Military flexibility has many tactical advantages, but none greater than as cover for political obfuscation.
Americans got a dose of that last week from their commander-in-chief. Our next round is soon at hand.
In a series of interviews last week, new Defence Minister Jason Kenney all but announced the extension of the mission, which is up for renewal in about six weeks, while holding to the official line that no final decision has been made.
What has so far been left unsaid about the terms of the post-April mission is worth noting, because we’ve seen political obfuscation from our leaders here for more than four months.
We were told our forces would not accompany fighters they were training to the front lines. That was before they arrived at the front line, engaged Islamic State fighters and were applauded for doing so by the very government that told us they weren’t going there.
Another firefight with ISIL militants, our fourth, was revealed by military officials Thursday.
Opposition MPs pointed to the obvious contradiction and Stephen Harper’s Conservative government pointed to the public’s backing of the mission and the opposition essentially got trapped parsing while the government banged the drums of patriotism.
Kenney’s broad hints last week come with a new political dynamic playing out in this country, and new marching orders from Barack Obama south of the border.
Kenney limited his own political flexibility, telling the CBC, in virtually the same sentence, that no final decision has been taken but that Canada will continue to play a role in combating ISIL.
On CTV, he was “inclined” to extend the mission.
He was stating the obvious. Harper and his hawkish ministers have continually told us this ISIL mission is a generational battle and generations last a lot longer than six months.
The Conservatives need not go to Parliament to extend the mission, but they will, if for no other reason than to lure Justin Trudeau back into the path of the high beams of security and terror.
Neither should be a wedge issue, but then neither should a new law granting expanded spy powers and purportedly keeping Canadians safe be rolled out at a partisan rally hundreds of kilometres from Parliament Hill.
Trudeau, however, has proved the perfect pawn, lacking conviction or proper logic in refusing to back the Iraq mission, then rolling over on the security bill. The Conservative anti-terror pep rally barely merited a shrug from voters or the media.
Last week, Obama’s convoluted war resolution sent to the U.S. Congress brought the coalition mission back into focus.
Obama will ask Congress to authorize a three-year anti-ISIL campaign, but the parameters of that campaign are as well-defined as a white fence in a blizzard.
Obama said he is not authorizing a ground war, but then he outlined a plan that was ground combat if necessary, but not necessarily ground combat.
He ruled out “enduring” ground combat without defining that, then OK’d ground operations for special operations forces in specific circumstances and put no restriction on where U.S. troops could fight the Islamic State and its “associated persons or forces.”
Military flexibility, of course.
Kenney repeated there would be no Canadian troops on the ground, despite the fact there are Canadian troops on the ground. They fire only in defence and do not take the fight to the enemy, the government insists.
But Kenney, for the first time, said the rules of engagement for Canadian forces might be changed in April.
He also appeared to extend the goals of the mission, saying Canada was committed to working to “degrade, contain and, hopefully, ultimately defeat” ISIL.
That goes beyond the original resolution committing us to northern Iraq.
“Let me be clear on the objectives of this intervention,” Harper told the Commons. “We intend to significantly degrade the capabilities of (ISIL) … specifically, its ability either to engage in military movements of scale or to operate bases in the open.”
Back then, no one was talking destruction or defeat, even if that defeat was couched as “hopefully, ultimately.” Also unspoken is the length of the extension.
Another six months would require another approval days before an October vote, with Parliament dissolved. It would be only logical the mission be pushed into a new mandate, whoever forms government.
It all adds up to a significantly different mission, although it is unlikely to be explained that way.
As Harper and Obama have shown us, any announcement of war parameters must be cloaked in obfuscation. There’s more coming. Call it obfuscation creep if you like, but it’s military flexibility, you understand.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.