Canada’s Military Role in Iraq

(Disponible en français : Le rôle militaire du Canada en Iraq)

Source: Canadian Forces Combat Camera

On 11 July 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the Canadian Armed Forces would be assuming the leadership of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) training mission in Iraq. As part of Operation IMPACT, the mission is intended to complement the Canadian Armed Forces’ contributions to the Global Coalition Against Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State).

Canada’s military efforts in Iraq are being carried out in a complex security environment in which the Iraqi state is still consolidating control over both its territory and armed groups. There is much work to be done through military training and capacity building as Iraq works to neutralize remaining pockets of ISIS insurgents. Even so, analysis emphasizes that Iraq’s long-term peace and stability will hinge on intercommunal reconciliation and governance reforms.

Operation IMPACT

The Canadian Armed Forces became involved in Iraq in August–September 2014, at a time when ISIS was seizing control of Iraqi territory and establishing an extremist caliphate. The first Canadian intervention saw the Royal Canadian Air Force deliver military supplies to security forces in Baghdad and Erbil.

Since then, Canada has, among other initiatives in Iraq and the wider region, provided aerial refuelling, conducted aerial surveillance, collected and analyzed intelligence for Coalition forces, and operated a facility that provided medical and surgical care to those forces. Canadian combat engineers have also trained Iraqi security forces on countering explosive threats.

Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets flew sorties between 30 October 2014 and 15 February 2016. They carried out their first combat airstrike against an ISIS target on 2 November 2014. On 30 March 2015, the aerial mission expanded into Syria.

Today, up to 850 Canadian Armed Forces personnel are authorized to serve in Operation IMPACT.  It was recently extended until the end of March 2021.

The Kurdish Issue

Canada’s special forces were deployed in increasing numbers to carry out an advise-and-assist mission in northern Iraq during the fight against ISIS. According to a media report, those activities were “temporarily suspended” in October 2017 in the wake of skirmishes between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and those acting under the authority of the Iraqi state.

Those clashes had been triggered by a 25 September 2017 referendum on Kurdish independence. There are long-standing disputes between the Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad concerning territorial boundaries within Iraq (i.e., the extent of Kurdish territory) and the distribution of oil revenues.

The referendum was condemned by Baghdad, along with Iran, Turkey and the United States. In October 2017, Iraq’s government moved to retake the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields. The forces deployed by the Iraqi state against the Kurds reportedly included Shia militias.

Kirkuk is at the heart of what is known as Iraq’s “disputed territories.” The Peshmerga had occupied and defended the area in 2014 when ISIS was pushing through northern Iraq.

In response to questions on these issues, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, told a parliamentary committee in December 2018 that, when Iraqi and Coalition efforts were focused on the battle for Mosul and the surrounding area in northern Iraq, Canada was partnering “with select Iraqi security force units—all of which were carefully vetted.” He further indicated during the meeting that Canadian forces were presently “conducting security operations with Kurdish forces within the area defined as Kurdistan.”

In 2016, the Canadian government indicated that it would provide some $10 million in small arms, ammunition and optical sights to Kurdish forces in Iraq. Owing to the political developments within the country, those supplies were reportedly never delivered. In November 2018, the House of Commons was informed that the lethal equipment is being stored in Montreal, and the non-lethal equipment is in a warehouse in Jordan.

The New NATO Mission

At their July 2018 Summit in Brussels, the NATO leaders framed the objective of the new non-combat training and capacity building mission as helping Iraq to develop a “professional and accountable security sector” so as to ensure “the stability of the country and the wider region,” as well as the security of NATO states.

Canada’s contribution of up to 250 personnel to NATO Mission Iraq includes Major-General Dany Fortin, who is commanding an overall force of some 580 NATO personnel. Other partners that have been identified include Australia, Finland and Sweden.

Canada assumed command of the NATO mission in November 2018. The Prime Minister initially committed Canada to a one-year deployment. However, on 26 June 2019, it was announced that Canada’s command will continue until November 2020, with responsibility for it transferring in Fall 2019 to Brigadier-General Jennie Carignan.

As the mission was being developed, NATO’s Secretary-General indicated that it would focus on training Iraqi instructors and developing Iraq’s military schools. The mission, which includes NATO civilian personnel, also has advisors working with officials from Iraq’s Ministry of Defence and Office of the National Security Advisor. Specific training needs that were identified include:

  • improvised explosive device neutralization;
  • civil-military planning;
  • armoured vehicle maintenance; and
  • military medicine.

The Canadian government’s 2018 announcement regarding the new NATO mission did not elaborate on the specific elements of the Iraqi security forces that would receive training. Some observers have raised concerns about the involvement of Iraq’s militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, in the country’s efforts to defeat ISIS and provide security in reclaimed territory. Then-Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s March 2018 decree, which aimed to formalize state control over the militias, reportedly gave them access to Iraq’s military institutes and colleges, while also subjecting them to the laws of military service.

When speaking to parliamentarians in December 2018 about Canada’s existing advise-and-assist mission in northern Iraq, General Vance said that the Canadian military had never worked with the Popular Mobilization Forces and that he had given “orders that we would be entirely deconflicted with anything that they were involved with.” At the same time, General Vance indicated that “it is up to the Government of Iraq … to decide on its go-ahead relationship [with the Popular Mobilization Forces]. It’s not up to us.”

In an interview in August 2018, Major-General Fortin had said that the NATO training mission will work with individuals who are “under the direct and effective control of the government of Iraq only.”

Security Sector Assistance: Lessons Learned?

Decades of security force assistance, including the long U.S. engagements in Vietnam and Afghanistan, have been analyzed for their successes, failures and lessons. Programs designed to build security force capacity are generally intended to ensure that the burden of agency rests with local forces, rather than foreign armies. The idea is also to help build security conditions that will endure after foreign forces have been reduced or withdrawn.

Academic analysis points to the importance of the recipient country’s political leadership and governance practices, and the partner country’s realism about that context. It is not, therefore, a simple matter of providing arms and equipment and teaching people how to use them.

Additional Resources

Allison Goody, “Iraq after ISIS,” HillNote, Library of Parliament, July 2019.

Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress, Operation Inherent Resolve, January 1, 2019–March 31, 2019, Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, 7 May 2019.

Mara Karlin, “Why Military Assistance Programs Disappoint: Minor Tools Can’t Solve Major Problems,” Foreign Affairs, Volume 96, Issue 6, November/December 2017.

Stephen Biddle, Julia Macdonald and Ryan Baker, “Small footprint, small payoff: The military effectiveness of security force assistance,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 41, Nos. 1–2, February 2018.

Author: Allison Goody, Library of Parliament

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