George Petrolekas is a fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute and on the board of the CDA Institute. He has served in Bosnia, Afghanistan and with NATO, and has been an adviser to senior NATO commanders.
When young men and women are placed in harm's way on a foreign battlefield, it is incumbent on a state to continually apprise its citizens for what purpose they do so, and what they are trying to accomplish. Never is this more apparent than when a life is lost, as happened when Sergeant Andrew Doiron was killed in a friendly fire incident on March 6.
Both the Department of National Defence and the Kurdish government say they've investigated the incident but, six weeks later, we know little more than we did after the first few conflicting reports, when a local Kurd commander pinned the blame on Canadians before any investigation had been conducted.
The Globe's Mark MacKinnon travelled to the Bashiq Mountain area of Northern Iraq near territory controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government to shed light on the two competing narratives, and had the blessing of the Kurdish presidency and the military high command to investigate. But the effort to pry information from the front lines was stonewalled by an Ontario-raised Kurdish peshmerga official sometimes working for and paid by Canada.
The reporting raises several crucial questions about the mission that began last October and was recently extended for at least another year through parliamentary motion. Most specifically, who exactly is in charge, and who exactly are we advising – to what purpose and to what end? And why does a veil of secrecy exist over an assistance mission where there are few operational secrets to protect?
In a conflict zone local forces and governments have their own interests to protect. If jittery peshmerga fighters caused Sgt. Doiron's death then the Kurds would be unlikely to co-operate with any media. Whether Canadians influenced the local Kurds to avoid media is not clear. In Bosnia, we often overlooked local issues in the interests of achieving the mission of getting food and aid to the dispossessed.
Canada joined the coalition on Iraq's invitation to stop Islamic State expansion, followed by assistance to state forces (not militias) to eventually dislodge IS from the region. Our participation was predicated on a vision of a pluralistic government in Iraq, which would improve its governance, and repair sectarian divides.
We're now discovering the complexities of helping a force in which bonds of family, the tribe, ethnicity and locality take precedence over the hierarchical command structures Westerners are accustomed to. Was this known to Ottawa before we committed to helping the Kurds?
It is reminiscent of Afghanistan's Ahmed Wali Karzai, who although he had no political office of his own, was effectively the governor of Kandahar for years. In Kurdistan, clearly we are facing similar dynamics – if a local power-broker can override a general in the peshmerga's high command, then nothing is as it outwardly appears. Who do we trust, whose word do we accept, whose future vision are we supporting?
A central character in The Globe piece is the shadowy Farhang Afandi. DND confirmed that Mr. Afandi was engaged and paid as a part-time contractor. Mr. Afandi is clearly armed and has a position of some sort within the local peshmerga forces. In the past, interpreters for Canada were non-combatants and vetted, in part to avoid hidden agendas, penetration and potentially warped interpretation; especially as the Kurdish vision for the future is at odds with Canada's desire for a unitary Iraqi state.
Helping the Kurds has shielded Canada from the more acute Sunni-Shia rifts in the rest of Iraq. However, if our assistance is to an organization that appears to be more like a militia than a professional military force – or if assisting the Kurds sows the seeds for Iraq's dismemberment – then the eventual cure may be as bad as the current sickness we are battling.
That is Canada's dilemma. We train the Kurds but stop short of effectively arming them in part because their future intentions are opaque. Not arming them risks losing much of Iraq to IS. Arming them will help defeat IS but potentially provoke an Iraqi civil war.
Where there is a need for secrecy to protect operations it should be exercised – lives are often at stake. However, full disclosure of battlefield mishaps, by governments and journalists, is the hallmark of democracy. Canadians should know what occurred and not put Kurdish sensitivities ahead of the truth. The appearance of collusion with the Kurds to disguise Canadian activities risks losing the battle at home long before the war against IS can be won.