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opinion

Eric Morse is co-chair of security studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.

If anyone in the military can keep a firm hand on whatever is going on between Canadian Special Forces advisors/trainers in northern Iraq and their Kurdish hosts, it will be Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance, our new and very straight-talking Chief of Defence Staff-designate.

In his current post as commander of Joint Operations, he presumably had a hand in configuring the mission. Now he is going to have to manage what looks increasingly like a slippery operational and political environment. The tough issues will come right at the intersection between military operations management (his responsibility) and the politics – domestic and international – of fighting in a regional war alongside ill-defined local interests.

The training mission with the Kurds was always the riskier side of Canada's commitment against Islamic State. Barring outlier incidents like losing an aircraft, the air mission is fairly straightforward. The major moment has been the shift into Syria, which made strategic sense and so far seems to be working.

But the Kurdish involvement is a far less stable proposition. In committing ground forces (even if only 70 of them) into a fluid situation there is always the potential for trouble, which duly arrived in the death by friendly fire of Sergeant Andrew Doiron in March. It was multiplied by finger-pointings between Canadians and Kurds, which morphed into calls for investigations, which subsided into apologies from the Kurdish higher echelons, which transitioned into alleged investigations that will not be divulged (if they indeed revealed anything). It then culminated in the prevention – by a local princeling with Canadian ties – of The Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon from speaking to Canadian officers in the battlezone.

The incident underlines how dependent Canadians fighting in small missions in very alien physical and cultural territory can become on their local liaisons, who usually have strong connections and may have agendas of their own. In this case, according to The Globe, the individual who blocked access, Farhang Afandi, turns to be the son of a former minister of peshmerga affairs currently commanding 10,000 troops, and apparently not very responsive to orders from his presumed superiors in the Kurdish hierarchy.

Characters like these are common in unsettled situations, and the more isolated the foreign group is, the more vulnerable they are to manipulation. In Kandahar, Canadians were more or less permanently stuck with the local operators of the Karzai clan, but Canadians also had a stronger presence. And Afghanistan, corrupt or not, was at least a sovereign state, with a semblance of due process. (Jordan, where a counterterrorism training mission has just been announced, is likewise relatively safer political waters.)

The deployment in Kurdistan has no such advantage and it seems clear from The Globe's report that Mr. Afandi was playing his influence with both sides for all it was worth. As an ostensible Canadian contractor, that is not tolerable. Whether it is tolerated de facto depends on our bargaining position.

The government has several concerns here, all of which Lt.-Gen. Vance will be acutely aware of. The highest-level is, 'why Kurdistan in the first place?' Given that Canada has declared itself implacably hostile to Iran, there's not much choice. What is left of the Iraqi sovereignty amounts to an Iranian satrapy and there is no way that Canadian forces could be seen to align with Shia/Iranian militias – the Americans just had that problem in Tikrit.

Syria is unthinkably more complex and dangerous. That left the Kurds of Iraq as the default; heaven knows they need the help, and we can shelter behind the fig-leaf of Iraqi sovereignty.

But that raises other spectres. The effective authorities are a non-state actor without international standing. That a death by friendly fire should have been the first incident was a coincidence, but it highlights the difficulty of getting straight answers in the aftermath. There is nothing like due investigative process in Kurdistan. It is unlikely that any outside investigation will get to the bottom of it, and that is something the government has apparently decided it must live with.

But it begs the question of 'what if worse happens?' Canadian forces are now more or less openly at risk of fire (and the current 'non-combat' catechism needs to be dispensed with), but if so, they are also at risk of being present when the Kurds take IS prisoners. Canadians then may not have much influence on their fate, but once word is out, we are in uncharted waters, politically and legally.

Finally, the question of Kurdish war aims. Mosul is an objective, according to The Globe's peshmerga interlocutor Lieutenant-General Jabar Yawar, and there's apparently an assumption that Canadians will be there helping out. That may not be so clear in Ottawa; certainly offensive urban warfare is to be avoided at all costs. Politically, the aim seems to be an independent Kurdistan. Whether the government supports that or not is also questionable, but somewhat reminiscent of Churchill's experience in wartime Yugoslavia, where Tito might not have been the whitest hat around, but he was what they had.

But the geopolitical outlook for Kurdistan is not great. Through history, Northern Mesopotamia has been dominated by the powers in the Anatolian (Turkish) and Iranian plateaux. Iran is projecting power. Turkey is holding its cards. Neither one has interest in an independent Kurdistan. How Canada comes down in that dynamic is unknowable.

Lt.-Gen. Vance is probably the Canadian soldier best able to advise the government as this evolves. The question is, will they listen?