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Alberta Diary

djclimenhaga's picture
David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Circumstances of Canadian soldier's death in Iraq strongly suggest Harper government is lying

| March 9, 2015
Jason Kenney

The circumstances surrounding the death of a Canadian special-forces soldier in Iraq are important because they strongly suggest the Harper Government has been lying to Canadians about what our troops are doing in that country.

Whether Canadian soldiers should be in Iraq is a policy question Canadians are entitled to argue about, but there is nothing improper about the Canadian Forces serving abroad -- even in dangerous and potentially lethal fights -- if the Canadian government has determined their presence is appropriate and in the country's interest.

Likewise, whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are making the right choices about the security and interests of Canada is a political question we are also entitled to argue about, but since his party has a majority in Parliament it is impossible to claim it does not have the right to make such decisions, at least if it brings them before the House of Commons.

Nor can we as citizens of a democracy expect to be privy to every detail of our armed forces' operations abroad. Operational secrecy must be maintained in a war zone for the protection of our soldiers and the success of our war aims, whether the war in question has been formally declared or is a murkier affair like the situation in Iraq right now.

What we do have a right to expect from our government as citizens of a democracy -- indeed, what we must be able to expect -- is a clear and forthright explication by the government of the nature and objectives of our country's military activities and interventions abroad.

This is especially true when a national consensus is lacking on whether the military action in question is appropriate or likely to achieve the government's claimed objectives.

The Harper Government has argued that Islamic State militants present a threat to Canada, a sentiment with which most Canadians appear to agree. These public concerns about the involvement of Canadian volunteers to ISIS and what they might do in future given the group's apparent ideology are legitimate, despite the rather unsavoury attempts by the Harper Government to use them as a political fund-raising tool.

Whether fighting ISIS in Iraq is a particularly effective way to make Canada safer is another matter, but the elected Canadian Government is acting within its ambit to make such a calculation.

Accordingly, the government has sent Royal Canadian Air Force fighter-bombers to the region, with the apparent support of a majority of Canadians, and reasonably straightforward goals -- stop ISIS -- even if legitimate questions can be asked about the effectiveness of bombing campaigns in fights that are likely only to be won by troops on the ground.

It doesn't appear, though, that the Harper Government has misled us about this part of the mission -- except perhaps by omission in the matter of how precision-guided bombs are targeted.

The real problem has to do with our 69 special-operations soldiers -- a small and oddly specific number -- and what they are doing in Iraq.

After our long , painful and expensive Afghanistan experience, Canadians obviously want no part in a ground war in the Middle East or Asia. We have made this clear, and the government has responded -- against its instincts -- by not remaining in Afghanistan and promising us that Canadian troops will not get involved on the ground in Iraq.

For this reason, the Harper Government has been careful to claim, repeatedly, that the Canadian special-ops soldiers are there as non-combatants to train and advise soldiers of the Kurdish Peshmerga, far behind the front lines of the fight with ISIS.

So what was a party of four Canadian soldiers doing Friday inside the combat zone?

According to the online edition of Stars & Stripes, the official newspaper of the U.S. Armed Forces, the Kurds say the Canadians were returning from Iraq, where they had been "directing airstrikes." The Canadian Forces categorically deny this, Stars & Stripes reports.

However, in the past, Canadian media have reported Canadians do engage in such targeting activity in Iraq.

It is not widely understood by civilians, though, that "directing airstrikes" by aircraft using precision munitions requires the presence of soldiers on the ground very close to where the bombs will fall to "paint" targets with lasers. In other words, well within the combat zone.

So directing airstrikes for Canadian CF-18 fighter-bombers and playing only an advisory and training role far from the front are by definition incompatible missions. The Canadian government knows this.

As for Defence Minister Jason Kenney's claim that since the Canadians were near an observation post 200 metres behind the front line they were therefore not on the front line, this is simply not credible.

The operational range of a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a weapon ISIS soldiers are often photographed carrying, is approximately 400 metres.

Furthermore, as any student of military history knows, front lines move. Sometimes very quickly. Indeed, that’s the whole idea! That's why they’re called the front.

Finally, as everyone involved in this incident seems to agree, the fatal bullets were fired toward the front line by a Peshmerga unit that mistook the Canadians for ISIS fighters.

In other words, whatever the Canadians were doing, they were obviously not training anyone, but were operating independently at or beyond the front line. The Kurdish explanation that  they were in the battle area "painting" targets for laser-guided bombs seems quite credible.

If so, this goes farther than just a case of over-enthusiastic advisors accompanying the troops they've been training into battle. It is a classic case of mission creep.

Regardless, there is no common sense way to describe troop movements within a few metres of an active front line as anything but a combat role. The Canadian Armed Forces certainly know this and they have surely communicated it to the government.

At best, the government is depending on civilian ignorance of military affairs to intentionally mislead us. The suggestion you are not in a combat zone if there's shooting going on and you're 200 metres inside the effective range of the world's most common assault rifle is preposterous.

All this very strongly suggests the Canadian government is lying to us. And if they're lying about this, what else are they lying to us about?

Ukraine? Last month Kenney said Canada is considering sending trainers and advisers to that country too. Should we be reassured by his promise they "would be far out of harm's way"?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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