Military leaders paint partial picture of Iraq, experts say
by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. Thomas Juneau)
February 24, 2016
Some defence experts are crying foul after Canadian leaders implied last week that victory is nigh for the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq.
Changes to Canada’s contribution are already underway, but military-focused academics warn that the rhetoric surrounding those changes doesn’t paint a full picture of what’s happening on the ground.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, for example, declared Feb. 18 that ISIS is “now losing momentum” in Iraq.
“This evolving operational context has prompted the US to relook at its overarching coalition priorities,” he told the crowd of defence and security experts. “Our government is now taking a more forward-looking approach.”
That approach consists of withdrawing the six CF-18 fighter jets—but tripling the number of Special Operations Forces training Kurdish troops in Northern Iraq. Canadian air-to-air refuelling and surveillance aircraft are both staying in theatre, and a small helicopter detachment is being added.
The next morning, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance took the narrative a little farther. Fighters were sent in to respond to an “urgent crisis” when they began Operation Impact in the fall of 2014.
“We responded. We helped the coalition do exactly what it intended to do: stop them. Start the degradation of them. The degradation continues,” he said.
Canadian jets “stopped [ISIS] with their coalition partners” and now they’re coming home.
“In Iraq specifically, we said we were going to stop [ISIS] and we did,” Gen. Vance asserted.
“Now it’s metastasizing elsewhere. But we were contributing to the military stop in Iraq.”
Still work to do
This attitude is mainly political justification, argues University of Ottawa assistant professor Thomas Juneau, a former analyst for DND.
“Fundamentally, it’s nonsense,” he said.
“It is accurate to say that [ISIS] has lost momentum in Iraq and Syria...It’s plausible to say that [ISIS] has lost something like 10 to 20 per cent of the territory it held at its peak, in the last few months. And it is accurate to say that air strikes have been one of the chief reasons for that,” Mr. Juneau continued.
“There’s still a lot left to do, including in Iraq and in Syria. So the air strikes have to continue.”
Jez Littlewood, a terrorism expert and assistant professor at Carleton University, said he agrees that ISIS operations have at least been “stalled” in Iraq.
“But there’s still a potent force within Iraq. They still hold Mosul,” he said. “There’s still a lot of work to do even in the Iraqi theatre over the next few months and probably coming years.”
Though Mr. Littlewood doesn’t feel as strongly that Mr. Sajjan and Gen. Vance’s assertions contain inaccuracies, he suggested, “are you sort of overstating the case a little bit, to fit the political realities?”
Suggesting a changing operational context caused the decision to pull out CF-18s—a promise made during last year’s election campaign—is “not impressive,” Mr. Juneau said. “It’s trying to build the rationale around the political decision.”
As Queen’s University professor Kim Nossal puts it, the issue of the CF-18s “continues to be logic-free.” He was a participant at the CDA Institute’s Ottawa Conference last week, where Mr. Sajjan and Gen. Vance presented their arguments.
“You’ve got to put the kind of comments that we heard in Ottawa in the context of trying to add just a little bit of logic to essentially an utterly illogical position,” Mr. Nossal said.
He said it does make some sense to frame the fight this way. If ISIS is indeed on its back foot, and things look more positive, then it’s easier for Canada to rationalize a change of strategy.
“It still doesn’t explain why you want to withdraw your CF-18s, but it does manage to offer a bit of an explanation,” said Mr. Nossal.
The context of Mr. Sajjan and Gen. Vance’s comments to mainly well-versed military experts at the Chateau Laurier hotel needs to be taken into account too, he noted.
“What you want to do if you’re the minister, or if you’re the CDS, is ensure the attentive elite that was there in that ballroom that in fact you’re on top of this. That all is good.”
US still names Canada as air strikes participant
The US Department of Defense hasn’t updated its recent reports on coalition air strikes to remove Canada from the list of participating countries. As of Feb. 23, Canada is still listed as launching strikes in both Iraq and Syria, though the Canadian Air Force halted its operations there on Feb. 15.
According to the commander of US Air Forces Central Command, quoted by the department on Feb. 18, “joint interoperability continues to degrade the terrorist organization.”
Lt.-Gen. Charles Brown Jr. said “there is no doubt coalition air power has and continues to dramatically degrade [ISIS’s] ability to fight and conduct operations.”
He added, “we’re conducting the most precise air campaign in history.”
Still, with the Canadian decision made, as Mr. Juneau puts it, it’s time to move on.
“As much as I am critical of the decision to stop the air strikes, everything else that the government announced in the strategy last week is very good,” he said.
Mr. Littlewood said that Canada pulling its jets out makes very little difference within the wider coalition. “From a political angle...I can’t really fault them,” he said. They made a promise; they kept it.
“At the same time, they’ve equally signalled that they’re not withdrawing from the coalition. They’re not even reducing their coalition in some respects—they’re increasing their contributions,” he said. “I think it’s actually quite smart politics.”
Americans will likely seek Canadian support in Libya
The cancer metaphor has been used liberally to describe ISIS in the past few months, from all sides in Western politics. It’s the word that France’s ambassador to Canada used during a talk just days after major terrorist attacks in Paris last November.
“It’s metastasizing to Libya, it’s metastasizing to the Sinai, it will metastasize to elsewhere,” Gen. Vance told participants at the CDA Institute conference last week. “I think that there will be a great deal of attention paid to places like Libya.”
“A growing [ISIS] presence in Libya does matter to Canada,” Mr. Juneau argued. But “we have a limited bandwidth” as a mid-sized country, and “we can’t be everywhere.”
The first US air strikes against ISIS in Libya went ahead last week, however, so there’s a sense it’s only a matter of time before the Americans come knocking.
Whether or not Canada agrees to participate in Libya will be “a really good indicator” of this government’s character, Mr. Nossal said, noting, “[Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau comes off as though he’s really uncomfortable with using armed force in foreign policy.”
If a US-led coalition is formed, Americans will likely ask for a Canadian contribution in private. “I have to say that I’m not sure that we’ll ever know, if the Americans asked and we said ‘no,’” said Mr. Nossal.
Mr. Juneau said it would surprise him if Canada did not get involved in a coalition effort.
“I think if Canada is asked that we’ll probably make a contribution,” Mr. Littlewood said, especially because of Canada’s participation in 2011 NATO air strikes. “The mess in Libya, a significant part of it, is our own making. So we kind of have a moral responsibility as well as a practical responsibility to try and deal with that.”
Canadian air strikes in Libya, round two?
But if Canada did say “yes,” it could be politically tricky for Canada to whip out its CF-18s, so to speak, for that fight. “The rationale for doing air strikes in Libya is, broadly speaking, similar to the one in Iraq and Syria,” Mr. Juneau said, making this "something really awkward."
Though the government wouldn’t technically be breaking any election promises—the Liberals didn’t conflate pulling CF-18s out of Iraq and Syria with a promise never to use force elsewhere—it could look hypocritical.
“Certainly some people will seize the political opportunity that’s within that to say, ‘well, you basically just did a bait and switch,’” said Mr. Littlewood.
Though Canada can contribute in other ways, training missions lauded by Liberal politicians as an alternative to direct “combat” might not be so straightforward.
The expanded number of Special Operations Forces in Northern Iraq limits the capacity of Canadian Special Operations to work elsewhere, Mr. Littlewood said. And two rival governments operate on Libyan territory, each with their own forces. “You’re basically taking a side in a really complicated civil war,” Mr. Juneau said.
Other "non-combat" options in Libya could include Canadian intelligence assets or naval support, not to mention diplomatic engagements and humanitarian aid.