By Scott Taylor
Last Thursday the Liberal government gave Canadians a pre-Canada Day gift in the form of a clarification on our military role in Iraq. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan joined Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland at the press conference to announce the extension of the Canadian Armed Forces’ ‘advise and assist’ mission until March 2019. That revised end date was unfortunately about the only thing that is now clear about Canada’s commitment of troops to Iraq.
Since 2014, Canada has deployed special forces personnel to assist Kurdish militia in the battle against Daesh (aka ISIS or ISIL). This effort is part of a U.S.-led coalition operation to wipe out Daesh evildoers. Unfortunately for this hodgepodge collection of allied forces, the only unifying goal they share is eliminating the threat of Daesh.
Once that objective has been achieved, every one of these disparate militias — be they Shiite factions, secular Sunnis or Canadian-trained Kurds — is prepared to fight the other for the spoils.
The Kurds that Canada supports make no secret of the fact they are fighting for an independent state. Masood Barzani, the warlord turned elected president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has declared that a referendum on independence will take place this September.
This will, of course, prove an awkward situation for our government as it has always been Global Affairs Canada’s stated policy to support the sovereignty of a unified Iraq.
Our soldiers on the ground — with permission granted by none other than Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance — have been recklessly flaunting Canada’s stated foreign policy by wearing the flag of Kurdistan on their combat uniforms. Vance’s explanation — that our wearing of Kurdish flags helps to foster good will between the Kurdish soldiers and the Canadian trainers — borders on the absurd: Canadian soldiers should not be wearing foreign flags on their uniforms, especially when that flag is a symbol of a breakaway non-recognized state.
In the joint Sajjan–Freeland announcement, it was stated that Canada will not be solely in support of the Kurds as the war in Iraq moves into the next post-Daesh phase. According to the Liberal government, the Canadian military now has the option to train “new potential partners within the Iraqi security forces.” If that is the case, then someone better tell our soldiers to take off their Kurdistan flags.
It will be interesting to see just which faction or factions Canada chooses to support. Elite soldiers in the Iraqi army loyal to the regime in Baghdad were recently found guilty of vicious war crimes committed during the battle in the city of Mosul, and the Shiite militia has an equally sullied reputation for committing atrocities. There are no white-hatted good guys in the complex factional violence that has gripped Iraq since the U.S. invasion of 2003.
This is the other thing that was notably bizarre about the announced extension. The Canadian government acknowledges that we will keep troops there for at least two more years, but it makes no attempt to even describe what we hope to achieve within that time frame. There is no goal, no objective, no explanation of what victory will look like.
It is simply a promised commitment to keep Canadians in harm’s way for a set period of time. Just like our repeated mission extensions in Afghanistan, there is not even any hint that those running this war expect to be successful anytime soon.
Offsetting the announced extension of the mission in Iraq was the confirmation that, despite pressure from NATO, Canada will not be sending troops back into Afghanistan. Given that there is just as little hope for a successful conclusion in Iraq, that decision is not very comforting.
We are not sure who we will be training in Iraq and we have no idea what we hope to achieve there, but we do know we will stay until March 2019, and that we will spend $378-million doing it.
How do you justify extending a war when you cannot describe what ‘victory’ will look like?