Skip to main content

Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that the campaign against the radical Sunni Islamist group will take years and cannot be completed without ground forces.Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press

Canada, like other Western nations, cannot enjoy peace and security without also contributing to the fight against the Islamic State, a former NATO secretary-general says.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a Dane who led the North Atlantic Treaty Organization until last year, made the remarks as he warned that the campaign against the radical Sunni Islamist group will take years and cannot be completed without ground forces.

"An air campaign alone won't do the job. You will need ground forces to fight Islamic State. Through an air campaign you can pulverize the enemy, but you cannot control the land," Mr. Rasmussen said in an interview in Toronto on Friday.

Although Western military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya were problematic, "look at Syria and you will see that inaction is more costly," he said. "While action may not be perfect, inaction may be more costly."

Mr. Rasmussen, now an adviser for firms such as Boston Consulting Group, is in Canada for speaking engagements.

His visit comes during a federal election campaign in which the three main parties have different views on Canada's role in battling the Islamic State.

Under the government of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Canada joined the U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State. Thomas Mulcair's New Democrats would immediately end Canada's military presence in Iraq and Syria. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau would commit to a training mission rather than focus on the air campaign. Mr. Rasmussen said he did not want to comment on Canadian domestic politics, but in the same breath, he underlined that Canada has obligations to the international community.

"We can't expect other countries to do the job and be free riders ourselves. I would strongly regret if Canada were to withdraw from its international commitments," he said.

He added: "We can't just be consumers of security. We also have to be producers of security."

The Islamic State is a strategic threat, he said, because it has global territorial ambitions, has tried to establish branches in Afghanistan and Libya, and can become a sanctuary for terrorist movements.

Its recruitment of foreign jihadis is a further concern, creating a pool of extremists who can acquire training and become more radicalized and then return to Western countries, he said.

Lastly, he added, fallout from the civil war in Syria has spilled over into Europe with the exodus of thousands of refugees.

"That's why it's an obligation for the international community at large to fight that evil."

Russian President Vladimir Putin's intervention in Syria has complicated the conflict further, because the Russians overtly support President Bashar al-Assad, Mr. Rasmussen said.

"You cannot fight IS and at the same time save Assad. …You cannot consider the Assad regime as a bulwark against terrorism. On the contrary, this would fuel the recruitment of IS fighters."

Mr. Rasmussen was NATO secretary-general from 2009 to 2014, during some of the busiest, most challenging times in the history of the alliance.

At one point in 2011, the alliance was involved in six operations on three continents, from military interventions in Afghanistan and Libya to counter-piracy patrols off Somalia and training security forces in Iraq.