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Den Tandt: Canada’s role in looming war between West and Islamic State needs clarity

OTTAWA – Tom Mulcair is deeply uncomfortable with the precious little we know, so far, about Canada’s involvement in the expanding war between the West and the Islamic State. He wants answers, more debate and a vote. For his troubles […]

OTTAWA – Tom Mulcair is deeply uncomfortable with the precious little we know, so far, about Canada’s involvement in the expanding war between the West and the Islamic State. He wants answers, more debate and a vote. For his troubles he will be dismissed as a naïf, willfully blind to the “dark and dangerous” reality in which we now live.


If only the NDP leader weren’t right.


Beginning Monday, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s inaugural speech, MPs’ first week back after the summer has been all about foreign policy, all the time. The Harper government used to care about the economy and nothing but. Now it’s that, and safe streets, topped off with a big, heaping, dollop of international righteousness. Get used to it. Clobbering foreign malefactors about the head and neck is the new long-gun registry.


NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asks a question during Question Period in the House of Commons. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick


Tuesday evening in the emergency debate over Iraq, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney weighed in with some fine speechifying, describing in gruesome detail the Islamic States’ barbarisms, including butchering the elderly in their hospital beds and mass rape. “I am pleased to say that Canada is doing what we can within our limited means and ability to protect (IS victims) and to give real practical expression to this notion of the responsibility to protect,” Kenney concluded.


Wednesday official Ottawa was again caught up with darkness and danger, as Harper – in welcoming Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on his official state visit – all but swore an oath to personally help beat back the marauding Russians, himself. Speaking with emphasis and emotion, Harper told Poroshenko that Canada’s support for Ukraine is more than an affair of state. “This is a matter of kinship, this is a matter of family, this is personal.”


Rather suddenly, post-Afghan-war isolationism and mission fatigue are out; Pearsonian noblesse oblige is back in. Or is it? Because, as British Columbia Liberal MP Joyce Murray pointed out in the Iraq debate, Canada’s annual defence spending as a ratio of Gross Domestic Product is now at its lowest point since the 1980s, just one per cent, and still falling – and there are more than $2.5 billion in cuts still to come.


If one examines the air war now underway in northern Iraq, one notices that it is, in fact, an air war. Though Canada has flirted with a drone purchase, the Royal Canadian Air Force has no drones. Though Canada has flirted at length with the acquisition of new jet fighters, no such fighters have been ordered, on account of the sole-source F-35 plan having imploded politically two years ago. If a process to select a new fighter is underway now in Ottawa, it is invisible. The chances of this seeing the light of day before the next election are nil.



One branch of the Canadian military, the army, is well-equipped, able to move long distances quickly with lots of gear, and experienced in anti-terrorist warfare; but it remains unclear whether tactics that worked in Afghanistan even apply to the war in Iraq and Syria. And that’s moot anyhow, since the Harper government, in tune with Washington, has thus far promised “no boots on the ground.” So the army is out.


Or is it? For this gets us back to Mulcair, and his questions. Asked repeatedly by the opposition leader to define the current mission, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander eventually offered this: “A CC-130 Hercules, a CC-177 Globemaster supported by 75 Canadian Armed Forces personnel in the Mediterranean, 69 special operations members of the Canadian Forces, advising the government of Iraq on how to enable security forces in the northern part of the country to be more effective against the threat they face, providing strategic and tactical advice in an advisory and assistance role, not in a combat role.”


Well, OK. But he neglected to address Mulcair’s main point: What do Canadians, even highly trained special-ops soldiers, have to teach the Kurds of northern Iraq about warfare on their home soil? If the 69 Canadians are JTF-2, which seems likely, it stretches credulity to suggest they are merely providing helpful advice. These are the most lethal, capable soldiers in the Canadian military.


In the earliest days of the Afghan war, though it wasn’t publicly known at the time, JTF-2 operators fought under American command. Mulcair correctly notes that, early on, that conflict too was billed as winnable through a combination of special forces and air power, with local armies and militias bearing the brunt on the ground.


As it turned out, Western ground forces were indeed eventually necessary in Afghanistan, in their hundreds of thousands – including 40,000 Canadians, over a decade – and even with that, the war was lost. In year eight, more or less, of a 20-year nation-building project, the international community – including one Prime Minister Stephen J. Harper – decided to cut its losses.


It is all well and good to rail against the Jihadists, chronicle their barbarisms, and insist that, as civilized people, Canadians have no choice but to join in the fight. Perhaps that’s true. But we’ve seen this narrative before. It didn’t end well. Mulcair is wise to ask tough questions. The government would be wise to answer them.


Twitter.com/mdentandt


 


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