Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson says Canada's longer-term role in Iraq could mirror its assistance to Afghanistan as the Conservative government prepares for a possible extension to a combat mission that is due to expire next month.
Mr. Nicholson, who made a covert stop in Baghdad and Erbil earlier this week, said the government will determine in the coming weeks whether to continue Canada's military contribution to the fight against Islamic State militants. The Conservative government has signalled its interest in extending the mission beyond its six-month mandate, but has not announced a decision to do so.
"Our mandate is until April 7, but we've indicated that Canada is not a country that stands on the sidelines, and we're looking at ways that we have contributed and what is available for the future," Mr. Nicholson said in a conference call from Jordan on Thursday. "As I say, I indicated that we're in this for the longer term to make sure that we do what we can to help."
Asked to explain what he meant by a longer-term commitment, Mr. Nicholson suggested Ottawa would take a similar approach in Iraq to the one it had in Afghanistan by continuing to provide assistance to the country over a longer period.
"Being in this for the long term – it's similar to what we did in Afghanistan, for instance," Mr. Nicholson said. "We were in Afghanistan, but we indicated that we would continue our assistance, and we have, in Afghanistan."
The Canadian military mission to Afghanistan lasted 12 years, and Ottawa spent more than $2-billion on development assistance to the country during that time. Afghanistan remained among Canada's top foreign-aid recipients after the mission ended.
"It's not just military, it has to be a bigger picture in terms of what the solutions are," Mr. Nicholson said. He pointed out that Canada has donated more than $100-million in humanitarian assistance to the region, and said: "This is going to continue."
Canada's military contribution to the fight against Islamic State militants includes six fighter planes, two surveillance aircraft and an aerial refuelling tanker. In addition, 69 special forces soldiers are assisting Iraqi security forces on the ground in northern Iraq.
The Canadian military has already begun training troops to ensure they are prepared for a possible extension, said Royal Canadian Navy Captain Paul Forget of Canadian Joint Operations Command.
"That planning's been in the works for some time," he said during a briefing on the mission on Thursday afternoon. "The personnel have been identified, the pre-deployment training has been put into place to ensure that those personnel are ready for the challenges that lie ahead should the mandate be announced for an extension."
Captain Forget said the military is also ready to bring soldiers back to Canada should the government decide not to extend the mission.
Tony Battista, executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations , said it would be difficult to imagine the Canadian government walking away from the mission in Iraq at this point.
In addition to continued participation in coalition airstrikes, he said Ottawa could consider providing more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assistance as well as medical and logistical support. The government could also consider a modest increase in the number of special forces troops now serving in Iraq, he added.
Mr. Nicholson's comments are not the first to suggest Ottawa is looking to lengthen the mission. Last month, Defence Minister Jason Kenney said the government is inclined to maintain a "meaningful role" in the fight and pointed to broad public support for the current deployment.
During his trip to Iraq, Mr. Nicholson met with Iraq's Foreign Minister, its Prime Minister and the speaker of Iraq's Council of Representatives. He met with the President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani, in Erbil, and with Canadian soldiers who are in the region.
Mr. Nicholson also held meetings this week with the foreign ministers of France and the United Arab Emirates and with the Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Jordan, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris said he was disturbed by Mr. Nicholson's comments about remaining involved in Iraq for the longer term and by the comparison the minister drew to Canada's role in Afghanistan.
"These kinds of comments seem to indicate that Canadians should watch out for the kind of open-ended commitment that we've seen in Afghanistan," he said.