Did the Prime Minister mislead the House of Commons about the nature of Canada’s special operations mission in Iraq?
It comes down to how we define three words: advise, assist, and accompany.
As captured by Aaron Wherry, there’s debate about an exchange between Mulcair and Harper on 30 September:
The PM stresses that the SOFs are there to advise and assist, but they are not accompanying Iraqi forces into combat. He denies that the SOFs will be engaged in a “direct” combat role. And he refuses to answer a question about whether the SOFs are targeting and coordinating attacks.
What are we to make of this?
I suggest we look at how BGen Rouleau dealt with the terms advise, assist and accompany to get a sense.
Here are a few statements from the briefing where the first fire-fight was disclosed (bolding and italics mine):
“Canadian Special Forces members have provided advice and assistance to senior Iraqi commanders in holding the line against ISIL and in planning their offensive operations.”
“This is all followed by field reconnaissance to visualize front-line operations."
"As part of our assist mandate CANSOF has enabled on thirteen occasions to be precise assistance to Iraqi security forces for coalition aircraft to strike within our area of operations. This is, to use very clear language, a high end military skillset.”
“We are not advancing with the forward Iraqi security force elements that do from time to time encounter IED’s. We share best practices with Iraqi security forces well behind the lines in terms of being able to contend with such threats.”
“Let me be clear about the advise and assist training. We do all advise and assist training kilometres behind the front lines. This represents about 80% of our output. The other 20% or so happens in forward positions, mostly close to the front lines but sometimes right at the front lines if that is the only place from where we can accomplish it.”
“When I last spoke to you on the 17th of October I mentioned that my risk assessment to the CDS was assessed as low. With several months under our belt now and with me having been there myself that still remains the case. The risk to CANSOF ground forces in the advise and assist regime with mitigation measures in place is low but low never means zero.”
“When they moved forward to confirm the planning at the front lines in order to visualize what they had discussed over a map, they came under immediate and effective mortar and machine gun fire. CANSOF operators responded with Iraqi security forces placing effective sniper fire on the enemy positions, neutralizing the mortar and the machine gun position.”
“We have trained, advised and assisted ISIF to the point where we see them getting better. We have not seen ISIF get rolled back within our area of operations. We have seen Iraqi security forces take more ground, gain more confidence and become even more proficient warriors than they already are.”
What can we glean from these statements?
First, the CF considers that assisting includes going up to the front lines to help plan offensives.
Second, assisting also includes helping Iraqi forces call in airstrikes.
Third, accompanying would involve following Iraqi forces across the front lines (“advancing forward”) as they attempt to take and hold ground held by ISIL.
Based on what the PM said, and the definitions and descriptions BGen Rouleau employed, I can’t conclude that Harper mislead the House.
The PM was evasive, but he didn’t lie if we define advise, assist and accompany in the way the CF did.