Has Canada Drifted into a Combat Mission in Iraq?

January 29, 2015

Globe and Mail

We recently learned that Canadian troops in Iraq are spending about 20 per cent of their effort close to, or right at, the front lines, that they have been calling in air strikes from those front-line positions, and that three firefights have occurred between Canadian forces and Islamic State fighters.

The parliamentary resolution that established the mission last October indicated that Canadian forces would not engage in ground combat operations. Chief of the Defence Staff Tom Lawson and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have acknowledged that there has been a shift in the nature of the Iraq mission, but insist that Canadian forces are still performing only an “advise and assist” function, not a combat role. They also point out, correctly, that Canadian troops have a right to defend themselves if they are fired upon.

There is no universally-accepted, bright-line definition of “combat,” but common sense suggests the following: (1) If you send armed troops to front-line positions where combat can be realistically expected, and (2) if these troops are calling in airstrikes from the front lines in order to destroy enemy positions, and (3) if they are returning fire, even in self-defence, in order to kill enemy forces who are firing on them, then by any reasonable standard they are engaged in combat.

We are witnessing, in other words, “mission creep.” This is the incremental expansion of a military operation's mandate. It may or may not also involve the deployment of more forces. A classic case is the role of American advisers in Vietnam, which gradually expanded beyond combat advice to direct ground fighting. Eventually, U.S. troops supplanted local South Vietnamese forces as the principal combatants against the North Vietnamese.

In Iraq, we are a long way from the Vietnam scenario. Western ground forces, including Canadians, still play a relatively small role. Nevertheless, it emerged last week that the terms of Canada's operation had changed. Canada's new front-line role – as well as our leaders' redefinition of what counts as combat – unquestionably represent mission creep.

For some people, these changes might appear too small to worry about. After all, Canada still only has a maximum of 69 special operations forces in Iraq. 

This is true, but there are two reasons to be concerned. First, our national government – regardless of the political party in power – must be forthright with Canadians about something as serious as putting Canadian soldiers into combat situations. Wars, especially long wars (as this one is likely to be), must be rooted in public trust. A lack of forthrightness erodes that trust.

Second, while much of the Canadian debate about Iraq is focused on what will happen between now and April (when the six-month deadline for Canada's current deployment will be up for renewal), we should take a longer view, asking ourselves where the operation may be headed in the months and years to come. 

Limited military operations have an inborn propensity for mission expansion, and I anticipate growing pressure on Western governments to move more of their troops into ground combat roles. Consider the fact that it only took a few months for Canadian leaders to redefine our understanding of “combat.” If we did that in such a short period of time, where might we end up in three, five, or ten years from now?

Last fall, I warned of pressures to move Western troops into the front lines. Some pooh-poohed this warning, but it has been borne out by events. My only surprise is that it was Canada, not the United States, that apparently became the first Western country to tinker with the definition of “combat” and move advisers into a front-line role. Canada now appears to be more directly involved in the ground war than even the United States, which insists that American troops in Iraq are staying away from the front lines.

Canada has a clear interest in training and equipping Iraqi forces to take back their country from the Islamic State, but we should not end up fighting this ground war for the Iraqis.

We have learned hard lessons, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the sometimes-counterproductive effects of deploying massive Western ground forces as front-line combatants in Muslim countries where there is widespread suspicion and resentment of Western power, even among our nominal allies. The deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. combat troops in Iraq did not solve the terrorism problem in that country; it exacerbated it.

It would be much smarter to focus on training and equipping Iraqi forces to wage this war themselves, while continuing our air combat mission. We need to be aware, however, that we will face constant temptations to provide more direct, on-the-ground combat assistance. We should resist these temptations.

This is not to say that direct combat would never be warranted in Iraq. But we must not allow our strategy to drift. A series of incremental steps, all seemingly minor, could take us to a place where we never intended to go. Canada has no interest in slipping into an open-ended ground war in the Middle East.

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Roland Paris
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs

University of Ottawa

120 University Private, Room 6053

Ottawa, Ontario, K1Y 3M5, Canada

rparis@uottawa.ca

+1 (613) 562-5800 x4047
@rolandparis

© Roland Paris 2019