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The Debate

In November, the House of Commons endorsed the government's decision to send Canadian special forces troops to Iraq to contribute to an international mission to repel the terrorist army known Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. It was to be a short-term mission to “advise and assist” Iraqi forces. In recent weeks, we've learned that Canadian soldiers have been laser-targeting air strikes and engaging in firefights with Islamic State fighters on the front lines. Has Canada drifted into an outright combat operation in Iraq? Or is this merely an inevitable shooting component to something that remains, at its core, the advisory mission authorized by Parliament? We have invited two military-operations experts to debate this question: Read their opinions, and vote in the box on the right.

The Debaters

Debate contributor
Roland ParisFounding director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa. @RolandParis
Canada's Iraq operation has turned into a combat mission
Debate contributor
Thomas JuneauAssistant professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.
There is no mission creep in Iraq

The Discussion

Debate contributor

Roland Paris : We recently learned that Canadian troops in Iraq are spending about 20 per cent of their effort close to, or right at, the front lines, that they have been calling in air strikes from those front-line positions, and that three firefights have occurred between Canadian forces and Islamic State fighters.

The parliamentary resolution that established the mission last October indicated that Canadian forces would not engage in ground combat operations. Chief of the Defence Staff Tom Lawson and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have acknowledged that there has been a shift in the nature of the Iraq mission, but insist that Canadian forces are still performing only an “advise and assist” function, not a combat role. They also point out, correctly, that Canadian troops have a right to defend themselves if they are fired upon.

There is no universally-accepted, bright-line definition of “combat,” but common sense suggests the following: (1) If you send armed troops to front-line positions where combat can be realistically expected, and (2) if these troops are calling in airstrikes from the front lines in order to destroy enemy positions, and (3) if they are returning fire, even in self-defence, in order to kill enemy forces who are firing on them, then by any reasonable standard they are engaged in combat.

We are witnessing, in other words, “mission creep.” This is the incremental expansion of a military operation's mandate. It may or may not also involve the deployment of more forces. A classic case is the role of American advisers in Vietnam, which gradually expanded beyond combat advice to direct ground fighting. Eventually, U.S. troops supplanted local South Vietnamese forces as the principal combatants against the North Vietnamese.

In Iraq, we are a long way from the Vietnam scenario. Western ground forces, including Canadians, still play a relatively small role. Nevertheless, it emerged last week that the terms of Canada's operation had changed. Canada's new front-line role – as well as our leaders' redefinition of what counts as combat – unquestionably represent mission creep.

For some people, these changes might appear too small to worry about. After all, Canada still only has a maximum of 69 special operations forces in Iraq.

This is true, but there are two reasons to be concerned. First, our national government – regardless of the political party in power – must be forthright with Canadians about something as serious as putting Canadian soldiers into combat situations. Wars, especially long wars (as this one is likely to be), must be rooted in public trust. A lack of forthrightness erodes that trust.

Second, while much of the Canadian debate about Iraq is focused on what will happen between now and April (when the six-month deadline for Canada's current deployment will be up for renewal), we should take a longer view, asking ourselves where the operation may be headed in the months and years to come.

Limited military operations have an inborn propensity for mission expansion, and I anticipate growing pressure on Western governments to move more of their troops into ground combat roles. Consider the fact that it only took a few months for Canadian leaders to redefine our understanding of “combat.” If we did that in such a short period of time, where might we end up in three, five, or ten years from now?

Last fall, I warned of pressures to move Western troops into the front lines. Some pooh-poohed this warning, but it has been borne out by events. My only surprise is that it was Canada, not the United States, that apparently became the first Western country to tinker with the definition of “combat” and move advisers into a front-line role. Canada now appears to be more directly involved in the ground war than even the United States, which insists that American troops in Iraq are staying away from the front lines.

Canada has a clear interest in training and equipping Iraqi forces to take back their country from the Islamic State, but we should not end up fighting this ground war for the Iraqis.

