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Hodgepodge of missions almost makes you yearn for clear-cut days of Afghan fight

By Scott Taylor      

We didn’t win the war in Afghanistan, but those days of purpose and clarity have been replaced with a perplexing set of new challenges for the Canadian military.

A Canadian instructor demonstrates magazine-loading technique to Ukrainian soldiers at the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre in Starychi, Ukraine on Feb. 15. Photograph courtesy of DND
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OTTAWA—From 2002 to 2014 the Canadian military had one primary mission and a singular focus and that was, of course, the mission in Afghanistan. The rotations of contingents into Kandahar became so routine that the Canadian Army constructed a replica of a southern Afghanistan setting at Canadian Forces Base Wainwright for training purposes.

In preparing for their deployments, troops would spend upwards of six months conducting exercises in mock Afghan villages with civilian actors playing the part of Afghans, including pretend local journalists because, as we all know, perception can soon become confused with reality.

We did not win the war in Afghanistan, but those days of purpose and clarity have been replaced with a perplexing set of new challenges for the Canadian military.

We currently have about 200 elite commandos deployed to train Kurds in northern Iraq. These Kurds are battling Daesh (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Islamic State) and this is a good thing. However, the Kurds fly the flag of Kurdistan, and proudly display that same symbol on their uniforms. As a show of soldierly camaraderie, the top-level decision was made to allow Canadian trainers to also wear the bright red, white, and green flag of Kurdistan on their uniforms.

The problem with this practice is that Kurdistan is not a recognized state, and the Canadian government’s stated policy is to support a unified, post-Daesh Iraq (in other words, not an independent Kurdistan).

The Kurds have clearly stated they are fighting to establish their own country and will therefore not submit to the central Iraqi authority that Canada purports to support.

The last Daesh stronghold in Mosul is under an allied siege that, although it may take months yet, will result in a Daesh defeat. At that juncture Canada will have to make some serious choices, as the most likely scenario will see members of the present allied anti-Daesh coalition begin to battle each other for the spoils.

Since the summer of 2015, a contingent of approximately 200 Canadian trainers has been deployed to Ukraine on a mission that was just extended Monday. The rationale for our troops is to boost the capability of the Ukrainian military to resist pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels in the country’s eastern provinces.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been widely condemned for assisting the pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels with the provision of weapons and training.

But the question is: if it is wrong for Putin to take sides in a simmering civil war in Ukraine, even when it is on his doorstep and involves ethnic Russians, how can it be a good thing for Canada to be facilitating a military build-up on the other side of the battle lines? Training and equipping young men to fight does not seem like the smartest path towards a peaceful resolution in any conflict.

Then there is the commitment to put 450 Canadian troops in Latvia on a non-permanent, rotational basis beginning this June. The Canadian contingent is part of a 4,000-strong multinational NATO force intended to deter Russian aggression against Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Estonia. As full-fledged NATO member states, these states have the alliance’s assurance of collective defence.

This virtual handful of NATO combat troops is being described by some as a tripwire, with defence analysts speculating that an actual Russian attack would capture the Baltic states within 60 hours, with or without these 4,000-some allied soldiers. In other words, unless the NATO treaty is not worth the paper it is printed on, we are committed to protecting the liberty of these nations. Having our troops dangle as bait up on the Russian border therefore seems an unnecessary provocation.

Canada does not have an unlimited defence budget and therefore any money spent on building necessary infrastructure to house our contingent in Latvia means infrastructure dollars not spent on upgrading our bases here in Canada.

Then of course there is the long-delayed decision on where to send hundreds of Canadian peacekeepers in Africa. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remains adamant that Canada will send in this force of UN blue helmets, along with a mission budget of $450-million. He just still doesn’t know exactly where or why.

Almost makes one yearn for the good old days of the war in Afghanistan.

Scott Taylor is editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps magazine.

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