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Our expanded mission sure looks pretty – but will it actually defeat IS?

by George Petrolekas

The Globe and Mail
February 5, 2015

The leaked expansion of Canada’s Islamic State mission will certainly look pretty on a PowerPoint slide. At least 500 more troops will be sent with a doubling of special forces, a dollop of humanitarian aid and an as yet unclear diplomatic effort. The enabling aircraft, the refueller and surveillance planes will stay, so we are still part of the air campaign, but look at how much more we are doing. Just don’t ask too many difficult questions.

The key and central question is, should be, and always has been: “How does this materially defeat the Islamic State?” That question has been a central concern of the initial air campaign, which is expanding rather than contracting. Since the notion of Western army boots on the ground simply isn’t in the cards, the next best thing was the containment of IS through an aerial campaign to purchase time for local forces to be trained to carry the fight on the ground. That has begun to occur in Iraq.

The Kurds have held their own, in part with Canadian training. They are not strong enough yet to fully go on the offensive, but can hold on to what they have. Small operations, such as cutting off the Raqqah-Mosul supply line, have been possible through U.S. Special Forces assistance. Further South, the main Iraqi Army has recaptured Ramadi, most importantly by integrating Sunni troops and Sunni tribes, but the liberation of Mosul, the toughest task, is not yet in view.

In Western Syria, U.S. and international diplomacy, as a consequence of Russian military action, will lead to some sort of deal concerning the Assad government. Assad may stay a little longer or a lot longer – negotiations have yet to determine which. Regardless, the western part of Syria will fade from view. (What is to be done with the more militant members of the opposition, such as the al-Nusra Front, is another matter.)

But the central questions remain: How do we materially defeat the Islamic State, especially when it has now spread to Libya? And how does Canada’s contribution materially affect that strategy?

Retaining the aircraft is a good idea. Refuelling aircraft are always in short supply, and the surveillance airplanes are proving to be invaluable. Doubling special forces could be good, but using them as trainers is akin to using a race horse to pull a plow. Conventional forces could train just as well. Using special forces in direct actions or in expanded advise-and-assist roles would have been a better option.

But with the 500 soldiers heading (most likely) to Jordan, it begs more questions: Who are they to train, and to what effect? Are we training Jordanians who will now take the fight to IS on the ground in Syria? It was only last year that the U.S. spent $500-million to train anti-IS fighters to produce a net output of five people.

In a deficit-challenged environment, costs are going to increase. It isn’t the issue of roles, but the logistical challenges in maintaining widely separated Canadian military footprints overseas. Our numbers in Kuwait will be reduced to around 200, nevertheless this presence needs to be resupplied. We will have to add support elements to Jordan, and increase how we are supporting a doubled presence in Kurdish territory, trainers in the Ukraine and soldiers rotating into Poland as part of NATO’s Operation Reassurance. Add all of those up and the support costs through C-17 flights and other means will be enormous.

Given increased costs and increased presence, what is the return? How is what Canada is doing speeding up, or materially contributing, to the defeat of IS. Will our allies see our contribution as sufficient to be invited to the coalition strategy table? Without answers to those questions, the contribution slide in the PowerPoint presentation will be impressive – but the deeper questions are hidden and begging to be answered.

George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He served with the military in Bosnia and Afghanistan and was an adviser to senior NATO commanders.


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