Local politics, global dimensions: canada and the fight against iSIS
by James Horncastle (May 26, 2015)
Critically the Prime Minister’s Office, when they posted the video to their website, did not obscure the faces of the soldiers. Although the Prime Minister’s Office initially attempted to claim that it was not a significant issue, given that the Prime Minister’s handlers explicitly told the press corps following the Prime Minister not to film the faces of the soldiers, the alibi was soon exposed to be a weak cover up. While the relevant authorities should fully investigate this matter to determine what extent Canadian soldiers were put at risk, this and other incidents obscure the fact that the purpose of the operation is unclear.
The political squabbling over the deployment ignores a more critical factor: what is the long-term objective of combat operations in the country? While this may seem to be an obvious question, in the grandstanding and controversy surrounding the deployment both politicians and the public are ignoring this issue. Critics of the deployment, such as the leader of the opposition, Thomas Mulcair, have raised interesting questions about the deployment, such as in what manner will the soldiers be deployed, and the legal basis for the combat operations themselves. These are important questions, and one that the Canadian government should answer, particularly the legal standing of the operation, but questions of substance are getting lost in the political grandstanding as Canada nears a fall election.
The lack of clarity on the deployment is problematic as it lends itself to mission creep. Without a clearly defined objective, and the current deployment’s minimal gains, the natural progression is to believe that it can achieve more gains with more soldiers. Canada, from its initial six month deployment in October 2014 and its focus on targets in Iraq, has expanded and extended its operation for a full year and now includes targets within Syria proper. One can argue that, given the extent of ISIS’ operations the divide between targets in Iraq and Syria was artificial and counter productive. Nevertheless, without a strategic and operational purpose to the new deployment, one must question its utility, and even if it will make the purported reason for the deployment, humanitarian reasons, worse for the people on the ground, as many such operations have in the past. These are important questions, but governments throughout the world are not answering them in a constructive manner.
While so far this article has examined the specifically Canadian context of the deployment against ISIS, this issue affects all countries currently involved in combat operations against the Islamic State. There is a consensus that ISIS must be defeated. The means by which countries are pursuing its defeat – aggressive air strikes – are not going to do more that impair its operations in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’ recent seizure of Ramadi, furthermore, indicates that coalition actions against the Islamic State have not impaired it to a significant degree. This, in and of itself, should cause governments to critically reevaluate their actions against the Islamic State. Nevertheless, governments are continuing the same flawed strategy.
As Edward Luttwak has noted, combat is moving towards a post-heroic age where governments see high technology warfare as a panacea for the combat casualties. If the cause is important to the international community, as Prime Minister Harper and other world leaders have suggested, than the threshold for acceptable casualties is considerably higher than they are giving the public credit. The ability to accept casualties provides governments with alternative strategies that, in the end, offer viable chances of defeat ISIS, and not simply degrading their combat capabilities as President Obama stated last year. While one should never advocate for casualties, when dealing with an established foe like ISIS, viable options for their defeat require that government’s, and in turn the people backing them, be willing to accept casualties in order to meet the demands of a task that are by no means easy. Current operations promise few casualties, but no chance of defeating ISIS. Only by having a frank discussion about the purposes of the mission will the means, and if these do require that government’s accept a greater risk of casualties, be established.
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