I have long argued that the Liberal stance to pull out the CF-18s was a campaign promise to appeal to pacifist (NDP) voters, more than a substantial commitment based on Liberal ideology or an evaluation of effectiveness. This stance has gotten much pressure, which is likely to increase with the news that the Canadian Special Operations Forces (CANSOF) were under fire as ISIS attacked the Kurdish base where training is being conducted. I just want to clarify a few things before I run off to pick up my daughter and see the new Star Wars movie.
First, this government is likely to cause itself some trouble, just as the last one did, by trying to define its effort as non-combat. If Canada keeps trainers and actually increases the number of trainers as Trudeau has promised, these folks are training the Kurds and maybe other Iraqis to kill. So, abetting combat. If they keep the Auroras (recon planes) and Polaris (refueling plane), these planes will be supporting combat via the provision of targeting information and the refueling of combat aircraft. There is nothing in Liberal ideology/history that says that combat is something to be avoided when necessary (from an alliance standpoint or a self-defense one), so I see this desire to avoid combat as strange and new. Maybe Justin Trudeau is more of a pacifist than his father or the rest of his party's legacy, but it is a stance that is odd and one that will be hard to defend.
Second, having said that, those that argue that the CF-18s are necessary to protect the CANSOF on the ground are also ignoring history: the history of Canadian ground operations since the Boer War? I am not sure. But in Afghanistan, the most recent example of ground combat, the Canadians did not bring their CF-18s (probably because it would have made the mission even more costly), and relied on air support from the allies. While I have heard murmurings lately that it would have been nice to have had Canadian fighter/bombers in theatre, I did not hear that over the course of the mission. The Canadians never had the Dutch experience of asking for air support and then losing a pivotal battle because the allies did not show up. If two CF-18's hadn't shown up when the Kurdish base was being attacked, American/British/French/Aussie/Danish/whatever planes would have. The coalition has every incentive to make sure that Canadians don't take casualties--alliance politics, mil-to-mil relations (the Americans and others like and care about the Canadians with whom they have operated over the years) and so on--and would show up and do what it is necessary to protect the CANSOF on the ground. Taking the CF-18s out of the mission and relying on other countries to provide air support would be make the mission quite like previous Canadian efforts. There are good arguments to be had for keeping the CF-18s in the mission, but this is not really one of them.
Third, the one question I have is this: was ISIS deliberately targeting a base where Canadian soldiers were residing? I cannot help but think probably so. ISIS may seem strange to us (the beheadings, etc), but they have often been both strategically and tactically smart. So, I would guess that this was no accident. The Liberals plan to increase the number of trainers in the region, which may mean more bases to target. And ISIS has shown that it will target such bases. This should not serve as an impediment to the plan to send more trainers (whether training works and can be effective without fixing the politics of the folks who supervise them is a serious consideration), but should affect the planning--that the bases are carefully located and defense of them is adequately planned.
Inheriting a war is no fun for any new government. Just ask President Obama, who inherited two plus wars. The Liberals have smart people in key foreign policy and defence positions, but they are entangled by the choices made by the Harper government and the promises made by Justin Trudeau during a political campaign. It will be interesting to see how they manage within such constraints, but I do not expect much change in Canada's stance in the Mideast.