Battle for Mosul will shape Canada's ground commitment in Iraq

Canada's military mission in Iraq will "absolutely" continue through 2017, says the defence minister. But Harjit Sajjan added that the size and the scope have yet to be determined and will be shaped by the outcome of the battle for Mosul.

Anti-ISIS coalition members meeting in London to review progress and chart their future course

Canadian special forces launch a mission from a base in Erbil, Iraq, on Nov. 14, 2016 (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Canada will continue to have a military mission in Iraq through 2017, but the size and scope of it have yet to be determined, the country's defence minister said in advance of an international meeting with allies battling ISIS.

Defence planners have been spinning various scenarios for months, but the Liberal government committed — when it overhauled the mission against ISIS last February — to reviewing the deployment of special forces, helicopters, surveillance planes, an air-to-air refueling jet and a military field hospital.

The assessment is due by March of next year, but the last budget numbers put before Parliament have set aside only $41 million for the operation, less than one-third of what's being spent in the current budget year.

'We need to make sure that troops we have trained are up to the level where they can hold the gains they have [made].' - Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan

Earlier in the fall, the country's operations commander, Lt.-Gen. Steve Bowes, said the military had been given orders, but its "posture is not oriented towards" an extended mission.

Asked on Wednesday whether the military commitment would continue, Sajjan told CBC News: "Absolutely."

Iraqi security forces are still involved in the battle to retake Mosul, the country's second-largest city, from deeply entrenched ISIS fighters. Iraqi forces are being aided by Canadian and allied special forces soldiers, who are providing not only advice, but covering fire.

"We need to make sure that troops we have trained are up to the level where they can hold the gains they have [made]," Sajjan told CBC News.

Whether the Kurds and the Iraqis can effectively provide security is a fundamental question and consideration, he said.

"We entered when Iraqi security forces couldn't hold the ground and do what they are supposed to do. So, the last thing you want to do is just leave without making sure you've answered that question."

Teaching new lessons

If you listen to the Kurds, whom Canadians have been training since the fall of 2014, the answer is they need a different kind of support once Mosul has been cleared of extremists.

One of the Kurdish Peshmerga commanders taking part in the battle, Brig. Adel Rash, recently made a pitch to Canada's deputy commander of special forces for specialized training in counter-insurgency warfare.

The training Canadian special forces have provided to the Kurds thus far involves traditional combat skills, not the intelligence-driven shadow warfare that characterized the decade-long combat commitment in Afghanistan.

Most military planners, including many at the Pentagon, expect ISIS to revert to a guerrilla war once it has been driven out of Mosul.

"We are in need of training courses," Rash said in an interview with CBC News. "ISIS activity is changing towards an insurgency and we need to be prepared. We expect Canadians to play a good role."

A CH-146 Griffon lands in a field northwest of Erbil. The helicopter detachment is a recent addition to Canada's mission in Iraq. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Government ministers from countries taking part in the campaign to defeat ISIS will get an update on where the fight could be headed at a meeting in London on Thursday.

Sajjan was asked whether he is laying groundwork within the Liberal government for an extended mission that would involve preparing the Kurds for a guerrilla war, in much the same fashion that Canada trained Afghan forces to take on the Taliban.

He left the door open to that possibility.

"The goal is always to eliminate the threat," Sajjan said. "That is the goal, but we will have to assess, at the time, what is needed."

A liberated Mosul will need police forces, reconstruction and development to get back on its feet, and those will be major considerations in the upcoming assessment, he added.

If it is any indication, military engineers recently put the finishing touches on a semi-permanent military camp in Erbil, which houses different elements of the mission.

Major construction only started in June and some barracks just opened last month at the $3.75-million centre.

According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canadian special forces are in Iraq to train and "empower" against ISIS, but it's not playing out that way. CBC's Murray Brewster, embedded with the troops, says he saw them doing much more than that. 11:30

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.