NATO moves to expand Canadian-led military training mission in Iraq

NATO defence ministers agreed today to expand the Canadian-led military training mission in Iraq and take over some of the activities currently being carried out by the anti-Islamic State coalition of allies.

Stoltenberg is also talking about taking over duties from the anti-Islamic State coalition

A Canadian special forces soldier, right, speaks with Peshmerga fighters at an observation post Feb. 20, 2017 in northern Iraq. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

NATO defence ministers agreed today to expand the Canadian-led military training mission in Iraq and take over some of the activities currently being carried out by the anti-Islamic State coalition of allies.

The alliance's secretary general, Jen Stoltenberg, made the announcement halfway through the two-day meeting in Brussels. Calling it a decision in principle, he cautioned that the details still need to be worked out and approved by the government in Baghdad.

In the aftermath of the Trump administration's targeted killing of Iranian special forces commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani in January, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding motion calling for the expulsion of foreign troops.

The country's newly appointed prime minister, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, has yet to follow through on the demand and NATO has been hoping it will somehow be exempted from the decision.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference after a meeting of The North Atlantic Council at Ambassadorial level at NATO headquarters in Brussels Jan. 6, 2020. (Virginia Mayo/The Associated Press)

"This is in [the Iraqis'] interest. It is in our interest," Stoltenberg told reporters today following the first day of closed meetings.

"We have to remember what we do there is train the Iraqi forces, to help them, to support them. The aim, of course, is to enable them, to make them better and stronger in the fight against our common enemy ISIS."

Stoltenberg said he has had several conversations with Allawi about "how to make sure ISIS never returns" and remains hopeful the Iraqi government will support the resumption of training and the proposed transfer of responsibilities from the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition to NATO.

'Scaling up and doing more'

"We've had a very good, constructive dialogue with the Iraqi government and we will continue to do so," he added. "We are already in Iraq, but are in close consultation with them about the possibility of expanding, scaling up and doing more."

Stoltenberg said he could not state when the NATO trainers — some of whom were moved out of Iraq in the immediate aftermath of Soleimani's killing — will be able to get back to work. Their activities were suspended in response to threats of Iranian retaliation.

The training mission was already somewhat constrained prior to the killing because of months of general unrest throughout Iraq, which included street protests over corruption and Iranian influence within the Baghdad government.

It's also not clear which "activities" would be transferred over to NATO from the anti-ISIS coalition, or whether that would require other countries, including Canada, to bolster their troop commitments.

The secretary-general said he'll meet in the coming days with coalition leaders to determine what is feasible before presenting an expansion proposal to Allawi's government.

Retired vice-admiral Bob Davidson, who was Canada's military representative in Brussels until 2016, said the pitch to re-brand aspects of the anti-ISIS campaign as a NATO mission could appeal to Iraqis who are still worried about security but eager to see an end to the U.S. presence.

"That could be the negotiation going on in the background to get the Iraqis to agree to keep the mission going," said Davidson. "If [the Iraqis] are hard over on being anti-American and wanting the U.S. out, it would allow them to relabel the mission as not a U.S. mission, but a NATO mission."

It could end up being "a subtle political move,' he said, depending upon how many "activities" the anti-ISIS coalition is planning on giving up.

NATO was called in by the Americans to take over the war in Afghanistan in 2006 as the U.S. occupation of Iraq during that period spiraled out of control.

The decision to draw in the North Atlantic alliance has enormous implications — particularly for Canada, which found itself sucked into a counter-insurgency war with the Taliban in Kandahar, a campaign that ended five years later.

At the moment, Canada has approximately 250 soldiers assigned to the NATO mission in Baghdad, providing headquarters services, security and transport for the nations whose trainers are instructing Iraqis in a myriad of military disciplines.

Stoltenberg met with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan Wednesday and also held private sessions with the British and American defence secretaries.

Sajjan was not available to comment on the outcome of the meeting or on what it could mean for the Canadian presence in Iraq.


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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