Battle diary: a Canadian soldier looks back on a year commanding NATO troops in Iraq

Almost a month ago, Canadian Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan bid farewell via video to the NATO troops she had commanded and, in an understated way, said her time in Iraq had come to end after "an eventful year."

Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan was front row centre for some of the most alarming international events of 2020

Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, the former commander of the NATO training mission in Iraq, in a recent interview. (CBC News)

Almost a month ago, Canadian Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan bid farewell via video to the NATO troops she had commanded, saying her time in Iraq had come to end after "an eventful year."

"Eventful" is one very understated way to describe 2020 in a country still riven by sectarian and political violence — where the United States and Iran stepped perilously close to war in the middle of a worsening global pandemic.

Other adjectives might better describe the tumultuous year she spent in charge of the mission to help train and rebuild the Iraqi Army from the rubble and bloodletting of the war against the Islamic State. Words like "precarious" or "chaotic." Maybe even "rewarding."

Carignan's farewell address to NATO troops at the end of November was a distillation both of the officer and the person: precise, gracious and somewhat restrained.

She had a front row seat for some of the most extraordinary and dangerous moments on the international scene in 2020.

So what was it like to sit in her chair?

Lt.-Col. Jennie Carignan, then the commanding officer of the Engineer Regiment of Canada's Task Force Kandahar, speaks to area resident Yar Mohammad about a retaining wall project near his village along the Tarnak River in the Dand Distrct of Kandahar province on August 12, 2010. (Dene Moore/The Canadian Press)

A lot is riding on the western military alliance's bid to stabilize Iraq.

Throughout 2020, Carignan tried to hold the NATO mission together in the face of a threatened war with Iran, the risk of foreign troops being expelled from Iraq and the anxiety and confusion of the coronavirus pandemic.

Canada commanded that high-profile NATO deployment for two years, an important international engagement for the Liberal government that ended quietly and inconspicuously with Carignan's return home, along with more than 200 other soldiers who had run the Baghdad headquarters and provided security.

In an interview with CBC Radio's The House airing today, Carignan recounted some of her experiences in Iraq — including her fear that some Iraqis might turn on NATO trainers in the aftermath of the United States' high-profile targeted killing of an Iranian general.

Touching on some of the key dates of the mission, she presented a nuanced, personal battle diary (of sorts) — and a unique perspective on an extraordinarily dangerous year.

As the head of NATO’s training mission in Iraq, Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan had a front row seat to some of the most extraordinary and dangerous moments on the international scene in 2020. What was it like to sit in her chair as she tried to hold the NATO mission together in the face of a potential war with Iran, possible expulsion from Iraq and a global pandemic? The CBC's Murray Brewster spoke with her about some of the key moments, giving us a glimpse into her battle diary. 9:14

Nov. 26, 2019

This is the day Carignan took command of NATO Training Mission Iraq (NTMI) from another Canadian, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin. She said she was aware that she was stepping into "a well established mission" involving alliance troops helping to train Iraq Army trainers and advising the country's ministry of defence.

An engineer by profession with two masters degrees and a veteran of multiple deployments — including a combat tour of Afghanistan — Carignan said the magnitude of her new responsibilities settled on her that morning before the handover ceremony.

Canadian Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin handed over command of the NATO Mission in Iraq to fellow Canadian Maj-Gen. Jennie Carignan at a transfer ceremony held at Union III Military Base in Baghdad on Nov. 26. (NATO)

"Earlier in my career as a young officer on previous deployments, I remember looking at these generals leading multinational forces in foreign countries," she said. "And I was always wondering, 'How did they get there?'"

It only started to feel real, she said, the moment she put her signature on the transfer-of-authority documents.

"As you're signing ... the document, you're actually realizing that this has actually happened. It's now official." Carignan said.

She had come to Iraq with a clear set of ideas about how to improve the mission.

Jan. 3, 2020

The U.S. drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, happened in the very early hours at the Baghdad airport.

"I was in bed and, like many times during this deployment, somebody came knocked at my door, woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me what had just happened," said Carignan. 

What followed was a confusing few hours.

In this Sept. 18, 2016, file photo provided by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, centre, attends a meeting in Tehran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

"Of course, nobody [in the NATO training mission] was in the loop that this was going to happen," Carignan said. "Initially, we were not quite sure what had happened because we went onto the news feeds." 

The headquarters for the U.S.-led coalition that is still hunting the remnants of the Islamic State was across the compound from Carignan's command post, and it was through American commanders that she gained a clearer understanding of what had happened.

"At that moment, I definitely realized that nothing would be the same anymore — that we were in a very precarious situation," she said. 

Military life, especially command, is all about planning and gaming out scenarios. Carignan said she'd actually given a lot of thought to how the death of a prominent Iranian figure like Soleimani in Iraq might affect her mission.

"I wargamed a few scenarios and somehow — although I had no idea that this was actually going to happen — this is one of the scenarios that I ran through my head prior to this actually happening," she said.

Mourners carry the coffins of slain Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani and eight others inside the Shrine of Imam Hussein in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala during a funeral procession on January 4, 2020. (Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)

Killed along with Soleimani was the deputy chairman of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and commander of the Iran-backed militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

It was, for Carignan, almost breathtaking.

"This caused a lot of relationships to change in Iraq."

Jan. 5, 2020

This was the day the Iraqi parliament voted to end the presence of foreign troops in the country. For Carignan, it was "one of the most difficult days of the mission."

