OTTAWA — Canadian troops were recently involved in another exchange of fire with extremists in northern Iraq, a skirmish that comes as the U.S. prepares to expand the scope of its special forces missions throughout the region.
A draft resolution before the U.S. Congress would, if passed, authorize “ground combat operations in limited circumstances” and special forces missions targeting leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
That will put pressure on the Harper government as it prepares to renew Canada’s commitment to the combat mission against ISIL, defence experts said Thursday.
Capt. Paul Foget, a spokesman for the country’s joint operations command, refused to provide details Thursday on the latest episode, citing operational security. But Forget did say it was similar to three previous gun battles in which Canadian troops returned fire while visiting the front line during a planning exercise.
There were no Canadian casualties, he said.
“I quite honestly don’t want to get into the details because it is linking events, time and space with our SOF operators, and I really don’t want to make those linkages because for operational security reasons that indicates where they’re operating,” Forget said.
“I would prefer not to go there.”
Since early February, Canada’s CF-18s have conducted 14 airstrikes in support of Iraqi troops, but Forget could not say whether Canadian special forces had facilitated any of those bombing missions, beyond the 13 already announced.
Under the draft resolution U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled Wednesday, American troops would begin formally providing similar, precise combat assistance, instead of just training at secure bases.
But it was the proposal to “take military action against (ISIL) leadership” that caught the attention of defence experts, who say that it is a fundamental, long-awaited shift in strategy.
In the military, the term is called “man-hunting” and it involves commando-style raids aimed not only at enemy commanders, but at their logistics people and possibly financiers as well.
Roland Paris, director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa, said the war against ISIL is starting to look like Operation Enduring Freedom — the counter-terrorism mission the U.S., Canada and allies mounted in southern Afghanistan against the Taliban.
That mission went on largely in the shadows of the bigger deployment of conventional Canadian combat troops, who fought a major counter-insurgency campaign.
“There is some rough parallel with what was taking place in Afghanistan, but obviously the context is very different,” said Paris. “There is no doubt that in Iraq right now it looks a lot more like a counter-terrorism mission.”
And that is where it could get uncomfortable for the Harper government, which has thus far explained the increasing number of firefights by insisting the troops are not engaged in combat and only defending themselves.
Man-hunting missions would change that.
The federal cabinet will have to decide within a few weeks, when the combat mission comes up for renewal, whether it will allow the country’s elite soldiers to participate in those risky, highly surgical strikes.
Steve Day, a former special operations commander, said in an interview that there are only a small, select group of countries with special forces that could conduct such operations along side the U.S.
All of them, including Canada, will be feeling the pressure to step up, he said.
“We can do it, but it will elevate the risk slightly because now you’re either putting helicopters or dismounted troops, vehicle dismounted troops, deeper into the fight, which means there’s always a risk of something going wrong,” he said.
The involvement of a small number of special forces troops would be necessary to make sure the war becomes a “six month, rather than six year” endeavour, he added.