Canada’s half-decade mission in Iraq

Kelsey Gallagher Featured, Ploughshares Monitor

By Kelsey Gallagher

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 2 Summer 2020

In the fall of 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced Operation IMPACT, Canada’s military contribution to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Approaching its sixth anniversary, Operation IMPACT is Canada’s most significant military operation since the war in Afghanistan.

The mission began with a campaign of airstrikes by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the deployment of special operations forces trainers. Over time, the RCAF’s direct combat role shifted to a support role, assisting Coalition airstrikes through refueling and reconnaissance missions. On the ground, the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have been involved in a series of activities, including training and advising local troops, and, since 2018, leading the NATO Mission Iraq capacity-building operation.

The original objectives of Operation IMPACT appear to have been achieved. ISIS was declared territorially defeated in 2017 and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died during a U.S. raid in 2019. Regional governments and allied groups have taken over ISIS territory, which at one time was larger than the United Kingdom. While small ISIS cells persist, it is unlikely that they will regain any long-term territorial foothold in the region.

Yet Operation IMPACT continues. Its mandate to “build the capacity of the military forces of Iraq” and “support regional stabilization efforts” lacks any clear parameters of success or exit strategy. While COVID-19 has temporarily halted the training of Iraqi forces, some Canadian troops remain in the region, and the mission is slated to continue when the pandemic subsides.

A fractured Iraq

Depending on the metric used, Iraq is either a failed state or close to becoming one. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, followed by years of war and occupation, created a political breakdown in which ineptitude and corruption flourished. Tensions flared between Sunni and Shia factions, causing cycles of ethnic violence and a full-out civil war from 2006 to 2009 that killed thousands of civilians.

Iraq has also become an arena in which U.S. and Iranian forces clash. After the U.S. assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, Iran launched reprisal attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq. This was the closest that Iran and the United States have come to open conflict in recent history.

In March of this year, an Iran-backed Hezbollah group attacked Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, with Soviet-era missiles, killing U.S. and other coalition soldiers. Canadian trainers stationed at the base were not injured, but they could have been. Their proximity to U.S. forces could draw CAF into combat if there are future Iranian attacks, pulling Canada into a conflict against Iran on the side of the United States. Speaking to a House of Commons Committee after the attack, Lt.-Gen. Mike Rouleau said that Iran-backed Shia militias were now his primary concern in Iraq, as “[ISIS] had been defeated militarily.”

Reacting to Lt.-Gen. Rouleau’s statements, Scott Taylor posed this question in Esprit de Corps: “When did Canada authorize our troops’ participation in an inter-factional civil war in Iraq?” Here’s one more: Is another war in Iraq, especially one fought along ethnic lines, a conflict Canada should be involved in?

Canada’s military contribution

Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy contains some welcome provisions, including development assistance and efforts to advance gender equality. However, military force, embodied in Operation IMPACT, is still seen as a significant tool in achieving peace and stability. Currently, Operation IMPACT is assigned the task of building “the military capabilities of Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon and set[ting] the conditions for their long-term success.”

A key component of building military capabilities is through “train-and-advise” operations, an approach that has become a mainstay of Western military relations with regional allies. The theory goes that scaling up the warfighting capacity of local troops means that they will be able to bear the brunt of future fighting and will rely less on the intervention of friendly foreign forces.

Yet, the direct recipients and guiding strategy of CAF’s train-and-advise mission remain unclear. Since 2014, CAF has focused on training primarily the Iraqi military, which includes a spectrum of government and pseudo-government armed groups, collectively referred to by Canada and the Coalition as “Iraqi Security Forces.” Elements of this “groups of groups”—a term used by Canadian Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin—could be on opposite sides in future conflicts.

In its 2020 report on Iraq, Human Rights Watch said that the member states of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, including Canada, “rarely made public the parameters or the exact recipients of their assistance in 2019.” This lack of transparency allows Coalition members to quickly drop one group and start training another when expedient, and to avoid repercussions when groups commit violations against human rights (HR) or international humanitarian law (IHL).

Violations of human rights

Since popular protests broke out in Iraqi cities in October 2019, Iraqi security forces have killed hundreds of protesters.

When asked by journalists if CAF had trained these soldiers, Maj.-Gen. Fortin asserted that the perpetrators were not the security services receiving Canadian assistance. But the significant point is that Canadian forces are still actively contributing to the security architecture of a state in which these atrocities are taking place, largely with impunity.

Beyond civil disturbances, in the last several years, Iraq’s military has frequently been implicated in major HR and IHL violations, including torture, summary executions, and sexual violence. It is not easy to see how the Canadian government can be certain that the perpetrators of such heinous crimes have not received support from CAF, or will not in the future.

A force for stability?

Until late 2017, Canadian special operations forces worked closely with the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, training and arming Kurdish militants, and identifying targets for allied airstrikes. On occasion, Canadian forces even engaged in firefights with ISIS militants, in contravention of the mandate for Operation IMPACT, which explicitly excluded any combat role.

The Kurds, a minority group that has faced generations of systemic oppression in the region, had expressed their intention to form an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. Following a 2017 independence referendum, violence broke out in the city of Kirkuk between Kurds and Iraqi security forces—both of which were receiving military support from CAF. Canadian military support for the Peshmerga abruptly ended.

Offering military support to two long-time regional opponents worked as long as they were focused on a common enemy—ISIS. With that enemy mainly subdued, the calculation shifted, and Canada quickly found itself in an untenable situation, supplying unspecified levels of guidance, equipment, and even weapons to two quarreling parties in an already unstable region.

Rethinking Operation IMPACT

COVID-19 has put Operation IMPACT on hold. Fewer than 100 Canadian troops are still in Iraq, with hundreds of others waiting to redeploy and resume their mission, however it is defined. Operation IMPACT is slated to end in March 2021, unless it is renewed for a fifth time, likely for 24 months.

Perhaps this pause is a fitting time for the Canadian government to reconsider the future direction of the mission and take stock of what has so far been accomplished. Perhaps it is time to bring Canadian troops home.

Canada should support the building of a stable and democratic Iraq, from the sidelines, and not through the boundless provision of military support. A future Iraq should be, first and foremost, imagined and built by the Iraqi people.

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