A plan for Canadian soldiers to command a NATO training mission in Iraq later this year is a natural evolution from the kinds of training the military has been doing with Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers for more than a year, experts say.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kicked off the first day of the 2018 NATO Summit by announcing 250 Canadian troops will deploy to Baghdad to lead the alliance’s training mission for Iraqi soldiers starting this fall.
The move in Iraq, along with Tuesday’s announcement that Canada will extend its mission in Latvia, are being billed as preemptive strikes against the volley of attacks U.S. President Donald Trump has taken to hurling at NATO allies of late.
While the deployment is only scheduled to last one year, it will build on some of the training already provided by Canadian and allied soldiers during the fight against ISIS.
“It is very much complementary, even an extension of Canada’s current efforts in Iraq,” said Stefanie von Hlatky, an associate professor of political studies at Queen’s University who focuses on military affairs and alliances.
“What is significant is the command element, under the NATO banner.”
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Von Hlatky, who is currently in Brussels at the NATO Summit, added that the additional commitment to the mission enhances Canada’s stature and visibility within the alliance.
That’s particularly significant given Trump’s past criticism both of Trudeau and Canada’s overall levels of defence spending, which are not on track to hit the target investment of two per cent that NATO members have agreed to strive for by 2024.
“Still, the Canadian Armed Forces are well positioned to take this on after several years of active engagement in Iraq, primarily through the U.S. Global Coalition against Daesh ,” she said.
Canada first deployed combat jets to Operation Impact, the military operation against ISIS, in Iraq in 2014 and expanded that mission to Syria in 2015.
Trudeau pulled out the jets in 2016 and instead pivoted the mission mandate to one focused on training, advising and assisting.
That change saw 200 Canadian special forces on the ground in Iraq to help train Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers.
“That was very hands-on, direct soldiering at a very proficient tactical level, but it was more about infantry tactics,” said David Perry, vice president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, who is also in Brussels for the summit.
“It’s going to be higher end sort of specialized training, so things like military policing, combat engineering and explosive ordnance disposal.”
Part of the training mission under Operation Impact also included training Iraqi forces with bomb disposal, given ISIS had rigged many of the cities it was forced to abandon with improvised explosive devices.
The training under the NATO mission will complement those efforts and take place not on the front lines or even near them.
Instead, the troops will be based at a NATO training facility in Baghdad, Perry said.
“So a set facility where you have trainers, you have troops that cycle through a facility,” he said.
“What the special forces folks were doing was dynamic, moving around with people in small units beyond lines of communication and support.”
So far, Canada has not come under direct attack from Trump at the summit but whether that will continue is unclear.
There is still another day of meetings scheduled for leaders in Brussels and if the G7 Summit is any model, personal attacks from the president remain a possibility, even after the official functions wrap up.
But for allies, fear of Trump’s frequent personal attacks may be fading.
“I think at this point, I would imagine that for a lot of the allies, the president’s shtick is kind of wearing out,” Perry said.
“I would imagine there’s probably a bit of banding together among the other NATO leadership against Trump,” he said. There’s a sense that even if countries boosted their defence spending, it wouldn’t please Trump. “Even if you accede to this target, there’s any way you would actually mollify the American president and have him stop very publicly criticizing you.”
Already so far at the summit, Trump has accused Germany of being “totally controlled” by and “captive to Russia” over an oil pipeline project set to double the amount of Russian oil coming into Germany.
He has also made repeatedly contradictory comments on defence spending targets, falsely stating both that countries not meeting the two per cent target would need to reimburse the United States for not currently meeting the targets and also that the target needs to be hit by 2025.
The target date is 2024 and it is purely aspirational — there is no penalty for failing to do so.
He has also called for countries to instead spend four per cent of the GDP on defence, something not even the United States does.
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