OTTAWA – The country’s new defence minister opened the door Wednesday to expanding the Canadian training mission in Iraq beyond just teaching Kurdish peshmerga fighters, saying the soldiers will go where it makes sense and where they can have the greatest impact.
Harjit Sajjan told The Canadian Press in an interview that options for the Trudeau government’s beefed-up commitment to the campaign against the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are still being formulated, but it’s clear some of the boundaries put in place by the previous government are either going to be removed or relaxed.
“I’m spending a lot of time making sure we get this right so that we have meaningful options for the training mission,” he said.
The former Conservative government chose to align itself with the Kurds, who operate in a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq and have shown the most willingness to battle extremists.
Sajjan says he’s talking with the U.S.-led coalition on where Canadian troops would be of most use, but would not rule out expanding the training mission to include conventional army units and Iraqi forces in the country’s south.
“I’m open to looking at all the different options,” said Sajjan, who did three tours in Afghanistan and one in the Balkans, as a reserve officer.
“I’m looking at where Canada can contribute as part of the coalition fight. I’m not looking at just from the Kurds perspective, or the Iraqi perspective, I’m looking at how we can have a meaningful contribution.”
Sajjan was not prepared to discuss numbers of troops — or timelines. He was confident, however, that if Canadians are going to help train Iraqi forces they will avoid getting sucked into the sectarian tensions that have plagued the American effort to organize an effective force.
Canadians have a proven track record of winning the confidence and respect of those they train, he said.
“I wouldn’t say it weighs on my mind. It is a factor we have to be mindful of, but this is something we, as Canadians, have experience with,” he said. “We have the right experience to manage those well.”
Retired lieutenant general Stuart Beare, the country’s former overseas commander, has said Canada would be wise to concentrate its expanded effort with the Kurds, where relationships and trust already exist. But he also says the U.S.-led coalition, including Canada, will soon have to come to grips with the need to accompany the newly trained troops on operations.
Canadian special forces and some U.S. units are spending time at the front and two soldiers — one Canadian and one American — have died.
Sgt. Andrew Doiron, originally from Moncton, N.B., was killed last March in a friendly fire incident involving Kurdish fighters. His death, and the fact Canadians were helping guide air strikes for the Kurds, prompted a heated debate about whether the country was involved in ground combat.
Sajjan was more cautious about whether an expanded ground mission would allow Canadian trainers to leave the classroom and follow their students on operations, as happened in Afghanistan.
He suggested the Iraqis and the Kurds first need to learn basic soldiering before there’s consideration of risky, on-the-job mentoring.
“We can’t even talk about accompanying yet until we look at the training piece and making sure they come up to speed. That is first and foremost … before we consider anything further,” he said.