It seemed that no one within NATO and coalition command — or the Iraqi government, for that matter — knew whether that non-binding resolution applied to the international training mission.

"It was difficult because there was a sense that we were at a crossroads of the mission termination," she said. "So of course, if NATO is not welcome in Iraq anymore ... what this resolution meant [was] that we didn't have a mission anymore."

Iranians set a U.S. and an Israeli flag on fire during a funeral procession organized to mourn the slain military commander Qassem Soleimani, Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and other victims of a U.S. attack in the capital Tehran on January 6, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

Particularly in the wake of al-Muhandis's killing, there was a palpable fear in the mission that some of their Iraqis students might turn on them.

"We had to organize for putting troops to safety to make sure that we were not in the situation where troops were not well protected," Carignan said. "The level of risk also increased on the camp itself, because there was a potential threat ... [from] Iraqis in targeting our own forces."

Within an hour of the vote, huddled with staff over her dining room table, she sketched out a plan to evacuate the bulk of the troops doing the training of Iraqis trainers.

"I remember being on the phone with my boss while under rocket attack at the same time," Carignan said. "Within 24 hours, we basically had put our troops to safety."

Jan 8, 2020

With surging crowds in Tehran chanting "death to America," Iran struck back with a barrage of ballistic missiles fired at U.S.-operated bases north of Baghdad and in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Once again, Carignan was roused from sleep in the middle of the night.

"What went through my mind is, definitely, thank God we put the troops out to safety," she said. "We did the right thing. Where is this going to go next?"

She didn't have to wait long to find out. Within hours of the missile strikes, news began to filter through that a Ukrainian jetliner — Flight 752 — had crashed in Iran.

"We were tracking this live as this was happening," Carignan said, referring to international newsfeeds. "And again ... this is a terrible event, but definitely a huge mistake on the Iranian side, a military, a strategic failure ... a human tragedy."

Mourners console each other during a vigil for the victims of Ukrainian Airlines flight 752at Mel Lastman Square in Toronto, Jan. 9, 2020. (AFP via Getty Images)

Like any good commander would in a crisis, Carignan spent much of that day trying to get a read on the situation from her staff members, who were themselves scrambling to keep up with events. 

"I had a very very small office, so we had the couch outside ... where folks could wait until they get to meet with the people." she said. "And often I sat on that couch, intercepting people as they came in and out for various discussions. I sat a lot on that couch as I was trying to make sense of the events."

Carignan had been sent there to train the Iraqis. Suddenly, everything seemed to be unravelling.

"I was in the mindset now that we might be, you know, looking at mission termination," she said. "And the next thing that came up to my mind is ... we still have to give this a try. This might be the end of an escalation."

She was right.

March 11, 2020

The troops Carignan had sent out of harm's way in January slowly trickled back in early March as the U.S. and Iran took a step back from war.

Late on the same day, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Carignan was in her office. A barrage of rockets had been fired at one of the NATO training centres.

News of the pandemic went off like a bomb and Carignan said she realized she had to take swift action.

"We basically had to collapse our train-the-trainers activities in our satellite sites outside of Baghdad starting on the 11th of March," she said. "We had to take specific actions and adapt to the pandemic context. So they had to cease training for a while to protect the force. They had to operate differently."

The sense of apprehension in the mission returned. Facing an invisible enemy, Carignan realized she "could not forecast exactly how this was going to turn out."

People shop in preparation for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (Hadi Mizban/AP)

March 19, 2020

On this day, Carignan had to make a decision. Would the troops that had just returned stay or go?

Could the mission — so crucial to Iraq's struggle against terrorism — be saved?

"Troops who had just barely come back in Iraq, after two to three weeks I had to resend back home," she said.

Again sitting on the couch outside her office, Carignan had to make peace with the reality of both Iraq and the pandemic.

No training was taking place, although the work of advising the Iraqi defence ministry continued on a limited basis. With its work at a virtual standstill, the mission was losing both ground and time.

"I had to tell myself, 'OK, enough.' We just have to start doing things differently," Carignan said. 

"You don't have control over these situations that are going to unfold …There's not much point in wasting time in complaining as to why things are not working."

She presented NATO with a series of recommendations on how to deal with the instability generated by Solemani's killing and the pandemic. Senior commanders snapped up her ideas.

Oct. 31, 2020

It would take months for the mission to crawl back through the haze of pandemic restrictions to where it had been prior to the killing of Soleimani in January.

A point of personal pride for Carignan is the fact the NATO mission did not record a single case of COVID-19 until September, and the disease remained tightly confined within the mission.

By the end of October, she was setting up an expanded, more ambitious mission for a Danish general to take over.

"I learned that we have to stop worrying about the situation [that is in front us] and we need to concentrate on what it is that we actually control, which is what we do and how we react to two particular events and situations," she said.

Nov. 24, 2020

Carignan relinquished mission command to Lt.-Gen. Per Pugholm Olsen of the Danish Armed Forces.

Back in Canada and ready for a new assignment, she said she is still processing the experience.

"I definitely grew as a person," Carignan said. "Of course, you always come back changed from our expeditionary missions because we are confronted with cultures … very different from our own.

"I will need a little bit more time, I think, to revisit everything that happened because I was very much focused on making things happen. But now I'll be able to take a little bit of a step back and reflect a little bit on everything."


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.

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