As it tries to sort out its strategy for the war in Iraq and Syria, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government faces the same question that bedevilled Stephen Harper’s Conservatives:
What exactly is combat?
That question came to the fore Thursday after Canadian special forces on the ground helped repel a blistering offensive by Islamic State (ISIS) militants in northern Iraq.
The militants, who had launched a three-pronged attack against Kurdish peshmerga forces, were eventually beaten back in a battle that raged over two days.
While no Canadians were harmed, more than 100 militants and dozens of Kurdish soldiers were reportedly killed.
According to Canadian military officials, the Islamic State forces used artillery, armoured trucks and hundreds of soldiers in their attack.
The U.S.-led coalition called in airstrikes from British, French and American fighter planes, as well as two Canadian CF-18s.
In short, it was a big deal. American officials called it the most serious ISIS attack in northern Iraq in five months.
But technically, for Canada at least, it wasn’t ground combat. In a late-Thursday televised briefing by Canadian Maj.-Gen. Charles Lamarre, the word “combat” was studiously avoided.
Those Canadian soldiers on the ground and firing weapons, he said, were simply there in their “train, advise and assist role.”
Two things need to be said here.
First, the Canadian soldiers did what any reasonable person would expect them to do. They fought to defend their allies and themselves against a withering attack. They put their own lives in danger and, when necessary, took the lives of enemy soldiers. They did what soldiers are supposed to do.
Second, this was combat.
“Combat” is a fraught term in Canada these days. The Afghan War, which was a declared combat mission, is still fresh in mind.
Politicians remember that the public was largely enthusiastic when Canadian troops went into Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in 2006 to fight the Taliban.
But they also remember that this initial enthusiasm waned as the war dragged on and the casualty lists grew.
By the time the last remaining Canadian troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan eight years later, it was hard to find anyone who thought the war worthwhile.
Harper was mindful of this when he signed on to the U.S.-led war against ISIS last year. His government said that the only Canadians involved in combat would be RCAF pilots flying fighter planes.
Canadian ground forces in Iraq, the Conservatives said, would devote themselves to training local peshmerga forces. They wouldn’t be doing any fighting — or dying.
True, the fact that Ottawa chose to send special-forces operatives as advisers signalled that this training might be more than initially advertised.
Nonetheless, the no-combat fiction held for several months. It was shattered only when the military revealed that its trainers were operating on the front lines, firing at the enemy and identifying bombing targets for coalition aircraft.
So far, Trudeau’s Liberals have chosen to maintain the Conservative fiction.
In their election platform, they promised to “end the combat mission in Iraq.” But like Harper, they defined combatants narrowly to include only those flying fighter planes, while excluding advisers on the ground.
Under this definition, the two CF-18 pilots who bombed ISIS positions from the air last week were engaging in combat, while the special forces being fired on by ISIS militants at close range were not.
Which doesn’t make much sense.
The war in Iraq and Syria is complicated and dangerous. Canadian soldiers sent into this war — even those ordered to “train, advise and assist” — are almost certain to be involved in fighting.
If Trudeau wants to keep military trainers in Iraq, he should admit that he is breaking his no-combat pledge and explain why. Like the Vietnam War, this conflict is one where the distinction between advising and fighting is largely illusory.
Conversely, if he wants to end the combat mission in Iraq, he should do so. He should bring not just the CF-18s home but the ground soldiers, too — all of them.