Before Canada goes too far into Iraq, remember Libya, Afghanistan

Before our current mission in Iraq, the last two military operations Canada undertook abroad have been followed by the violent rise of ISIS jihadism in these same conflict zones, Brian Stewart writes. He is referring to Libya and Afghanistan.

Ottawa was warned, before the Libya mission, that that country would descend into civil war

Canadian Lieutenant-General Jonathan Vance, Commander of Canadian Joint Operation Command, holds a technical briefing on combat strikes against the so-called Islamic State in November 2014. Canada's military intelligence had reportedly warned the Harper government in March 2011 that Libya would descend into a lengthy civil war if our planes and other Western bombers helped crush dictator Moammar Gadhafi's regime. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

It is sobering to reflect that before our current mission in Iraq, the last two military operations undertaken abroad by Canada have been followed by the violent rise of the black flag of ISIS jihadism in these same conflict zones.

That's in both Libya and now, even, Afghanistan. Not an encouraging record.

It's another sign these days that Canada rarely seems to anticipate the depths of chaos that it's wading into when it unleashes our CF-18s and other combat units on far-flung wars and insurgencies we know very little about.

We plunge in, it seems, even when our own military warns of dire consequences.

Just last week it was revealed by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper that Canada's military intelligence had warned the Harper government in March 2011 that Libya would descend into a lengthy civil war if our planes and other Western bombers helped crush dictator Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

And that was precisely what happened. Following a sage warning that was not made public at the time and was obviously not absorbed by cabinet, the government chose to bomb, and bomb big.

As our government had few diplomatic eyes in Libya back then, and without our own foreign intelligence service, Ottawa depended on the best guesses of British and American intelligence to make its call.

Sometimes, alas, these best bets don't work out.

'Free Libya. Democracy'

The U.S. NATO leader overseeing the Libyan airstrike, Admiral James Stavridis, insisted any concerns about Islamic extremists benefiting from the rebellion were minimal, as the opposition to Gadhafi were "responsible men and women."

Our fired-up foreign minister at the time, John Baird scribbled "Free Libya. Democracy" on one of our bombs before it was dropped on Gadhafi's crumbling forces.

Whatever befell Libya, Baird predicted, "wouldn't be any worse than Col. Gadhafi."

This struck some observers as a rather sudden conversion given Canada had been steadily enhancing its diplomatic and especially business links to Gadhafi's notorious regime for most of a decade.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper gets a tour of Canada's CF-18s in Italy in September 2011, in the midst of the UN-sponsored no-fly-zone, bombing campaign in Libya. (The Canadian Press)

In any event, the 8,000 bombing missions —10 per cent of them Canadian — can hardly be said to have brought democracy to a free Libya.

Far more accurate to say it helped unleash a nightmarish civil war and murderous anarchy on a nation that still lacks a stable government four years later.

ISIS advances

In today's Libya, two rival rebel factions, backed by coalitions of violent militias, are fighting for control of the country and its oil fields, and no amount of UN peace efforts has managed to halt its descent into chaos.

Notwithstanding the proud ceremonial reception that the prime minister accorded the Libya mission on Parliament Hill two years ago, that country remains just the kind of collapsing state that ISIS preys upon.

We now have seen the ISIS handiwork there in a video-taped round of brutal mass executions of 21 Christians late last month.

Last weekend it launched a new series of attacks on the country's once vital oil fields, killing petro-workers and seizing foreigners as captives.

ISIS is believed to be attacking in three areas of Libya, and have captured much of the historic city of Sirte.

ISIS's move into Libya has alarmed Western governments, of course, but what they are just as concerned about is that the extremists have suddenly become active in war-torn Afghanistan.

Now the so-called Islamic State's Afghan connection is even causing Washington to reconsider ending its planned troop reduction there this summer, according to new Defence Secretary Ashton Carter.

Thousands of U.S. soldiers may remain to face the new threat.

Challenging the Taliban?

At the moment, U.S. special forces are working with Afghan troops to target emerging ISIS factions in at least four provinces.

Last month a joint strike killed the main ISIS recruiter in the south, a former Taliban commander who had defected to the more extreme jihadist force.

We're on their side: Iraqi security forces and Shia militia clash with Islamic State militants north of Baghdad earlier this week. (Reuters)

Analysts had long questioned whether ISIS could make inroads within an insurgency dominated by the Taliban and al-Qaeda, from which it had once split.

But the wealth and material ISIS apparently gained from its fighting in Iraq and Syria, may be proving influential in a country like Afghanistan, which is still devastated by war and insecurity.

Radio Free Afghanistan is reporting that ISIS recruitment is strong enough to alarm local mullahs even in the remote mountainous regions in the east and north, and is provoking growing demands by Afghan clerics to confront the black-flag waving newcomers.

"They are training children to use weapons and when they come to the village, they spend their own money," Abdul Khaleq Norzai, a district governor of Farah province, said. " If something costs 10 afghanis they pay 20 afghanis for it."

While it remains unlikely that ISIS can seriously threaten the Taliban's long established lead in the Afghan insurgency, that country's vast opium production, by far the world's largest, presents a huge target for it to try to control, presumably with its usual mix of terror and bribery.

Russia, which struggles with its own drug problem, claims ISIS is now a major part of the long heroin smuggling trail through the Middle East and Balkans into Europe.

It is a trade that is said to earn the jihadists an estimated $1 billion a year in illegal profits.

There's a good chance, of course, that ISIS will overstep its capabilities in the highly confused and fragmented rebellions in both Libya and Afghanistan.

Other movements will surely oppose their extreme and vengeful form of Wahhabism (they make even the brutal Taliban seem restrained by comparison).

But who anymore can confidently predict the outcome?

Military analysts are a good deal more cautious in predicting anything these days, and it must be said Ottawa's record of forecasting military outcomes in the decade since 2005 seems to lie somewhere between dubious and fragile.

The prime minister may indeed have a solid case for wanting to extend our air and ground support role in Iraq, one that Parliament should, of course, debate.

But you have to wish we weren't quite so haunted by the legacy of our past well-meaning but overly optimistic forays abroad. 


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.