The war against ISIS marches on as Canada, allies wonder what Trump will ask of them next

A Canadian general says destroying ISIS has been in the United States' national interest and while presidents change, national interests don't.

'As long as the government of Iraq wants us here, we'll be here,' says Canadian general

Canadian Special Forces troops launch into a mission from a base in Erbil, Iraq, on Nov. 14, 2016 (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The night Donald Trump was elected, Canadian Brig.-Gen. Dave Anderson was at a reception hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

When the results were finalized, the American ambassador gave a short speech to his anxious Iraqi hosts and assured them Washington's commitment to the war-ravaged country is "real and it's long-term."

A little later, Anderson spoke with the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, who told him: "If you look at a problem set through the lens of national interest, the solution doesn't change."

It was a comment that stuck with him as the uncertainty unfolds around the incoming U.S. administration's foreign policy.

"National interest trumps everything," said Anderson, who leads the multi-national liaison team that's helping advise the Iraqi defence ministry.

Because national interests don't change, he said, he believes there's a real commitment from Washington, and right the way through the coalition, to stick it out in Iraq until ISIS is totally defeated and the region is stable.

"We shouldn't see a dramatic change and as long as the government of Iraq wants us here, we'll be here," Anderson told CBC News.

The determination to destroy the extremist group may not be in question, but the stage is set for what could be some pretty brutal policy battles about how that can be accomplished. 

The election of Trump as the next U.S. president has the potential to radically reshape the future of the war against the Islamic State over the long-term.

It will have little influence, in the near-term, on the unfolding, bloody campaign to retake Iraq's second-largest city, said Anderson and other coalition commanders who spoke to CBC News.

A Peshmerga soldier guards an outpost on Zardek Mountain, northwest of Erbil, in northern Iraq. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The direction of the daily, grinding battle in Mosul was set months ago. Trump's election is also not expected to change the plan to encircle and eventually liberate Raqqa, the de facto ISIS capital in Syria.

The Obama administration intended those campaigns to be conducted with a "light footprint" from the Western point of view, utilizing local ground forces, Syrian opposition groups, coalition special forces, as well as western artillery and air power.

But key decisions on how and where to proceed afterwards await the president-elect when he takes over in January.

What will Trump ask of Canada?

Whether Trump agrees with the strategy or wants it changed to include a more robust Western involvement is unclear.

During the U.S. election, Trump threatened to "bomb the hell out of ISIS" and suggested he was prepared to upend the carefully laid military plans.

"I know more about ISIS than the generals do, believe me," Trump said last August. "I'd hit them so hard your head would spin. There's nobody bigger or better at the military than I am."

He promised to send up to 30,000 U.S. troops to the region, but has since backtracked with a pledge to pressure other countries to fight.

The big question for Canada will be whether a Trump administration will demand more than just military training and non-combat support in the next phase of the campaign.

Lt.-Col. Steve Hunter, commander of the Canadian Special Forces Operating Regiment in Iraq on Nov. 14, 2016. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

The Liberal government withdrew Canadian fighter-bombers from the anti-ISIS air campaign last February, but tripled the number of special forces trainers and increased specialized intelligence and surveillance of extremists in Iraq.

Trump has made no secret of the fact he believes allies should pay and do more around the world.

The campaign to liberate Mosul could drag on for months as Iraqi security fight their way, block by block, through the city that once housed two million people.

It is now a warren of rubble, booby traps, roadside bombs and sniper ambush points.

Shadow warfare expected next

Almost every senior military commander on the ground, American, Canadian, Iraqi and Kurdish, is expecting ISIS to revert to a hit-and-run insurgency once Mosul and surrounding villages are cleared.

That presents a problem.

Peshmerga commander wants Canada's help

6 years ago
Duration 0:39
Brigadier Adel Rash, a Peshmerga commander in the region of Zartak Mountain on the outskirts of Mosul, told CBC News that his forces would welcome counter-insurgency training and he wants the Canadians to deliver it.

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

Brig. Adel Rash, a Peshmerga commander in the region of Zartak Mountain on the outskirts of Mosul, told CBC News that his forces would welcome counter-insurgency training and he wants the Canadians to deliver it.

"We are in need of training courses," he said in an interview. "When ISIS activity changes to an insurgency, I need to be prepared."

Whether the Trudeau government, with its planned return to peacekeeping and deployment of a battle group in eastern Europe, is interested in such an ongoing commitment is unclear.

Judging by federal budget documents, the Liberals have given themselves the option of pulling the plug next year.

Only $41.9 million has been set aside for the operation in Iraq in 2017-18, two-thirds less than what is being spent this year.

But now, one has to ask: Will Donald Trump allow Canadians to leave without consequence?


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, 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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