On Jan. 19, the National Defence Department hosted one of its routine technical briefings to update the media on recent developments in the allied military campaign against ISIS in Iraq. In the past, various commanders have detailed the number of sorties undertaken by our combat aircraft and the targets they had successfully engaged.
We were told that the destruction of a few dump trucks and a bunker had effectively changed the course of the war and the subsequent paucity of ISIS targets meant the jihadists were “on their back foot.”
A slightly different picture emerged at last Monday’s briefing, when Lt.-Gen. Jonathan Vance and Brig.-Gen. Mike Rouleau detailed how Canadian soldiers had come under effective mortar and machine-gun fire from ISIS fighters. In response to that direct threat, the Canadians used a sniper to “neutralize” the ISIS gunners. Rouleau also stated that Canada’s special forces team has used laser-illuminated technology to pinpoint ISIS targets for destruction by allied aircraft.
These revelations of combat activity set in motion a flurry of spin to bridge the credibility gap between the government-authorized training mandate and the fact that our soldiers are actually on the front lines.
Last October, when it was announced that “up to 69” Canadian Armed Forces personnel were to deploy to Erbil, Iraq, the Canadian public was assured that this was to “advise and assist” the Kurdish forces, which were already battling to contain ISIS advances. When asked during a CTV interview specifically whether these Canadian soldiers would be used to help direct airstrikes by Canadian CF-18 pilots, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Tom Lawson replied that they would have “nothing to do with that.” Lawson’s rationale was that such action would be considered “semi-combat” and Canadian soldiers on the ground were strictly limited to training.
Although politicians, generals, historians and veterans can debate what constitutes combat and when one can invoke the right to self-defence, Lawson’s specific denial of a specific action, which was subsequently employed, could not be resolved.
Instead of admitting the public had been misled, Lawson issued a statement last Thursday stating: “To be clear, the situation has evolved since I offered those remarks” last fall. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I’m sure things have changed since our troops first deployed. It still doesn’t explain when the decision was made to expand the mandate, and who authorized such action.
While the mission may have evolved, what is the point of holding weekly technical briefings if not to keep Canadians apprised of such evolution? I think moving from training to direct combat operations should have been mentioned.
Putting aside the semantics of what exactly constitutes combat (one spokesperson for the prime minister actually tried to claim the incidents in Iraq were not combat because combat only occurs when you deliberately advance to engage the enemy!), the resulting controversy has only further illustrated just how little our political leadership understands about the complex nature of the conflict in Iraq.
In response to media questions about combat versus training, Prime Minister Stephen Harper replied, “We want to advise and assist Iraqi forces, particularly the Kurdish forces, to lead the combat themselves.” It appears from that answer that Harper does not understand the fact that the Kurds do not consider themselves Iraqis. Since the conclusion of the first Gulf War in 1991, the Kurds in northern Iraq have had total autonomy from any central Baghdad authority. They fly their own flag over their own country, and when our soldiers got off the plane in Erbil, they would have seen a Welcome to Kurdistan banner at the airport.
When ISIS first burst on the scene last spring, the Kurdish militia took advantage of the collapse of the Iraqi security forces to opportunistically seize the vital oilfields of Kirkuk for themselves. Included in the ranks of those Kurds fighting against ISIS are members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish separatist movement still listed as a terrorist organization by Canada and most western nations.
There is also, of course, the al-Qaeda Kurdish Battalions, which boasted of joining the anti-terrorist fight last fall. One would have thought that — after our experience in Libya, wherein we assisted in ousting a tyrant to be replaced by absolute anarchy run by jihadist fundamentalists — we would start concentrating as much on who we are fighting for, rather than just simply who we are fighting against.
Because no matter how you spin it, we are fighting.