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Jeffrey Simpson

Jeffrey Simpson


The Iraq mission’s dangerous, unspoken reality Add to ...

The Harper government had to know, even if it would not so say publicly, that by entering the Iraq conflict against the Islamic State, it was committing Canada to the long haul.

The initial parliamentary resolution spoke of a six-month deployment, to be reviewed before its expiration. Anyone who believed the six-month deadline to be serious had not been paying attention to the Islamic State, Iraq, the Middle East or statements from U.S. military leaders to the effect that their country had embarked on a long commitment.

It would have stretched all credulity to believe that Canada, once engaged, could pull out after six months. You could hear during the first parliamentary debate the forthcoming rhetoric: “We don’t cut and run.”

Which is fine, as rhetoric goes, except that the phrase “We don’t stay there forever” might also apply, as it did in Afghanistan and as it will some day in Iraq. Exactly when cannot be known, but the date won’t be any time soon. Having decided to be in for a penny, Canada will be in for a pound, at least in terms of length of commitment.

The military fight against the Islamic State, an organization now deeply entrenched in Iraq and Syria – and spreading to other countries – will take more to defeat than the air power being used against it, including Canada’s small contingent of fighter jets. What air power brings is time to organize something more effective.

Air power can damage. It can blunt advances. But it cannot root out an enemy that buries itself among the population and in hard-to-find locations. And it is a figment of political imagination to believe that “advisers,” sent to teach locals how to fight, can somehow avoid a degree of combat (and risk) when the locals do fight. Antiseptic war is for bathtub admirals, armchair generals, ministerial wordsmiths and sterile parliamentary exchanges.

The Islamic State has grown up as a fiercely radical movement within Sunni Muslim theology and politics. It is at war as much with secular Sunnis and even militant Sunni elements, such as al-Qaeda, as it is with the West. It thrives on political vacuums created by the collapse of states, which is among the reasons why Islamic State groups have shown up in the civil war now being fought in Libya and in pockets of Pashtun southern Afghanistan.

The West, often acting on the illusion that others are like it or can become such, has destroyed or helped to destroy undemocratic regimes, only to discover that brutal order gets replaced with vicious disorder.

Like Iraq and Syria before it, Libya is descending into internecine chaos, with rival forces controlling Benghazi and Tripoli and the central government all but disappeared. IS elements have entered the country, smelling opportunities they might exploit.

The West (with a Canadian general directing the bombing campaign and Canadian planes dropping bombs) helped to destroy Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, without any sense of what would replace it.

Rather predictably, a country built on a superstructure of tribal rivalries now takes the shape of those rivalries. Libya’s factions are well-equipped militarily and their loyalties lie less with the state than their own interests. Without any experience of compromise, or any institutions that could lead to compromise, the fault lines widen so that it becomes another failed state whose fragility invites predators, opportunists and ideologues.

So if, as has been argued, the aim in the fight against the Islamic State is to first degrade it, then defeat it, adversaries will find that like al-Qaeda, it will fragment and implant itself in hospitable territories, since ideology and doctrine know no political boundaries.

Moreover, even if the more limited objective is to somehow defeat the Islamic State in Iraq, the movement is implanted deeply in neighbouring Syria, where to this point the Harper government has pledged not to go. But in this long fight, it makes little sense to think only of Iraq. As with Afghanistan’s Taliban, who move with impunity to Pakistan, Iraq’s Islamic State could melt into the deserts of Syria to regroup, rearm and refresh.

All of which is to say that even another Canadian tour of duty will not be the end of the affair. This truth, rooted in the reality of the mission, is apparently too dangerous to be admitted.

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