A MILITARY PERSPECTIVE OF CANADA’S MISSION IN IRAQ
By Jim Cox
The Government has asked for House of Commons support to extend Canada’s military mission in Iraq to October 2016, and to expand the reach of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) air operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to targets in Syria. There would be no change to the Canadian Special Operations Forces (SOF) mission to advise and assist Iraqi forces.
Opposition parties do not support the motion. The New Democratic Party believes the overall conflict in Iraq “is not Canada’s war” and, if elected, it would end the mission. The Liberals agree that ISIL must be countered, but not in the way the government is doing it. They are critical of “mission creep”, of government obfuscation over whether Canadian ground troops are to engage in combat, and of the government’s apparent failure to make a meaningful effort to address the large humanitarian issue resulting from the Syrian civil war. They are also wary of giving any support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The media is full of professional pundits offering all manner of legal, moral and political opinions, none of which seem to come to any conclusive answer. Missing in this discussion is an objective military perspective. Here’s one.
The current Canadian military mission consists of Joint Task Force–Iraq which includes six CF-18 fighter jets, two CP-140 Aurora surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and one CC-150T Polaris aerial refueler aircraft from the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), along with about 600 personnel. They are supported by a C-130 Hercules short-haul and C-17 long-haul transport aircraft shuttling personnel and supplies from the RCAF base in Trenton, Ontario.
There are also about 69 Special Operations Forces (SOF) troops based in northern Iraq training the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. At the time of writing, RCAF fighters had conducted about 450 close air support/interdiction sorties (flights out and back) out of a total of nearly 4,000 coalition attack sorties so far in 2015, or over 10% of the total. Remember these numbers.
The training role assigned to Canadian SOF is an eminently sensible one. Troops from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR), based in Petawawa, Ontario, have trained indigenous soldiers in other theatres such as Belize, Jamaica, Mali and Niger. Formed in 2006, this young unit is internationally recognized for being an innovative, cutting-edge special operations force. It ranks among the best of the world’s top-tier special operations units, such as the US Army’s 75th Ranger Battalion and the UK’s Special Forces Support Group. We should remember, however, that the 69 Canadian SOF troops are only one element of the overall coalition training mission, to which the US alone has provided over 1,500 military trainers. Remember these numbers too.
When responsible democracies engage in military action abroad, they usually do so in what they perceive to be their national interest. What Canadian national interests are specifically threatened by ISIL, to the degree that we should react with lethal military force? The government has given us at least one. In laying out the government’s case for mission extension and expansion, Prime Minister Harper identified ISIL as a direct threat to Canada. ISIL, he observed, has threatened to kill Canadians. It is a reasonable military strategy to attack the threat at its source, in Iraq and Syria.
Mr. Harper has also identified ISIL as a threat to international peace and security. This too is a proven fact. One has only to consider ISIL’s influence outside Iraq and Syria, in places such as Libya and Tunisia, and its “branch offices” like Boko Haram in Nigeria. ISIL seeks to establish an Islamist “Caliphate” based on medieval morals and barbaric practices. The Prime Minister and the Minister of National Defence, Jason Kenney, have both explained that it is government policy to not stand idly by when other states are threatened by such terrorism and Canada has the ability to help counter those threats.
However, beyond the dispute over whether the situation in Iraq and Syria threatens Canadian national interests, the government has also been criticized for not having clear political or military goals to guide mission activity. Such criticism reflects an historic and continuing tension between all military commanders and their political masters. Effective military action doctrinally demands clear direction, measures of merit, and clear end-state targets, the very things most politicians tend to shun in order to avoid being held to account.
Canada’s military mission in Iraq continues our habit, since the Second World War, of “satisficing”, i.e. the fine art of contributing just enough force to satisfy the Americans and our principal NATO allies, and just enough to suffice in responding to the urgings of the Canadian public that the government “do something” in time of crisis. Satisficing implies affordability too. Lately, the spectre of dead Canadian soldiers has become another sober consideration. We could do more, but we don’t have to.
The foregoing should not be interpreted as a flippant dismissal of our contributions to international peace operations. The Canadian habit of satisficing often generates a more substantial contribution than that of most of our NATO allies, and it is a testament to our reliability as a military partner. From a professional angle, satisficing has also allowed Canadian military forces to remain connected to first-tier western militaries such as those of the US, UK, France, and others. The Canadian Armed Forces reap enormous professional, doctrinal and industrial benefits from remaining interoperable with US forces in all five domains of modern warfare: land, sea, air, space and cyberspace.
