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CDA Institute guest contributor Brigadier-General Dr. Jim Cox (Ret’d), a Senior Fellow at the MacDonald-Laurier Institute, offers some thoughts on a government strategy to deal with the so-called Islamic State. 

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says, “Canada is back,” he might really mean Canada has gone back – back to the time when governments sprinkled Canadian troops and flags around the world, shying away from actual fighting, but still claiming to be engaged in a “meaningful way” or in a “leadership” role. It was a time of soft power and naïve liberal internationalism.

Early indications are that the Trudeau government yearns for those good old days. We might not expect much more from a leader whose apparent depth of geo-strategic thinking extends to seeing Canadian CF-18 fighter aircraft as things to be “whipped out.” To be somewhat fair though, we are still at an early stage of a young, untested government. Perhaps we will see more mature strategic thinking when a decision on Canada’s mission in Iraq is finally made public early in 2016.

Today, one wonders about the quality of strategic thinking that has gone into the Trudeau government’s international agenda, particularly Canadian engagement in the Middle East. It certainly is clear that government has no interest in taking the fight directly to the Islamic State (IS). In fact, the bulk of government attention so far has been devoted to ‘soft’ issues other than the fact that Canadian aircrew and special operations troops are putting their lives on the line in Iraq and Syria. Canadians know only that Trudeau intends to bring the Royal Canadian Air Force fighter aircraft home. Beyond that, we know nothing about what he is thinking.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion teased us during a brief sitting of Parliament, in December 2015, when he stated that “Canada’s contributions moving forward will be part of a long-term comprehensive strategy to address this key global concern …. Training Iraqi forces must be an important part of our new plan…. Canadians want us to have a robust fight against ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant].” However, the fact is that without Canadian air strikes there is no ‘robust fight.’ Moreover, Canada can have no independent strategy to degrade or destroy IS because we do not have enough military capability to contribute decisively to that goal at the strategic level. The only strategic decision made by the Canadian government was to participate in the coalition. The DND/CAF website says:

Operation IMPACT is the Canadian Armed Forces’ (CAF) contribution to the Middle East Stabilization Force (MESF) – the multinational coalition to halt and degrade the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Republic of Iraq and in Syria.

Nonetheless, Dion said a “plan is coming.” Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan said it would take a bit of time to “get it right.”

All this talk of “a plan” is troubling. Above all, what is needed, is a coherent foreign policy and a workable defence policy outlining the government’s big ideas about why we are engaged in the Middle East in the first place, and what political objectives we intend to achieve there, as well as how government intends to use military force abroad. We have neither, so far. Then, derived from those policies, we need a government strategy – not a mere ‘plan’ – for our engagement of IS. The strategy needs to identify strategic objectives derived from (as yet unstated) political objectives. It must define a number of lines of operations connecting intermediate objectives, all leading to a desired end-state.

Government needs to think hard about this. Why does Canada need to do anything? What is it really that we can, expect to, or want to do? What does it mean to ‘degrade’ or ‘destroy’ IS? Imagine if IS was suddenly defeated and no longer existed. Would we be happy with that? Would our job be done? Would there be anything else to do? Is government naïve about, or oblivious to, the myriad of complex regional, religious and ethnic conflicts nested within each other across the Middle East?

One thing government must not do is publicly define any “exit strategy.” Popular and political pressure to tell citizens ‘when this thing will be over’ is a nonsensical exercise. Government must decide on its own, in concert with allies, what conditions, or end-state will satisfy Canadian political objectives and mission statement. It should not be publicly debated or in any way made known to the enemy.

Government and media could also get beyond a tendency to make mountains out of irrelevant tactical level molehills. It is disheartening to hear parliamentarians and the media, once again, engage in a silly debate about whether or not Canadian troops are deployed on a combat mission. Combat is a circumstance, a condition or a method; not a mission statement. Any morally responsible authority cannot deploy troops within range of an enemy and tell them they cannot fight. It is ludicrous to think that a Canadian military force deployed anywhere in Iraq today will not, at some point, be involved in combat. Deploying military forces near lines of separation between Kurds and IS forces increases the chances of combat exponentially. Canadian troops deployed in Iraq are there at the risk of their lives and it is time government, Parliament, media and Canadians recognized, understood, and accepted it.

The Trudeau government has an opportunity to show Canadians the depth of its geo-strategic thinking when eventually explaining its approach to the fight against IS. Canadians will want to know if government is inclined to slide back into aimless soft power and naïve liberal internationalism, or whether they have a more realistic world view and notion of modern conflict management. Whatever the decision, it must be derived from a coherent hierarchy, topped by a clear policy, leading to a credible strategy with achievable objectives. In the end, it must all be sufficient to justify putting Canadians in harms way.

Brigadier-General Dr. Jim Cox (Ret’d) is the former Vice-President, Academic Affairs with the Canadian Military Intelligence Association and a Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa. (Image courtesy of AFP 2015/ Safin Hamed.)

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