Were Canadians misled about the mission in Iraq?

Or did we just not know enough?

Canada's PM Harper outlines his government's plan to participate in a military campaign against Islamic State militants

Greetings from London, Ontario, where the Liberal caucus is meeting and where Justin Trudeau had the occasion this afternoon to express his concern with Stephen Harper’s “forthrightness.”

At issue here is the deployment of the Canadian Forces to Iraq and yesterday’s revelations that Canadians are spending some amount of time near the front lines, have directed air attacks and, in one case, exchanged fire with Islamic State fighters. The Canadian Forces argue that this does not constitute engagement in a ground combat operation. But this morning Tom Mulcair said that Mr. Harper had not told the truth when he said Canadians would not be involved in combat and shortly thereafter Mr. Trudeau added his concerns.

The issue today is very much the Prime Minister made some statements in the fall around this mission that turned out today to not have been entirely truthful. And therefore the Prime Minister has some very serious questions to answer.

… I think it’s fairly clear that the Prime Minister established parameters for the mission, that he laid out with great assurance before the House of Commons, and as we found out yesterday have not been respected. I think the Prime Minister owes it to Canadians to be forthright and fulsome in his explanations.

George Petrolekas, formerly of NATO, offers a “reasonable reconstruction” of how Canadian Forces came to be fired upon and Steve Saideman tries to explain the confusion, while my colleague Michael Petrou argues that we’ve been operating with a faulty premise and false distinctions. The Conservatives have responded with a note to supporters and the Defence Minister is defending the right of Canadian Forces to fire back when fired upon.

In his speech to the House, the Prime Minister did say that there would be “no ground combat mission,” but what did we ever know about what special forces members on the ground in Iraq would be doing?

Here is one example—On Sept. 30, Mr. Mulcair tested the parameters in question period over the course of several questions.

Mulcair Mr. Speaker, what are the rules of engagement for the Canadian soldiers currently in Iraq?

Harper Mr. Speaker, the rules are very clear. They are there to advise and assist Iraqi forces in the northern part of the country.

Mulcair Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister said that the rules of engagement are to advise and assist the Iraqis, but the question is: assist them how? For instance, are Canadian soldiers currently going on patrols with Iraqis or Kurds?

Harper Mr. Speaker, I said: advise and assist the Iraqis. If I could just use the terminology in English, it is quite precise. It is to advise and to assist. It is not to accompany. I think that was laid out before the parliamentary committee.

Mulcair Mr. Speaker, are they going into combat zones?

Harper Mr. Speaker, I just said that Canadian soldiers are not accompanying the Iraqi forces into combat.

Mulcair Mr. Speaker, have Canadian Forces assisted in targeting ISIS troops?

Harper Mr. Speaker, once again, as I have said, the purpose of Canadian Forces in Iraq is to assist and to advise the Iraqi forces as they have been resisting, particularly in the north, a force bent on the genocide of the people who live there. These are the actions they are undertaking. While there is some risk, there is not a direct combat role. I say once again, we are very proud of people who do this work on our behalf and keep all of us, not just in that part of the world but all of us here in Canada, safe.

Mulcair Mr. Speaker, is targeting or coordinating attacks by others a combat role? Yes or no.

Harper Mr. Speaker, as you can understand, I neither have the will nor the desire to get into detailed discussions of military operations here. As I have said repeatedly, the Canadian Forces involved in Iraq are not involved in combat. They are there to assist Iraqi and Peshmerga forces who are undertaking combat against a brutal enemy that is intent on their slaughter. We will go there and we will assist them and make sure we stop that kind of problem there and not at our own shores.

We could, perhaps should, spend a lot of time parsing this exchange (and what Canadian Forces have been doing in Iraq). It might at least be noted that the last two questions don’t receive direct answers; and it doesn’t seem those lack of answers inspired much follow-up. And, lo and behold, we now find ourselves haggling over these precise scenarios.

I presume Mr. Harper meant that he didn’t want to discuss battle plans on the floor of the House, but the federal parties now find themselves approaching a detailed discussion of military operations and that that involves any amount of consternation suggests that they should have had that detailed discussion several months ago.

Add this to the evolving discussion around parliamentary oversight and approval of military missions. The government’s current line is that a combat mission must come before the House of Commons for a vote: the current mission qualifying as such because of the aerial bombing this country was to participate in. The previous commitment of special forces to Iraq did not receive a vote because that was not considered to be engaging in ground combat. Now we are looking at a debate about what constitutes combat and what precisely is involved in a mission that otherwise doesn’t include combat. That seems like a very useful discussion to have—most usefully before the House commits to a mission.

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