Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new prime minister, should reconsider his hasty election campaign promise to pull six CF-18 jets out of the combat mission in Iraq aimed at pulverizing the Islamic State organization.
At a time when Canadian allies like the United States and France are ramping up military pressure on Islamic State following its murderous rampage in Paris on November 13, Trudeau should instead be thinking of upgrading Canada’s contribution to the pivotal battle to degrade and possibly destroy Islamic State.
For reasons he and his advisers have never fully or convincingly explained, Trudeau pledged to bring home the CF-18s and increase the number of Canadian trainers posted in Iraq.
The Canadian military contingent, based in Kuwait, was dispatched to Iraq under the umbrella of Operation Impact in the late summer of 2014. This occurred several months after Islamic State captured Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city — in a lightning offensive that expanded its territorial holdings in Iraq by an alarming degree.
Canada’s decision to commit air power to the fight against Islamic State was made by the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Canada promised to send six CF-18s, two CP-140 Aurora surveillance planes and one CC-150T Polaris refuelling plane to the Middle East.
These aircraft are flown, serviced and guarded by a crew of 600 pilots, mechanics and troops.
Last March, by a margin of 142 to 129, Canadian parliamentarians voted to extend the mission by a year. Subsequently, it was extended to Syria.
The first Canadian bombing raid in Iraq took place on November 2, 2014, when two CF-18s attacked an Islamic State target near Fallujah. CF-18s have since conducted 1,147 sorties, virtually all of them in Iraq. The Polaris refuellers and the Aurora reconnaissance aircraft, meanwhile, have carried out 309 and 334 sorties respectively.
On the ground, 69 special forces soldiers have been training Kurds in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, which is under the protection of a U.S. no-fly zone.
Prior to his electoral defeat, Harper said that Canada was playing an important role in combating Islamic State and intended to be in Iraq for the “long haul.”
Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the left-of-center New Democratic Party, adopted a totally diametrical position. As he put it, “We’ll immediately withdraw troops from Iraq.”
Trudeau, the leader of the centrist Liberal Party, pledged to end the combat mission and pull out the CF-18s, but left open the possibility that the surveillance planes and the refuelling airplane might be kept in the Middle East.
Lest his policy might alarm allies, Trudeau promised that Canada would remain in the international coalition battling Islamic State. “We have to be part of the training of local troops on the ground in order to carry the fight effectively against Islamic State,” he said without further elaboration.
Last week, when Trudeau was asked why Canada can’t keep all its nine aircraft in place in Kuwait while beefing up the training mission for Kurdish fighters, his response was that the price tag would be too high.
James Bezan, a Conservative Party MP who served as parliamentary secretary to the former minister of defence, claims that Trudeau has his facts wrong. “There is no reason why we can’t do both and make (the mission) more robust,” he said. “We have the troops. We increased the budget.”
Bezan is right.
Trudeau has failed to make a convincing case for withdrawing six CF-180s from combat duty in Iraq and Syria. They may be a drop in the ocean compared to the formidable air power that will be required to hammer Islamic State relentlessly. But this is not really the point, since the brunt of bombing Islamic State from the air will inevitably be borne by the United States, France, Britain and, hopefully, Russia and Turkey.
Canada’s role in the air war is obviously not of vital significance, but on a symbolic level, it’s absolutely necessary. If Trudeau is truly sincere about eradicating Islamic State, which I presume is the case, he will leave the CF-18s, plus the three other planes, in Kuwait and let Canadian pilots bomb the enemy.
The CF-18s notwithstanding, I commend Trudeau for agreeing to send yet more trainers to help the Kurds roll back the spectre of Islamic radicalism in the Middle East. After Islamic State’s bloody attacks in Paris, this is the least Canada can do in the war against Islamic State terrorism.