National Column: General cautious about progress against Daesh

by Paul Wells

An optimist would say Canada’s battle against Daesh, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in Iraq is going well. Lt.-Gen. Stephen Bowes is careful not to say that.

“Daesh is hurting on the battlefield. There is no doubt about it,” Bowes told the Star during an hour-long interview in his Ottawa office this week. “The flow of foreign fighters (into Iraq from other countries in the region and across the West, including Canada) is a fraction of what it used to be. There is no doubt that the leadership has suffered, through airstrikes and other operations against them.

“But when you talk about doing well in the Middle East, what’s your reference point? Where’s your point in time?”

Bowes is almost uniquely positioned both to track evidence of progress in Canada’s little-reported military effort in Iraq, and to be wary of premature triumphalism.

As commander since June 2015 of Canadian Joint Operations Command, the 31-year army veteran is responsible for much of the army’s work, both in Canada and abroad. His predecessor in the role, Gen. John Vance, is now his boss as chief of defence staff.

The multinational fight against Daesh, led by the Americans and relying heavily on Iraqi forces trained by Canadians, is making progress. Bowes said the effort is moving from “degrading” the Islamist terror group’s capabilities, to “dismantling” their bases and networks and “moving towards defeat of Daesh.”

The next big step – it could come next week or it could take until next year – is for coalition-backed Iraqi forces to take back Mosul, the biggest city in northern Iraq. “People say, ëWhen’s Mosul’s liberation going to start?’ I’d say it already has. That’s what shaping operations are – when you’re dismantling leadership networks, when you’re taking key crossing sites at rivers on the approaches, when you’re disrupting lines of communication. That’s significant preparatory work.”

Turkey, a perpetually problematically whose government has cracked down hard on suspected plotters of a failed July coup attempt against the administration of president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is at least getting much better at controlling its own border.

Two thousand fighters a month used to come down into Iraq and Syria from Turkey. Now it’s “maybe as low as 50,” Bowes said. “That continues to whittle down on Daesh’s ability to reconstitute itself after every engagement.”

Still, he said, “a lot of challenges remain, and there are some really big activities to come.”

It’s been an odd mission for Canada. When Bowes got his job, Stephen Harper was still the prime minister and six CF-18s were flying steady bombing runs against Daesh targets in Iraq and, sometimes, Syria.

Several months after Justin Trudeau’s Liberals were elected, the fighter-bomber mission ended in favour of an enhanced training role, logistical support and some Canadian officers inserted at various points across the coalition’s command structure.

In Afghanistan, Canadian trainers would routinely go into combat against insurgents alongside the Afghan soldiers they were training. They called it “advise, assist and accompany.” There is no accompanying in Iraq. “There’s a certain point at which, as they’re following the battle procedure, that they’ll move with the Pesh to a certain point that’s well behind the FLOT, and after, that the Pesh are on their own.”

The Pesh are the Peshmerga fighters of Iraqi Kurdistan, the main force Canadians are in Iraq to train. The FLOT is the Forward Line of Own Troops, the furthest part of the battle space that the Kurds can reliably control. Staying back is designed to ensure Canadians don’t see combat.

Sometimes combat comes to them. “Daesh, using initiative, from time to time have penetrated the FLOT where our forces have had to use their own means for self-defence.” That can include close combat. It can also include calling in airstrikes.

The airstrikes are never Canadian combat craft because there are no more in the theatre. Bowes took it well when I made that point.

“There’s no secret here. I mean, if we went today to the allies and said, ëDo you want a six-pack of CF-18s or not?’ You know what the answer’s gonna be. But when we identified where we were going to work and what we were prepared to do and what the government had authorized, the reaction we’ve had has been overwhelmingly positive.”

With the end of Daesh’s effective control of Iraqi territory within sight, what comes next for Canada’s military? Bowes was careful not to speculate. “We’re there as long as the government of Iraq wants our people to be there. And when that changes, then our political leadership has policy decisions to make. And that truly is above my pay grade.”

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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