George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute and co-author of the 2013 and 2014 Strategic Outlook for Canada. Mr. Petrolekas served with NATO, in Bosnia, and Afghanistan and as an advisor to senior NATO commanders.
For the past week, Canada's attention has been consumed with events in Paris and other parts of Europe, provoking discussion on our core values as a democracy, and our solidarity with France. The threat of a resurgent al-Qaeda and the somewhat loose parallels of Canada's own recent experience with the attacks in Ottawa and Quebec triggered a visceral empathetic response, crowned by our emotional identification with France through her display of unity as millions marched in defiance of what terrorists sought to achieve.
Yet, at the same time, Canadians were in a continuing war against the Islamic State (IS), a subject which came to the fore again with the revelation that Canadian Special Forces soldiers had been engaged in an exchange of fire with IS fighters.
Some quickly described this as Canada having entered into ground combat, contrary to what both the government and the Canadian Forces had promised; that the ground mission to Iraq was to advise and assist the rehabilitation of the Iraqi Army. Instant polls questioned whether this was a pivotal moment in the minds of Canadians, reinforced by messages on Twitter that somehow Canada had crossed the Rubicon, and was now engaged at another level.
Notwithstanding detailed explanations on the concept of self-defence, the portrayal of the incident as combat misses a more important point – that the campaign against the IS does not have an immediate end in sight.
What happened a week ago is difficult to surmise; however a reasonable reconstruction is possible.
Canadian special forces were advising Iraqi soldiers on some aspect of a mission. This was being done far from the front line at a headquarters. Having plotted out a plan, a group of Canadians and Iraqi's moved towards the front to look at the terrain – a standard practice in any military. It appears the Canadians moved forward with a small protection team, which had a sniper in its ranks.
Arriving where they could observe the terrain, likely through binoculars, this group was engaged by IS mortars and machine guns – not small arms. That fact indicates that this was some distance from the front line – both machine guns and mortars engage at distances beyond half a kilometer. Having come under IS fire, the account is that a sniper engaged the mortar and machine gun teams, permitting the reconnaissance party to withdraw safely. Snipers engage at distances of more than 300 metres, up to a distance of 2 km.
These facts do not lend themselves to a conclusion that Canadians were in combat. And the distances surmised from the weapons used mean Canadians were close to the front line, but probably not on it. The response was limited to eliminating the immediate threat in self-defence, and clearly the Canadians and the Iraqi's were not drawn into a fire fight, or what could be termed as combat, as they withdrew quickly thereafter.
Though Canadians were assisting, or advising their Iraqi counterparts, they were not accompanying, or integrated into, Iraqi units as combatants as was the case in Afghanistan.
In Bosnia, on a UN peacekeeping mission, Canadians engaged belligerents when Canadian lives were threatened, but the aim was to safeguard Canadians, not to capture, seize or hold an objective through their actions. It is possible to be in a war, but not at war.
The concern about this engagement however eclipsed two far more important stories.
The first is that Canadian refuelling aircraft had delivered more than three million pounds of fuel to allied fighters. Based on fighter fuel loads, that means the Canadian refuelling plane enabled anywhere between 300 to 600 coalition sorties. Considering that the coalition has conducted 900 airstrikes in total, that is an immense contribution for a relatively small military. Coupled with 67 surveillance missions by the Aurora aircraft, this is possibly a greater contribution than the sum of our fighter contribution.
Secondly, CF briefers – Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance and Brigadier-General Mike Rouleau – stressed time and again on Monday that although airstrikes had stopped IS from mounting further attacks and expanding, airpower alone could not dislodge it. At some point, an Iraqi ground force will be needed to defeat the IS. "We need to be patient" both counselled, with that patience lasting months if not well over a year.
The training conducted by Canadians and allies at this moment is very low level, ranging from using simple weapons, teaching first aid, recovering vehicles stuck in mud, and how to call in air strikes. The training of Iraqi Divisions to go on the offensive has not yet begun – a crucial part of the strategy that has been missing from day one.
What this means, is that until that Iraqi ground force is trained, the air campaign will have to go on and on to keep IS fighters pinned down – for a year if not longer.
Whether Canadians will have that kind of patience, especially with the costs unknown, is another matter entirely.