Canada's Defence Minister is raising the prospect of an expanded military training mission in Iraq that could go beyond aiding the Kurds to include Iraq's government soldiers, a move that would keep Canada in the fight against Islamic State by taking on the challenge to turn Baghdad's ragtag army into a more effective force.
"When it comes to seizing ground and taking that fight [to Islamic State], it cannot be achieved without people on the ground. That right now is the Iraqi army. We need to make sure they do this," Harjit Sajjan, 45, said in an interview.
He said nothing has been decided and he's still gathering information.
When asked about the chances that Canadian soldiers might end up training Iraqi forces – who tend to be farther south – instead of just Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq, Mr. Sajjan said he's "looking at the entire theatre" right now.
The minister insisted that Canada is not backing away from the campaign against Islamic State, even though the new Liberal government is withdrawing CF-18 fighters from the battle to fulfill a campaign pledge to "end Canada's combat mission in Iraq."
"We are not pulling out of the fight. We're actually going to be making a meaningful contribution," Mr. Sajjan vowed.
He's not ruling out leaving two RCAF surveillance planes and a refuelling aircraft in the area even after the CF-18s return home.
Mr. Sajjan, a decorated military veteran who served three tours of duty for the Forces in Afghanistan, and one in Bosnia, and worked as a detective in the Vancouver Police Service, said that in his experience training local forces in a conflict can be just as valuable as air strikes.
He pointed out the reason Islamic State militants control large swaths of Iraq is that Baghdad's army fell apart in 2014 as the jihadis, also know by the acronym ISIS, swept through.
"The training mission is absolutely necessary. Because if we do not properly train them, this problem is going to persist," said Mr. Sajjan, who wears a pin commemorating his Order of Military Merit on his lapel.
"We need to be able to take the fight back to ISIS … Remember – how did this start? When the Iraqis could not hold the ground. We need to be able to re-establish that if we're going to have a successful conclusion."
Right now, Canada's ground mission in Iraq comprises nearly 70 special-forces soldiers who are helping Kurdish peshmerga in northern Iraq.
The current deployment has proved to be more than a regular training mission, however, as Canadian soldiers ended up accompanying Kurds to the front lines and identifying targets for air strikes.
It turns out, however, that the Canadian military quietly stopped painting targets for air strikes early this year – around the same time that a Canadian soldier was mistakenly killed by a Kurdish fighter and when controversy arose back home about the role in assisting bombing from the ground.
On Wednesday, the Department of National Defence said Canadian forces soldiers in Iraq only ended up calling down 12 air strikes in total and stopped in "early 2015." Since then, according to spokesman Dan Le Bouthillier, the Kurds have taken over. "Kurdish security forces have been primarily responsible for the co-ordination of such events" from that point onwards, he said.
"This is in part due to the success of guidance received from Canadian personnel."
Mr. Sajjan, whom Brigadier-General David Fraser once called the "best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre" for his work in Afghanistan, said his beat-cop skills learned from working Vancouver's gang squad helped him connect with Afghans in the region of Kandahar where Canada fought a combat mission for five years.
"My real skill was putting the dots together and seeing the linkages. That told me what was really happening: That the corruption was fuelling the insurgency, that the population there was not actually supportive of the Taliban. They were pushed to the Taliban because of those issues and the Taliban took advantage of a lot of the initial grievances and took hold."
Mr. Sajjan laughed at the term "badass" that some pundits have used to describe his decorated service in the Forces.
He said that everything he accomplished both in the Forces, in the Vancouver Police and search-and-rescue squads was as part of a team of "phenomenal people" and so any achievements are group efforts.
"I will let the public decide how they want to perceive things. I worked with a lot of badasses and in some difficult places."