The Canadian military mission in Iraq also has domestic security benefits, enhancing cooperation between the Canadian Armed Forces and domestic security agencies such as the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
Having made the decision to participate, the government has enunciated no strategic military aim beyond President Obama’s formulation to “degrade and destroy ISIL”, because the Canadian government is not in a position to decided on or influence international coalition strategic objectives.
Canada is not, by itself, able to militarily destroy ISIL. What we can do, however, is participate in a larger coalition whose aim is to do exactly that. Last December, US Army Lieutenant General James Terry, Commander of US Operation Inherent Resolve, the US lead element of the international coalition against ISIL, briefed Congress on his three foundational priorities. First, he would work to build and maintain the coalition. Second, the coalition would “relentlessly pursue [ISIL] in order to degrade and destroy its capabilities and defeat their efforts and deny them sanctuary”. Third, the coalition would enable regional partner security. Canadian SOF trainers are engaged in the first priority. RCAF aircrews are engaged in the second priority. Both are inherently and indirectly contributing to the third priority.
At the strategic level, Canadian governments really only ever have three relatively straightforward decisions to make. The first is whether or not to join an international coalition. Second, if Canada does contribute to coalition activity, how much is enough (how much will satisfice)? Third, what will our troops be allowed to do? Beyond that, Canadian governments really cannot identify strategic military objectives. They are not the ones calling the strategic shots, because the Canadian military contribution is not large enough to give Canada an effective voice in coalition strategy being pursued in Iraq.
Historically, Canadian military forces have performed magnificently at the operational and tactical level … under the strategic control of others. We’ve made a habit of this. Canada has contributed to all manner of UN and Western allied and coalition campaigns from the British advance up the Nile in 1885, through two world wars, the Korean War, the Cold War, numerous UN peacekeeping missions, and the Afghanistan conflict, but never at the level that earned a principal role in any grand strategy or military strategy. In Iraq and Syria today, coalition strategy is made and strategic objectives are assigned in Washington not in Ottawa.
The RCAF will not be alone in attacking ISIL targets in Syria. In addition to US aircraft, the RCAF will be coordinating with air forces from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Despite the naysaying, it must be recognized that the overall coalition air campaign has been effective. It has served to blunt ISIL’s advance in Iraq, allowing time for the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga forces to rally and begin to reverse ISIL territorial gains. It prevented ISIL’s capture of Kobane near the Turkish border and supported the counteroffensive around Mount Sinjar. Air bombing has also eliminated a number of ISIL leaders and destroyed ISIL command centres, bases, equipment, and supply depots. Finally, coalition air assets have also delivered a wide range of humanitarian supplies throughout the theatre. It is notable that coalition air operations have been conducted with extraordinary precision and restraint, which may have constrained damage against ISIL but certainly paid dividends in assembling and holding together the broad coalition of Western and Arab states engaged in the conflict.
However, military leaders recognize that the air campaign alone will not succeed in ultimately defeating ISIL. A ground campaign must be conducted, and won, by the Iraqis themselves. It is their country. They know their people best. Using Canadian SOF to train Iraqi military forces clearly supports this strategy.
That said, no one is underestimating the geopolitical complications associated with this mission. There is the prominent Iranian military support provided to Iraqi military operations. But Iranian involvement notwithstanding, successful ground operations are mandatory if Iraq is ever to defeat ISIL. On a related front, concern over whether coalition operational activity will “help” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is somewhat overblown. Given regional geopolitical circumstances, the Syria/Iraq border is more myth than fact and Assad has not had any control or influence in that border area for years. It is ISIL that presents the more immediate and dangerous threat and deserves to be the priority military target. Once ISIL has been exterminated, the international community can then turn its full political attention to dealing with Assad.
So, in the end, should Canada extend and expand its military mission against ISIL? Yes, of course we should. From a military perspective, there is no reason why our SOF troops should not continue to train Iraqi forces to defeat ISIL on the ground and our air power should not broaden operations to include ISIL targets in Syria to deny them sanctuary there. It is a strategically sound military decision to engage ISIL in both Iraq and Syria, and to continue to push it back until it is beaten in pursuit of the coalition’s second priority to degrade and destroy that enemy. War studies theory encourages advancing forces to punish a retreating enemy. We did it from France to Belgium in 1918. We did it from England to Germany in 1944-45. And we should do it now.
We could do more, but we don’t have to.