On Target: Fighting “against” Daesh does not explain what or who we are fighting “for”

By: Scott Taylor

 An aircraft technician from Air Task Force – Iraq inspects the nose landing gear of a CF-188 Hornet aircraft at the Camp Patrice Vincent flight line, in Kuwait during Operation IMPACT on December 11, 2015. (combat camera)

An aircraft technician from Air Task Force – Iraq inspects the nose landing gear of a CF-188 Hornet aircraft at the Camp Patrice Vincent flight line, in Kuwait during Operation IMPACT on December 11, 2015. (combat camera)

Last Thursday, Daesh forces launched a surprise offensive against five separate objectives in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. It was quickly confirmed that members of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, deployed in the area as trainers, were involved in the combat effort to contain and, ultimately, repel the Daesh attackers.

Thankfully, there were no Canadian casualties during the 17-hour battle, or else the Defence Department would have been under more pressure to explain why our trainers were in the thick of a firefight.

Foreign advisers deployed to fight alongside local militias are known as mentors. In Afghanistan, a large number of Canadian soldiers participated in the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team program wherein they went into combat to bolster their Afghan counterparts.

The Canadians in Iraq do not have a mentoring mandate; they are trainers. And despite the bluster they fed to the all-too-willing media analysts, soldiers do not do their training on the front lines.

Of course, of far more importance than dissecting the criteria as to what constitutes “combat” versus engaging the enemy in “self-defence” is the fact that Daesh was able to mount such a significant, multi-pronged attack.

For months now, we have been reassured by NATO and American Pentagon spokespersons that the allied air campaign has successfully contained Daesh in Iraq. Canadian officials repeatedly bragged that we had Daesh “on its back foot” — in other words, off balance and on the defensive.

When the Harper government was in the process of not only extending the bombing campaign in Iraq, but also illegally expanding it to include targets inside Syrian sovereign territory, the rationale given was that Daesh had largely pulled out of its Iraqi strongholds. The paucity of identifiable bombing targets in Iraq meant that our pilots had to hunt Daesh evildoers in their Syrian lairs. That this would mean violating international law mattered squat, because the Americans were already doing it, and hey, those beheading guys are really, really evil.

Barely six weeks after Canada began bombing in Syria, Daesh sprang forward off its back foot with a major offensive in central Iraq. The U.S.-trained and -equipped Iraqi security forces in the city of Ramadi didn’t just flee in the face of the Daesh attackers, they made sure that all the equipment and arms that they abandoned to Daesh were fully serviceable. In one fell swoop, Daesh came into possession of more armoured vehicles, heavy weapons and munitions than the allied air campaign had destroyed to date.

The Ramadi setback also contradicted NATO’s faulty intelligence assessment that Daesh had fled into Syria. Despite all of NATO’s cumulative high-tech surveillance suites — including satellites and Canada’s CP-140 Aurora patrol aircraft — low-tech Daesh fighters still took us completely by surprise. How is it that these sandal-wearing, Kalashnikov-toting maniacs are able to evade and elude the world’s most sophisticated observation capabilities? The same question could be asked about NATO’s failure to detect the Daesh buildup prior to Thursday’s assault.

Sure, in the end, the Kurdish peshmerga militias, aided by allied combat planes, were able to regain the lost territory. And yes, for those tub-thumping Colonel Blimps who just love it when our lads and ladies are in a real shooting war, last Thursday’s skirmish was the stuff of old-fashioned matinee movies. Guns ablaze, the good guys give ground, then the cavalry arrives (in the form of modern combat jets) and the bad guys get blasted to bits.

For the warmongers, this little bit of drama, with a Canadian contribution, has fuelled their calls for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to rethink his position on withdrawing our CF-18s from the allied bombing effort.

What the Daesh offensive actually illustrates is that, after more than 14 months of aerial bombardment, the group is still on its front foot.

If the current strategy is failing to work, then continuing to do the same thing in perpetuity makes no sense. It took 15 years in Afghanistan to figure out that we could never “win,” and in Iraq we still don’t even have a plan for what victory will look like.

If the Colonel Blimps need a fix of derring-do, let them reread old copies of Illustrated Weekly magazines. Canada should not be an active participant in a complex conflict with such potentially catastrophic consequences when we don’t even fully understand the equation.

Fighting “against” Daesh does not explain what or who we are fighting “for.”