Canadian troops will stay in Iraq for the next two years and expand their “advise and assist” role by training other local security forces, the Liberal government announced Thursday.
To this point, the roughly 200 Canadian special forces trainers in Iraq have concentrated their attention on teaching Kurdish peshmerga fighters the finer points of combat. But Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement the extension to March 31, 2019 will allow the training of “new potential partners within the Iraqi security forces.”
The military is also adding a C-130J Hercules transport plane to the mission list, presumably to move troops and equipment around the country. The former Conservative government was very deliberate when it chose in 2014 to link Canada’s training in Iraq with the Kurds, who occupy a semi-autonomous region in the north.
The U.S. led the rebuilding of Iraqi security forces, which were riven by sectarian strife and melted away in the face of the ferocious advance by smaller Islamic State forces three years ago. The Kurds have a long-standing request for Canadian trainers to instruct them in counter-insurgency warfare, which is what they expect to face once the conventional battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, ends some time in the next few months.
The training Canadian special forces have provided to the Kurds thus far involves traditional combat skills, not the intelligence-driven shadow warfare that characterized the decade-long combat commitment in Afghanistan. Most military planners, including many at the Pentagon, expect ISIS to revert to a guerrilla war once it has been driven out of Mosul.
Precisely who and what kind of training will take place in this new phase of the mission was not made clear in the government press release on Wednesday. Sajjan is at a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
“Our new defence policy has made it very clear that Canada is ready and willing to do its part for the global community,” Sajjan said in the statement.
“This includes confronting security issues that threaten our shores and those of our allies and partners. We must continue working with the global coalition against Daesh and to address the security challenges which confront Iraq, Syria and the region.”
There is extensive debate over combat versus non-combat role that the Canadian forces will be partaking in this. The extension comes as debates continue over whether Canada is actually involved in active combat in Northern Iraq. This was after a Canadian Special forces sniper shot an ISIS fighter from a record 3,540 meters–the longest confirmed kill shot in military history.
The country’s top military commander, Gen. Jonathan Vance, said he is “extremely proud” of the military’s accomplishments in the region.
“I am confident these additional authorities will help u be more agile and flexible as we respond to the needs of our allies and partners,” he said, also in a statement. Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters are still involved in the battle to retake Mosul from deeply entrenched ISIS fighters.
Canadian and allied special forces soldiers are providing not only advice, but covering fire–something which prompted fresh political debate in Canada about whether the country is actually involved in a combat mission.