OTTAWA – The country’s allies have given their unqualified — even avid — political and military blessing to Canada’s retooled mission against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan insisted Thursday.
Sajjan, who is in Brussels for NATO meetings, said Lt.-Gen. Sean MacFarland — the U.S. Army officer commanding the campaign against ISIL — considers Canada’s new mission to be “forward-looking.”
Sajjan said MacFarland told him that the Trudeau government’s plan to replace aerial bombing runs with beefed-up training efforts on the ground will help him better plan the next phases of the war, the centrepiece of which will likely be the step-by-step recapture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city in the Kurdish north.
Iraq’s defence minister, Khaled al-Obaidi, was also said to be enthusiastic about the assignment of a strategic team to the country’s defence ministry in Baghdad, where it will help restructure and mentor the support bureaucracy.
But it was the endorsement of MacFarland, also a veteran of Afghanistan, that stuck with Sajjan.
“I can assure you we have set the example of what the actual mission needs for that region,” Sajjan said during a conference call from Brussels.
Just hours earlier, the Dutch announced their jets would intensify the air campaign into Syria, one day after U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter called for a stepped up bombing campaign.
Although Canadian CF-18s are due to be pulled from combat on Feb. 22, Sajjan was unable to say precisely when the bulked-up training mission, announced earlier this week, would be in place.
He emphasized, once again, that the fresh troops would not accompany their Kurdish trainees into battle the way Canadians did in Afghanistan.
Impatient for progress in the nearly two-year-old war against ISIL and frustrated with the strategy of letting demoralized Iraqis and ill-prepared Kurds attempt to recapture ground, some analysts in the U.S. and Canada have been calling for western troops to accompany local forces into battle.
In Afghanistan, so-called Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) proved successful in standing up an organized fighting force in a relatively short time, one that — despite being badly bloodied by the Taliban — held together better than the Iraqi army, which melted away in the face of extremists during 2014.
It was a harrowing, and occasionally deadly, training program that Sajjan insisted was not necessary and would be unwelcome in Iraq, where memories of the nearly decade-long U.S. occupation are still fresh.
“We can’t just take one example where we’re showing success somewhere else and (believe) it’s going to work,” he said. “We need to tailor for the area where we’re operating in.”
In Afghanistan, they had to start from ground zero with fresh recruits, but in Iraq they can lean on training the U.S. did with local security forces years before, he added.
The comments are interesting in light of the investigation into the friendly-fire death last March of Canadian special forces operator Sgt. Andrew Doiron, which — aside from being blamed on miscommunication — exposed the absence of basic soldiering skills among the Kurds.
Also Thursday, NATO ministers have also agreed to send warships — including HMCS Fredericton — into the Aegean Sea to help Turkey and Greece crack down on criminal networks smuggling migrants and refugees into Europe.
Sajjan wasn’t able to say precisely what the warships would do beyond helping to identify human smuggling boats for the Greek and Turkish coast guards.