the enemy; a CP-150T aerial refueller to keep the fighters in the air; a CP-140 Aurora to gather intelligence, locate targets, and assess battle damage; and a fleet of CC-177 Globemaster and C-130 Hercules heavy lift aircraft to transport troops and sustain operations with resupplies from Canada. But it also takes several kinds of personnel on the ground: maintenance staff to service all the aircraft; personnel to operate a Canadian combined forces coordination center; officers and NCOs to serve at coalition headquarters to integrate planning and operations; and medical, security and support personnel for the Canadian bases in Kuwait and Iraq which sustain the operation. All of these people are located in a war zone but, apart from the pilots, few if any would be expected to engage in combat.
The exception are the Canadian Special Operations Forces (CANSOF) units which enable air strikes by marking targets. For armchair strategists, air strikes are the preferred method of war – as long as they are “surgical”, i.e. conducted with such precision that no “innocent” civilians are hurt or adjacent property damaged. Moreover, the risks are assumed to be minimal, though pilots are never safe and friendly forces on the ground are always vulnerable to being attacked by their own side. All circumstances which can be alleviated by having “eyes on the target”, CANSOF operators close enough to assess the situation right before the planes hit, ensuring no mistake has been made about the presence of the enemy, the absence of non-combatants, or the location of friendly forces in the vicinity. With modern optics the spotters can often do their work at some distance from the target; and with lasers they can direct the air strikes with great accuracy. But they are in combat, either helping to defend positions or to prosecute offensive operations. According to the Canadian military, CANSOF units had been involved in 13 such operations up to mid-January 2015.
Advising and assisting
Another group of CANSOF operators are responsible for conducting the advising and assisting functions. The “advising” consists mainly of helping Iraqi forces plan their operations better in order to hold the line against ISIL and push them back. Canadian forces set up a coordination center for the Iraqis to improve their planning and synchronization of operations, and they help them do field reconnaissance to visualize front-line operations.
The “assisting” function is mostly helping the Iraqi security forces enhance their military capabilities. Some of this focuses on “sharp-end” activities such as training them in the use of mortars, heavy machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) for greater range and accuracy. Iraqi snipers today can effectively shoot four times further than when training began. Initial training takes place in a classroom setting, then moves to a firing range several kilometers behind the front lines. Sometimes, the trainers bring their white boards and easels along.
The assisting also has less “kinetic” dimensions. In addition to “blankets”, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has supplied some $10 million worth of “non-lethal” security equipment such as helmets, body armour, and logistics-support vehicles. The latter require instruction on land navigation and on the use of information technologies and GPS systems. (Canadian Armed Forces CC-177 have also provided airlift for approximately 1.6 million pounds of military supplies including small-arms ammunition from Albania and the Czech Republic.) Canadians have also been training Iraqis in battlefield medical skills to keep injured soldiers alive until they can be transported to a hospital. Finally, Iraqis have benefitted from training in more mundane functions such as equipment operation, loading, maintenance, and repair.
Location and risk
The military report that most of the above happens far from the scene of combat. In the words of BGen Michael Rouleau, the commander of CANSOFCOM:
We do all advise and assist training kilometers behind the front lines. This represents about 80% of our output. The other 20% or so happens in forward positions, mostly close to the front lines but sometimes right at the front lines if that is the only place from where we can accomplish it.
Where the advising and assisting takes place does affect the level of risk to those who are providing it. If Canadians are advising and assisting Iraqis in Canada or in a neighbouring country (we trained Iraqi police in Jordan after the second Gulf War), there is minimal risk. But if the advising and assisting is taking place in a war zone – which is often where the need is most urgent – the risk obviously rises. But it is still advising and assisting. If it requires getting close to where combat is occurring, the risk increases further – but it is still advising and assisting. If the advisors and assisters are attacked and fight back, that’s combat for sure. But it’s a limited and defensive action to preserve the mission – which is advising and assisting.
It should not have come as a surprise, then, when military commanders confirmed on January 19 that some Canadian troops advising Iraqi forces had come under attack and had returned fire to dispose of the threat. They have done so again on at least two subsequent occasions. It would be surprising if there weren’t more such occasions in future. The wonder is that the January 19 incident generated a controversy of national proportions. The circumstances weren’t especially noteworthy, given that there’s a bloody war going on.
What happened was that a small contingent of Canadian Special Forces members had completed a planning session with Iraqi officers at a post several kilometers behind the front lines. The planning around a map table had then been moved forward so that those involved could visualize what they had discussed. When they did so, the group came under mortar and machine gun fire, and replied with sniper fire which ended the affair.
An escalation of Canada’s military engagement? No, advising and assisting in wartime.