Just “how can Canada best” contribute to the fight in Iraq and Syria?

The Americans are bombing. The French are now bombing by the score. The British are slinging Brimstone. The Canadians will train the Peshmerga. That’s right—making good on a campaign promise, new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still intends to withdraw the six F-18 fighter-bombers of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), even if many Canadians would be happy to leave them there. Instead, he will greatly increase the force of 69 commandos that the Harper Government had sent to train Kurdish troops fighting Mr. Baghdadi’s gang from the north. “How many that will be, what form that will take, what kind of engagement we’re going to have,” the new PM told reporters on his own plane,  “those are things that we’re going to work out.” The basic question, he believes, is “how can Canada best be a strong and positive contributor to the continued and continuing mission against ISIL?” So is that on the ground or in the air?

As I observed just about a year ago, the Canadian contribution to multinational military expeditions has tended to follow what Christian Leuprecht of the Royal Military College calls the “six-pack strategy”. When NATO throws a party, Canada must bring something, and that’s most often six fighter-bombers for attacking enemy ground forces. With a whole fighter wing at is disposal, a semi-squadron is a manageable but meaningful deployment for the Department of National Defence. Indeed, we should all really appreciate the house-wrecking inflicted so far by the RCAF. As Lieutenant-General Yves Blondin indicated on Twitter back when this started, his colleagues have had some opportunities “to drop by” and drop off some party favors.

At this point, Mr. Baghdadi cannot move significant numbers of troops, day or night, without inviting their destruction in detail by roving aerial patrols with precision weapons. As I note, Canada’s contribution has been an important part of that success, but six fighter-bombers may no longer be the most marginally useful contribution. As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told his Cypriot counterpart last week, “it doesn’t make sense if we add to the 16 nations which are carrying out air attacks.” Thus Germany also prefers to train Peshmerga. For what all those aircraft cannot do alone is root Daesh’s men out of towns like Sinjar. That requires boots on the ground. In the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib entitled his recent analysis “How to Form an Army to Fight Islamic State,” closing with the assertion that “ultimately, it takes an army to defeat an army.” Now that Russia is dropping bombs by the Tupolev, the knee in the air-ground power curve may be nigh.

Those predisposed to opposing all Canadian military involvement might next ask why Canadian trainers are needed. After all, doesn’t the United States already have 3,000 troops in Iraq, most of them training the Iraqi Army? Yes, but that argument fails on two fronts: neither the trainers nor the trainees are necessarily the best for the job. As my colleague Eleanore Douglas at the University of Texas has been studying for the past several years, the American track record in training foreign militaries is rather mixed. The Iraqi record in holding off anyone but the Iranians is rather worse. After thousands of man-years and billions of dollars expended by Americans training Iraqis, the latter broke and ran in 2014, leading directly to the present mess. Canada’s military heritage in the personal egnagement of peacekeeping and peace-enforcement may help its troops figure out how best to make the lessons stick. Canada’s willingness to focus on the Peshmerga, a force with probably greater absorptive capacity than the Iraqi Army, may also make that contribution absolutely more useful.

Not to forget, Mr. Trudeau also wants to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the year. That’s not only staking out the high ground, it’s strategic. That kind of generosity brings mostly talented, grateful people to North America, and simultaneously depopulates Al-Baghdadi’s petty empire. Over the first year, though, that’s going to cost a lot more than flying six fighter-bombers. So while I might prefer that those bombers stay, I’ll offer thanks where thanks is due.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.