OTTAWA — It was billed as a low risk, non-combat mission. Rob Nicholson, the defence minister at the time, even claimed that Canada was not putting “boots on the ground.”
So when the shooting started, so did the questions about the true role of Canadian troops in northern Iraq.
The federal Liberals are now close to deciding Canada’s next steps in the mission against Islamic State extremists, one that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already said will involve a beefed-up training component.
If that new mission keeps troops in Iraq training local Kurdish fighters—as is anticipated -- Canadians should expect blunter talk this time around about the role of the soldiers and the risks they may face.
“I certainly think the government was less than fully upfront with Canadians,” academic Michael Byers said in an interview.
Responding to the rising threat of Islamic State extremists, Canada dispatched a team of special operations forces soldiers to northern Iraq in the fall of 2014 to help train local Peshmerga troops.
But they deployed with a muddled message with politicians and military commanders insisting that Canadian soldiers would not direct airstrikes or accompany their Kurdish counterparts to the front line – activities which it was later revealed they did.
Indeed, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Commons on Sept. 30, 2014 that Canadian troops would not be near the action, saying “It is to advise and to assist. It is not to accompany.”
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair pressed the prime minister on the work of the soldiers. “Mr. Speaker, are they going into combat zones?”
“I just said that Canadian soldiers are not accompanying the Iraqi forces into combat,” Harper replied.
The parliamentary motion for the deployment explicitly ruled out a combat role for the Canadians.
And Conservative Rob Nicholson, the defence minister at the time, repeatedly told a Commons’ committee “We’re not putting boots on the ground” despite the public commitment of Canadian forces to Iraq.
But in January, 2015, the defence department revealed that Canadian troops in fact had been giving directions to fighter jets to bomb Islamic State positions and even exchanged gunfire with extremists during their ostensibly “non-combat” mission.
Suddenly a mission that had been portrayed as being well back from the frontlines was more dangerous and risky that had been previously revealed.
It perhaps wasn’t full-on combat. But nor did fit with the understanding of most Canadians that troops would be away from the frontlines.
Defence analysts say Canadians deserve some frank talk from politicians and military commanders this time around.
David Perry said the military should -- within the bounds of operational security -- “more fulsomely explain” the main role for the troops and be upfront about the possibility of engaging with ISIS fighters and calling in airstrikes.
“I think that would help reset the discussion about the mission and what it involves and give Canadians appropriate expectations,” said Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
Byers said the training of Kurdish troops required front-line work since it involved teaching how to use lasers to “light up” targets for precision-guided munitions used by the CF-18s and other coalition aircraft.
“You can’t train people to do that in the abstract. You actually need to be on the frontline,” said Byers, professor and Canada research chair in the department of political science at the University of British Columbia.
The Liberals opposed the air combat mission from the start and pledged during the fall election to end it. But crafting a new mission has taken time.
Byers suggested that the Liberal pledge to withdraw the fighters was ill-considered because of the nature of the training happening on the ground and the natural fit with the fighters overhead.
“They made an incompatible set of commitments. A commitment to pull back the CF-18s and a commitment to step up the training mission. Those two things are just really difficult to fulfill concurrently,” he said.
Trudeau has said the new mission will involve additional Canadian troops dispatched overseas in a training role but the details have not been confirmed.
The government could deploy extra special operations forces soldiers -- they’ve been doing the training mission from the start. It could send conventional forces soldiers to conduct the training. It could expand its support of the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to include police training or medical support.
Canada could also decide to join a NATO mission to do training work in Jordan or Turkey.
“There are a multitude of options we could choose from in terms of enhancing what we are doing there,” Perry said.
An announcement is expected in the next month, perhaps in time for a meeting NATO defence ministers in Brussels. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is expected to attend that session.
In addition to training, Canada is expected to confirm that two CP-140 Aurora reconnaissance aircraft and a CC-150 air-to-air refueller that have also been part of the air campaign will continue their work.