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Redefining ‘combat’

In news from Canada’s shooting war, it turns out that the mission to advise and assist Kurdish forces in northern Iraq had a much more rigorous amount of assisting involved than was initially made clear.

In news from Canada’s shooting war, it turns out that the mission to advise and assist Kurdish forces in northern Iraq had a much more rigorous amount of assisting involved than was initially made clear. In a press conference in Ottawa on Jan. 19, Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance, head of the Joint Operations Command, and Brigadier-General Michael Rouleau, head of Special Operations Forces Command, told reporters that not only had Canadian special operations snipers directly engaged ISIL militants, but that the Canadian soldiers had been calling in airstrikes since November—no fewer than 13 times.

While close observers have noted that the war against ISIL has been following the model of the successful 2001 campaign against the Taliban, which was to use coalition airpower guided by special operations soldiers on the ground to allow local forces to smash defensive lines and advance, it was never made clear that Canadian soldiers would be involved in a combat mission such as that.

As a result, in the days and weeks after the Rouleau and Vance press conference, much hand-wringing ensued as to what activities the “advise and assist” verbiage could meaningfully contain, and even to the proper definition of ‘combat,’ as Prime Minister Stephen Harper had declared to Parliament in September 2014 that Canadian ground forces in Iraq would not be in combat. In the midst of the ensuing media storm, the prime minister’s spokesman, Jason MacDonald, declared that Canada’s special operators are not in combat because: “a combat role is one in which our troops advance and themselves seek to engage the enemy physically, aggressively, and directly.”

Of course, this now meant that any Canadian soldier who previously fought to maintain a position, or fought in defense, or found themselves being blown up by an IED, was excluded from the definition of combat as purely offense. Veterans nationwide entered the dispute.

Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie perhaps put it best when he told Postmedia journalist David Pugliese that “it’s fair for them to have their own definition, but that is not the definition of combat…if you are somewhat close to the enemy and they’re firing at you and you’re firing back with deadly effect, that is combat.”

A Canadian CP-140 Aurora aircraft in Operation Impact, the Canadian mission against ISIL in Iraq. [OP IMPACT/DND]

A Canadian CP-140 Aurora aircraft in Operation Impact, the Canadian mission against ISIL in Iraq.

In the meantime, Chief of Defence Staff General Tom Lawson had his own fire to put out, as he had told the media in mid-October that Canadian Special Operations Forces would not be using their laser designators to direct airstrikes against ISIL.

“They will have nothing to do with that,” said Lawson on CTV’s Question Period on Oct. 19. “As far as we know, all coalition troops that are on the ground in Iraq are being used in the same role of advise and assist but not accompany and not engage in direct combat.”

Clearly though, things changed shortly thereafter and Canada’s soldiers did start accompanying Kurdish forces to the front lines, and did start calling in airstrikes. For the record, Lawson’s reply was as follows:

“I understand that there may be some questions about my comments on Oct. 19th about the nature of activities being undertaken by Canada’s Special Operations Forces in Iraq. To be clear, the situation on the ground has evolved since I offered those remarks, and we have increased our assistance with respect to targeting air strikes in direct correlation with an increased threat encountered by the [Iraq Security Forces].

“Our SOF personnel are not seeking to directly engage the enemy, but we are providing assistance to forces that are in combat. The activities of Canada’s Special Operations Forces in Iraq, as described by Generals Vance and Rouleau on Jan. 19, are entirely consistent with the advise and assist mandate given to the Canadian Armed Forces by the government. You should be justifiably proud of your men and women in uniform.”

Lost in all of this theatrical debate is a discussion of the nature of the effort to defeat ISIL and its importance. Though this may have been a poorly handled escalation in the Canadian mission, it is unlikely to be the last. In late January, the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey said that the battle against ISIL and Islamic militants in general was likely going to take at least three decades. “I think this threat is probably a 30-year issue,” he said.

Given that Osama bin Laden’s original declaration of war against the West occurred in 1998–which is as good a start point as any for this current cycle of violence–perhaps history will come to remember this as the 50 Years War? Given that perspective, the ongoing—and mostly political—linguistic dust-up might not be of very high importance after all.

In news from Canada’s non-shooting conflict—its Cold War—with Russia, HMCS Toronto returned from its lengthy deployment to the Black Sea and beyond (see page 34). It was there as part of Operation Reassurance, the NATO-led effort to flex its muscles in an attempt to deter Russia from invading any more of the region’s countries.

Whether or not Russia decides to end its current spree of expansionism with the annexation of Crimea and proxy invasion of eastern Ukraine is anyone’s guess. NATO ally Lithuania, for its part, is making due preparations. The small Baltic country—a former Soviet territory of about three million people—has published a handbook for its citizens to be used in event of a Russian invasion.

“Keep a sound mind, don’t panic and don’t lose clear thinking,” advises the manual. “Gunshots just outside your window are not the end of the world.”

While Lithuania, which shares a border with the Kalingrad Oblast, a Russian state, in theory enjoys the protection of the NATO alliance under its mutual defence pact, authorities there have instructed their citizens in this manual to resist the Russians with disobedience, demonstrations and, if all else fails, by “doing your job worse than usual.”

HMCS Fredericton has deployed to replace Toronto in the Black Sea, which will hopefully mean the Lithuanians won’t be reduced to defeating the Russian invasion by taking extra-long lunch breaks.

In any event, Fredericton joins a considerable Canadian task force in the area as a part of OP Reassurance, which consists of four CF-18 fighter jets and a rotating assortment of ground forces, all mainly based in Lithuania, Poland or Romania. Fredericton is due back in Canada in the late spring or early summer.

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