Canadian special forces troops are spending more time at the front lines of northern Iraq and have been involved in several firefights with Islamic State extremists, but new figures suggest their involvement could come to an abrupt halt next year.
National Defence estimates it will spend $305.8 million on the military campaign up to the end of the next budget year.
But the majority of the cash will go out the door in the current fiscal year, with only $41.9 million set aside for 2017-18, something a defence expert says is an indication the Liberals are considering pulling the plug on the mission.
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Brig.-Gen. Peter Dawe refused to discuss specifics, even though some of the information the military might consider critical — regarding the size and scope of the Canadian mission — was quietly tabled in Parliament late last month.
As of Sept. 8, there were 596 Canadians engaged in the campaign against ISIS operating in four different countries, a little more than a quarter of which were taking part in special forces activities.
Dawe said his troops are doing more hands-on advising and assisting of Kurdish fighters than they had been in the past, and they have exchanged fire with extremists at various times over the last several months.
'Until the government decides what it wants to do, the military is going to plan to withdraw.' – Defence analyst Dave Perry
He refused to be drawn into specifics, other than to say there were no Canadian casualties.
"The mission has changed since the spring," Dawe said. "We are more engaged at the line. There should be no doubt about that. And by extension the risk has increased."
The country's operations commander says he fully expects that once the upcoming battle for Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, is over, ISIS extremists will begin a new insurgency campaign.
The Pentagon said much the same thing earlier this week and suggested some Iraqi forces will require further training in guerrilla warfare in the years to come.
Future in question
Whether Canada sticks around next year is an open question that will be debated when the Liberals conduct a review of the mission next March, said Lt.-Gen. Steve Bowes.
While he didn't address the budget numbers, Bowes said the military's "posture is not oriented towards" an extended mission.
Defence analyst Dave Perry, of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said recent commitments of 600 troops for peacekeeping, likely in Africa, and a battle group of 450 soldiers in eastern Europe to counter a resurgent Russia could very well set the stage for Canada's exit from Iraq.
"Until the government decides what it wants to do, the military is going to plan to withdraw," he said. "What those numbers say to me … $41 million seems like withdrawal money."
At least 2,000 Kurdish troops have been put through the Canadian portion of the multinational training program, and Dawe said the U.S.-led coalition has switched from a defensive posture to a more offensive one.
Mosul was overrun by Islamic State extremists in 2014. The coalition, with the help of U.S. air power, has been inching its way up to the city limits, taking villages and high ground that will eventually be useful in clearing the once-thriving centre.
Canadians have helped plan and execute some of those battles, but Bowes said they have not initiated combat and have only returned fire on several occasions to protect themselves or civilians.
"It's the Iraqis that are in combat. Let's be clear on that," he said.
Both Bowes and Dawe refused to provide details about the engagements fought by special forces advisers, citing operational security and warning the Islamic State could use even the smallest fragments of information to predict troop patterns and movements.
They held to that line even though much of the data would be considered out of date and devoid of context.
"We don't want to give them an edge," said Dawe. "We don't want them to know how often we're at the line."
The information blackout stands in stark contrast to previous briefings where the former Conservative government allowed the military to publicize limited details of firefights, including the friendly fire incident that took the life of Sgt. Andrew Doiron in March 2015.
The military was also forthcoming, previously, about helping Kurdish fighters guide in coalition airstrikes on extremist positions.
Dawe conceded on Thursday that assisting in airstrikes has continued, but once again refused to provide details.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper's government faced a political firestorm after the revelations of gun battles and airstrikes. Opposition critics used that to paint a narrative of Canada being involved in combat, contrary to government assurances.
The Trudeau government is even more determined to be seen as avoiding combat, Perry said.
But he added it's unclear to him if political optics are driving the secrecy or whether sanitized information, as the original disclosures were, now present a clear and present danger.
"I don't quite follow why that information was disclosable last winter but no longer is," he said.
The Liberals ended airstrikes last winter and reconfigured the deployment, promising to triple the number of military trainers and intelligence assets, insisting those elements were better suited to the evolving campaign.
The government also added helicopters and will soon deploy a military hospital to help treat wounded Iraqi troops.
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan who met on Thursday with U.S. Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk, highlighted "the importance of sustained coordination and engagement" as the coalition prepares to liberate Mosul.