Canada already has deployed a “significant contribution” to the NATO mission in Iraq and likely will only make adjustments within its current allocation of troops going forward, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Thursday.
Sajjan was responding to the western military alliance’s proposal to expand its military contribution in the war-torn country.
The pitch to assume some of the responsibilities of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition is still a work in progress, he told CBC News in a telephone interview following a two-day ministerial meeting.
NATO Secretary-General Jen Stoltenberg delivered largely the same message this week at the conclusion of a two-day alliance meeting in Brussels, saying that alliance members had “agreed in principle” to expand NATO’s role in Iraq with the consent of the Iraqi government.
Sajjan said the principal focus of NATO nation defence ministers at the moment is on how the alliance can quickly restart the current Canadian-led training mission “within the existing authorities we have.”
NATO and the U.S.-led coalition both run non-combat “train-and-advise” missions in the country.
Their goal is to build up Iraqi security forces — but both operations were suspended over fears of retaliation following the U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian commander in Baghdad on Jan. 3.
The coalition has resumed operations since, but there’s no word yet on when NATO troops will be back in business.
The Canadian military is authorized to deploy up 850 troops throughout the Middle East. There are approximately 250 serving with the NATO training mission in Baghdad and hundreds of others serving elsewhere in the region — including the members of a contingent of Canadian special forces under the authority of the anti-ISIS coalition in various parts of Iraq and Kuwait.
No net increase in number of troops
As part of the agreement struck Wednesday, NATO will assume some of the U.S.-led coalition’s duties. Officials speaking to the Reuters news agency in Brussels said that could involve as many as 2,000 troops being moved under the NATO banner.
It would not, however, result in a net increase in the number of NATO or American soldiers on the ground.
“We have started the process where we are going to increase our presence in Iraq. We are going to do it step-wise,” Stoltenberg said Thursday.
It’s not clear yet which additional responsibilities NATO is taking on. Those decisions, Stoltenberg said, will be subject to the advice of coalition commanders and negotiations with the Iraqi government.
Is NATO ready for an anti-ISIS mission?
The question, though, is whether NATO is prepared to expand its role beyond capacity-building to embrace a more hands-on role in hunting down the remnants of ISIS.
“I can’t answer that just yet,” Sajjan said. “Does NATO have the ability to do that? Yes. Will we get there? I’m not sure just yet. I want to focus on the capacity-building work right now.”
U.S. President Donald Trump has demanded NATO take on a greater role in Iraq, but has not defined publicly what that would entail.
Despite Trump’s statements, there appears to be little enthusiasm among NATO’s European allies for deploying troops beyond the current training effort.
Sajjan said if the alliance takes on additional responsibilities, “it will require far greater planning and further agreement at NATO as well.”
In response to the Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding motion last month calling for the expulsion of foreign troops. The government has not moved to ratify the proposal and Stoltenberg has been working to convince it to exempt NATO.
He continued to walk a fine line on Thursday.
“We are going to look at what we can do beyond the current presence of troops, but of course, we do that in close coordination with the Iraq government,” he said.
“And every step we take will be in consultation and based on invitation, and only when we’re welcome by the Iraqi government.”