Harper versus Nicholson: Advise, assist — and accompany — in Iraq

A member of the Force Protection team participates in a weapons handling drill in Kuwait, during Operation IMPACT on January 18, 2015. (Photo: OP Impact, DND)

During Question Period in the House of Commons on Sept. 30, Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair wanted some precision from Prime Minister Stephen Harper about the extent of the mission of Canadian Forces Special Operations Forces (CF SOF) who would be on the ground in northern Iraq.

Speaking in French, Mulcair asked: ” Mr. Speaker, the Prime Minister said that the rules of engagement are to advise and assist the Iraqis, but the question is, assist them how? For instance, are Canadian soldiers currently going on patrols with Iraqis or Kurds?” (This English translation I’m using here is the one that is published in Hansard, FYI)

The Prime Minister began his reply in French — “Mr. Speaker, I said ‘advise and assist the Iraqis’ ” — but then he switched to his first language, English, to finish the answer.  The emphasis here is mine: “If I could just use the terminology in English, it is quite precise. It is to advise and to assist. It is not to accompany. I think that was laid out before the parliamentary committee.”

Mulcair followed that up with this question, again in French: “Mr. Speaker, are they going into combat zones?”

The Prime Minister replied, in French: “Mr. Speaker, I just said that Canadian soldiers are not accompanying the Iraqi forces into combat.”

Today in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister was absent, busy attending the funeral of RCMP Const. David Wynn in St. Albert, Alberta. It was the first Question Period we have had since revelations occurred that CF SOF personnel have been engaged at least three times in firefights with the ISIS bad guys in Iraq.

Both Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau put questions to the government asking, essentially, if the government had in fact told Parliament that CF SOF troops would be engaged in this kind of front-line combat.  It was left to Defence Minister Rob Nicholson to respond. To Mulcair, Nicholson seems to have stuck to his talking points. But his answer to Trudeau seems to be a bit of a departure from what Harper told the House on Sept. 30.

Here is Trudeau’s question: “Mr. Speaker, all Canadians support the right of our forces to defend themselves when they are sent into harm’s way. The government said our ground forces would advise and assist but not accompany Iraqi troops. Now we find out they are routinely on the front lines. Why did the government mislead Canadians?”

And here is Nicholson’s reply, with my emphasis:  “Mr. Speaker, I am not sure we could train troops without accompanying them. We have been very clear that we would be in the business of assisting and training these individuals. What I do not get is the Liberal position on this that we should know the outcome before we get in there and expect others to do the heavy lifting. That has never been the Canadian way for 200 years. We do not stand on the sidelines, we get out there and we stand up for those who are oppressed.”

Now, the government — quite rightly I believe — concludes that the vast majority of Canadians would agree that if a Canadian Forces troop, brigade, squad — whatever — is fired upon by bad guys anywhere in the world, they don’t need to phone Ottawa for permission to fire back. They should just fire back or do whatever they need to do to defend themselves. But one of the reasons New Democrats and Liberals voted against the combat mission in Iraq last fall was, as many of them said at the time, was a concern about “mission creep,”. The mission originally sounded like it involved CF SOF trainers well back of the front lines in front of a chalkboard telling Iraqi soldiers how to beat ISIL while Canadian fighter jets flying well above the range of ISIL anti-aircraft missiles bombed the heck out of the terrorists. No Canadian would ever be within range of an ISIL terrorist with a weapon. No risk. And we would be helping to kill terrorists.

Well, quite clearly, some CF SOF personnel have been within range of ISIL forces who have been trying to kill Canadian Forces personnel. We’re still killing terrorists but now there’s some risk.

The government argues these “firefights” are well within the mandate of the mission mission originally described to Parliament by the prime minister. The opposition is trying to make points that it is not.

These are early days in this particular debate. According to the polls, the Conservatives have the early win so far as public opinion goes in that the public supports the initial decision of last fall.  Will the public come to see the nuances in the opposition argument? The opposition may point to another public opinion survey which said that many Canadians are do not want a ground forces combat role for Canadian troops.

We are expecting the prime minister to be back in Ottawa and in the House of Commons Tuesday for Question Period. I’d say it’s a likely good bet that he may get asked about Nicholson’s answer to Trudeau today.


5 thoughts on “Harper versus Nicholson: Advise, assist — and accompany — in Iraq”

  1. Harper is just a liar, a typical lying Conservative. We were told that our troops would on be fighting near the front lines by Harper himself now did you hear him today in Question Period , and as for Rob Nicholson well he should be “ashamed ” of himself and “resign ” .

    1. I think that Larry is verbalizing before thinking. The enemy, in this case are waging gorilla warfare. They do not recognize a “front line”, there is no such thing. They strike from any vantage point. When dealing with these kinds you better have a buddy watching your back.
      It looks like, in Larry’s liberal world that he believes that the Marques of Queensbury rules are at play. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

  2. Advise, assist and now accompany. Soon it will be a “defensive” attack. What is his story going to be when the body bags start coming back down the 401?

  3. You nailed it Larry! Both of these cons are shameless!
    Deception, fear, war mongering!
    Tried and true rightwing ideology!
    What a shame that 30% of the population are taken in by Harper’s rightwing / tea party methods!
    We are all paying the price for the stupidity of the “great economist”!
    Pray god we will be delivered from this ideology in short order!

    1. Yes. Lets be nasty. Let us throw out insinuations about the Prime Minister’s honesty and integrity in his dealings with oposition. In the full knowledge of the honesty and integrity regularly displayed by the leaders of the opposition parties. And we all know the honourable opposition have the solution for the international terrorist threat. It doesn’t exist. It is a fabrication created by the military industrial complex to create and prolong war. Mr. Trudeau would make it perfectly clear that he is in fact Pierre’s son. AND if that was not enough to scare them to death he would offer them a toke or ten and chill. Mr.Mulcare on the other hand would have the terrorists come to one spot ad talk them to death. In terms of your being delivered from the stupidity of the great economist I have had heard Greece isnice this time of year.

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