Opinion Column

Canada's war with ISIL shrouded in secrecy

By Michael Den Tandt, Postmedia Network

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Militant Website, File)

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Militant Website, File)

As the pivotal battle of the war with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant begins, Canada is deeply implicated, with some 600 soldiers deployed in four countries, more than a quarter of those in ground combat.

You wouldn't know it though unless you dug around. There are no independent dispatches from embedded reporters, as was the rule during the Afghan campaign, because there is no embed program. And the defence department has been exceptionally stingy with information. "Operational security" is a handy excuse, but it doesn't justify the level of secrecy.

If we acknowledge Canada is at war -- and, reading between the lines of recent remarks from Brig.-Gen. Peter Dawe and an "update" outside the Commons Monday from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, this conclusion is inevitable -- then other conclusions also become inevitable.

The first is that the Liberals either did not know, or knew and did not care, when they promised last year to remove Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 jets from "combat" in Iraq and Syria, that this would soon prove to be an empty gesture.

The campaign pledge to end Canada's role in coalition bombardment of ISIL positions -- based on the specious notion that bombing was somehow more aggressive or combative than, say, refuelling or targeting -- did not withstand scrutiny from the get-go.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to replace the CF-18s with more robust ground training, it was pointed out ground training was more dangerous than bombing runs and no less combative. Humanitarian work and training require force protection; force protection requires intelligence; intelligence requires pre-emptive action, which sometimes means bombing.

There can be no effective training of ground troops in a war without accompanying those troops into combat, it was pointed out during the election campaign. This was a central lesson of the Afghan war.

Perhaps because it made so little sense upon examination, the vow to pull the CF-18s was not popular with the majority of Canadians, polls indicated in 2014. But it had a political benefit -- making a vote for the Grits palatable to the more pacifist-minded New Democratic Party voters who were the Liberals' main target in Campaign 2015.

The CF-18 withdrawal reflected a genuine desire on Trudeau's part to keep Canada at some remove from a conflict that had begun with U.S. President George W. Bush's catastrophic decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Likewise the "whole-of-government" approach to Iraq introduced last February, including a boost in humanitarian assistance and a tripling of the size of the special forces contingent, was in keeping with the PM's desire for Canada to have lasting impact on the ground, rather than "just bombing."

The arguments that there is no such thing as "just bombing" in modern warfare, that bombing is precisely targeted, and that it protects allies on the ground, fell on deaf ears. Last winter, when the Liberals could have changed course and left the fighters in place, they chose not to, the political imperative of keeping this signature promise apparently outweighing military considerations.

Yet now Canada is at war outside the city of Mosul, with soldiers on the front lines of what appears to be ISIL's last stand as a wannabe state. And thanks to the lack of independent reports from the theatre of war -- something that can only be done through an embed program -- we know next to nothing about it, beyond the scraps of mission data parcelled out on a government website.

Transparent and accountable? No. This is neither.

Twitter.com/mdentandt



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