Tag, You’re It: Canada’s Fuzzy Iraq Mission

By Steve Saideman

The debate of the past 48 hours about what the Canadian Special Operations Forces [CANSOF] are doing in Iraq is partially repeating the confusions of September.  The CANSOF were sent to advise and assist the Iraqis (seems to be primarily the Kurds).  Canada then sent planes–to drop bombs, to refuel their planes and others and to do reconnaissance.  While the two opposition parties opposed the deployment, they cannot do much both because they do not have enough votes and because the Canadian Parliament does not have authority to do anything–tis all the prerogative of the Crown (thanks, Phil!).

Anyhow, the reality is that Canada is engaged in bombing targets in Iraq along with its allies.  To engage in accurate bombing of moving targets, having someone on the ground “tag” the targets via a laser designator is pretty much required in the 21st century.  Especially if you want to minimize mistakes–hitting civilians.  Indeed, the most controversial bombing in Afghanistan was where the Germans claimed to have eyes on the target but did not, which led to more than a hundred civilians being killed.

Alas, we are stuck in a definitional mess about what is combat and what is not combat.  But the larger issue is that if we want the CF-18s to do their job, we need to rely on folks on the ground to help out in the targeting.  Outsiders can train the Iraqis to do this, but it is not an instant, easy lesson apparently.  So who gets to do the tagging? As it turns out, Canada does (and maybe the British and Aussies, so far the Americans are saying they are not doing it).

This does mean more risk than just hanging out far behind the lines, which means a firefight that happened last week.  But that is why SOF are sent, rather than conventional forces–they are better trained, better equipped and more experienced (hence the Special).  This means you can offset or mitigate the risks–there are more risks but you are sending the best folks who can operate in ways that reduce the risks (the Canadian snipers that seemed to end the firefight pretty quickly from what the reports suggest).

The key is this: sending CF-18s meant that Canada was doing combat.  It wants to avoid sending larger numbers of troops to do ground combat–that this is not Kandahar.  But there are boots on the ground doing stuff very related to combat–designating targets, advising at the front.  These books are worn by SOF, so the risks are less and we don’t think of them as boots on the ground.  The government is trying to have it both ways–that there is no ground combat but Canada is engaged in a kinetic air campaign.  That creates the muddled confusion.

To be clear, I am fine with Canadian SOF enabling the air campaign (aha, the army guys are enablers!), as the Iraqis are not yet ready to do that work apparently.  I would rather have the CF-18s  (and our allies) hit the targets than miss–both to be more effective and produce fewer civilian casualties.  I am not fine with the idea that Canadians should avoid the front entirely, as this would put real limits on the ability to advise and assist those who are facing ISIS/ISIL/Daesh.

The line should have been drawn not between ground combat and no ground combat but between combat and conventional offensive military operations.  But too late for the government to undo their rhetoric of the fall.

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