Slowly, inexorably, the war against the Islamic State is widening.
It has moved into Afghanistan, where both the U.S. and the Taliban are taking on ISIS militants.
It is moving into Libya. There, the U.S. is reportedly contemplating airstrikes. Italy is said to be looking at the eventual dispatch of ground troops.
In Iraq, the U.S. has already found itself enmeshed in ground combat — in spite of President Barack Obama’s stated aversion to the notion.
American special forces have also been sent into Syria.
In both countries, U.S. ground troops are there technically only to “advise and assist.” But the phrase is being interpreted broadly.
As U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter noted last month in a speech to troops, the U.S. plans to go after ISIS commanders and militants “killing or capturing them wherever we find them.”
Politically, Washington is putting pressure on its friends to up their commitments.
That was the message that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivered to his allied counterparts, including Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, in Rome Tuesday.
In spite of American pressure, Canada’s new Liberal government is moving slowly. Conservative critics slam Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for failing to say what, if anything, he will do militarily in Iraq and Syria once he fulfils his promise to bring Canada’s six fighter jets home.
But perhaps the government is wise to take its time. War is serious business.
As Canadians found in Afghanistan, it’s easy to get enmeshed in war. It’s harder to get out.
To his credit, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan seems to recognize this. A veteran of the Afghan War, he knows what can happen when politicians send troops into conflict before sorting out the ramifications.
“I want to make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past,” Sajjan told the Commons Monday.
“Because every single time we make these mistakes as political leaders, we send our men and women into harm’s way for no reason.”
For that frank assessment, the minister was pilloried. Conservative critic James Bezan suggested he was belittling Canada’s soldiers. Jason Kenney, another Conservative MP, mocked his syntax.
In fact, Sajjan was right. Mistakes were made in Afghanistan. As a soldier serving in that war, he was on the receiving end of them.
On Friday, he outlined some of these mistakes in a speech to a foreign policy conference.
The Canadian Press reports that Sajjan singled out the West’s failure to grasp the complex situation on the ground.
He also noted that much of the money earmarked for Afghan aid only fuelled corruption.
And he issued a general caution about the war against terror.
“Over the last 10 years, we need to do a really hard assessment,” he said. “Should we be patting ourselves on the back? And I’m talking from a security perspective around the world.
“I think we can say things have not gotten much better. Things have gotten worse.”
It’s hard to disagree with that conclusion. Things have gotten worse.
Afghanistan is still mired in war. In spite of Western training, Afghan troops have not taken up the slack in the fight against the Taliban. The Americans have delayed the withdrawal of their forces once. They may do so again.
What’s more, the Islamic State is now active in Afghanistan, fighting both the U.S. and the Taliban. According to the New York Times, U.S. forces have carried out a dozen operations against ISIS in Afghanistan during the last three weeks.
Libya is a mess. Western intervention to remove Moammar Gadhafi has left it fractured and without a coherent government. The U.S. and its allies are now belatedly trying to cobble together a Libyan government of national unity to prevent the country from becoming yet another ISIS stronghold.
Iraq is in crisis thanks in large part to the U.S. invasion of 2003. Syria is in crisis even though the U.S. didn’t invade. There are no easy answers.
Given all of this, it makes sense for Canada’s government to move carefully. It may bother the armchair warriors that Canada is not rushing into battle in Iraq and Syria. I doubt that it bothers the soldiers who might be sent there.