We have learned hard lessons, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the sometimes-counterproductive effects of deploying massive Western ground forces as front-line combatants in Muslim countries where there is widespread suspicion and resentment of Western power, even among our nominal allies. The deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat troops in Iraq did not solve the terrorism problem in that country; it exacerbated it.

It would be much smarter to focus on training and equipping Iraqi forces to wage this war themselves, while continuing our air combat mission. We need to be aware, however, that we will face constant temptations to provide more direct, on-the-ground combat assistance. We should resist these temptations.

This is not to say that direct combat would never be warranted in Iraq. But we must not allow our strategy to drift. A series of incremental steps, all seemingly minor, could take us to a place where we never intended to go. Canada has no interest in slipping into an open-ended ground war in the Middle East.

This article was adapted from a CIPS policy brief.

Debate contributor

Thomas Juneau : The government has faced mounting criticism since it announced that special forces' soldiers deployed to the front lines alongside the Kurdish troops they are advising had exchanged fire with Islamic State fighters on a handful of occasions. Senior officers also confirmed that Canadian troops have been helping direct air strikes by Canada and other coalition nations.

It is important to distinguish between two separate debates here: one is transparency, in which the government has been at fault; and two, the mission itself, in which most criticism has been misplaced.

Had the government been transparent about the mission from its beginning last fall, the controversy of recent days would have been lessened. It is normal for military deployments to evolve, especially in a context as messy and volatile as the conflict with IS. If it is indeed true, as the government claims, that the front line advising and air strike targeting support roles are additions to the original mission, then the government should be held at fault for not having kept Canadians informed of this evolution. Operational security is not a valid excuse; if it is possible to say now that troops spend about 20 per cent of their time at the front line, this could have been stated earlier.

The second debate concerns the mission itself and here, critics, both in opposition parties and in the media, have mostly mischaracterized the objectives of the deployment.

First, let's be clear that this is a combat mission, and it has been one since the beginning: Canada is launching air strikes alongside its coalition partners, which is undeniably a violent action. Canada has also deployed boots on the ground, through its 69 or so special forces advising and assisting Kurdish troops.

It was not – and is still not – a ground combat mission. This is not merely semantics, as some critics claim; defining what a mission is and is not is fundamental. Troops deployed on peacekeeping missions can occasionally get shot at. That does not change the fundamental peacekeeping nature of their mission. Whether on peacekeeping or advising deployments, these are soldiers operating in a war zone. Getting shot at and responding is force protection, not combat.

In the case of the Iraq mission, it would have been possible for Ottawa to decide that troops were not to go to the front lines in their advising and assisting role, and were not to direct air strikes. Had this been the case, the basic parameters of the mission would not have changed, and Canada would still have been a valuable contributing nation to the coalition confronting IS.

But that is not the issue; the current debate concerns whether the recent disclosures represent escalation or mission creep. They do not; the mission still operates within its initial parameters, to advise and assist Kurdish troops and to launch air strikes.

The criticism should be turned on its head. Constraining Canadian troops by preventing them from advising on the front lines and helping direct air strikes would be legitimate. But critics should recognize that it would limit their ability to fulfill their missions. They should also explain what the resulting benefit to Canada would be.

So what would real escalation look like? It would result from the deployment of ground forces units whose first objective would be to directly engage IS in combat. This is not the case currently, and it is highly unlikely to happen, at least as long as U.S. President Barack Obama is in power. It will not be a decision for Ottawa to make.

To deploy large numbers of ground combat troops would be a huge mistake, moreover: the U.S. experience in Iraq since 2003 shows that it would mostly pour more oil on an already burning fire. IS is a symptom, not a cause: it arose because of widespread Sunni disenfranchisement and alienation in Iraq and Syria. Militarily, Canada and its allies can and must help local actors contain and weaken it. But ultimately, its defeat will only come if or when the broken political processes in Iraq and Syria are repaired.