Sly Justin Trudeau. Critics are still attacking the prime minister for pulling back from the war against Islamic State militants. What they haven’t noticed is that his Liberal government has, in fact, expanded Canada’s role in this conflict.
Forget the fighter jets. Yes, the Trudeau government is withdrawing the six CF-18s that had been used to bomb the militants –— also known as ISIS — in Iraq and Syria. But with the U.S. and 12 other nations committed to the air war, there’s still plenty of bombing going on.
The problem has never been a dearth of warplanes. Rather it has been the difficulty in finding civilian-free targets to attack.
The real story from Monday’s announcement in Ottawa is that Canada is sinking more, not less, into this war.
We will be spending more money — $1.6 billion over three years. We will be sending 180 more soldiers to the region.
The number of special forces troops involved in training Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq is being tripled from 69 to more than 200.
We will also be sending troops into countries other than Iraq. In a telephone interview Tuesday, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told me the roughly 100 Canadian soldiers being sent to Jordan and Lebanon might, for instance, help those countries figure out how to guard their borders against ISIS incursions.
He said, however, that unlike the U.S., Canada is not sending small commando units into Syria to fight ISIS, calling the situation there “much too fluid.”
Canada’s special forces in Iraq will continue to operate on the front lines where they may come under fire. These Canadian soldiers may also initiate fire if they or their allies are threatened.
Is this ground combat? Most people, I suspect, would say it is. Before he became prime minister, Trudeau certainly did. Last March, he told the Commons that then-prime minister Stephen Harper was using the Iraq training mission to “steadily and stealthily (draw) Canada into a deeper ground combat role in Iraq.”
Now, Trudeau has chosen to adopt Harper’s language. What used to be combat has miraculously become non-combat.
Sajjan, a former soldier, said trying to sort out these distinctions is like “going down the rabbit hole.” But he gamely tried anyway, saying that since Canadian troops in Iraq aren’t “principal combatants,” their actions — however combative — do not count as combat.
In many ways, the Liberal approach to this war carries echoes of Afghanistan. For Canada, that war lasted 12 years. This one has no end date.
Asked if he could predict when this war might be over, Sajjan said: “I wish . . . .
“This is going to take a considerable amount of time . . . . Years in the making.”
As with Afghanistan, he said, victory will require not only defeating the enemy but rebuilding institutions to ensure that new enemies don’t arise.
Thus, as it did in Afghanistan, Ottawa is focusing on politics and aid as well as soldiering.
For instance, the Islamic State is operating in Libya. But Sajjan said that expanding the war fully into Libya — if that’s what the U.S.-led coalition decides to do — will be impossible until a plausible government that the West can support is formed in that country.
Like the Afghan War, the ISIS conflict is enjoying a wave of popularity. Islamic State provocations, such as the November attacks in Paris, have succeeded in mobilizing Western public opinion on the side of armed intervention.
Will that last? It didn’t before. By the time Ottawa withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 2014, few in Canada wanted to even talk about that costly war.
Today, as Taliban and even Islamic State fighters continue to thrive in an Afghanistan struggling under war and corruption, Canada’s intervention there strikes many (including me) as a ghastly failure.
Sajjan disagrees. Mistakes were made, he said. But in the end, Canadian efforts made the situation in Afghanistan, if not perfect, at least better.
“It’s all relative when you ask about success,” said the man presiding over Canada’s latest — and growing — war.