Canada is taking the lead of a new NATO training mission in Iraq, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed Wednesday, stocking up his political armoury should U.S. President Donald Trump try to cast doubt on his Liberal government's commitment to the global military alliance.
The Iraq endeavour marked Trudeau's second announcement involving Canada's military in as many days; on Tuesday, he declared that the Canadian Forces would continue to lead a NATO battle group in Latvia through 2023.
Both were delivered in advance of what's been billed as a tense meeting of NATO leaders — including Trump himself, whose tweets and public statements in recent days have fuelled expectations that he will excoriate Canada and other allies for not spending enough on defence.
Trump wants NATO members to spend two per cent of their GDP on defence by 2024, a target agreed to by the alliance's members in 2014. Canada's defence spending is only expected to reach 1.4 per cent of GDP.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, however, dismissed the suggestion of a link between Trump's belligerent rhetoric and the Iraq mission, insisting that it's simply a case of doing the right thing.
"Canada is a country that believes in democracy, that believes in good governance, that believes in good institutions," Freeland said at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where the summit is taking place.
"This NATO mission in Iraq is about having mostly won the war against (the Islamic State group) and now is the time that it is absolutely essential to secure and to win the peace."
The Liberal government has insisted repeatedly that spending alone isn't sufficient to measure a country's commitment to NATO, and has quietly acknowledged that the announcements were aimed at underscoring Canada's contributions.
Basing a NATO endeavour in Iraq may also be by design, since Trump has made fighting the Islamic State group a key focus of his foreign policy — and has demanded that NATO step up its operations there.
Either way, the actual number of Canadian troops deployed abroad will increase only marginally with the two new commitments: the 250 service members assigned to the new training mission will be drawn from the 850 that the government had already allocated for Iraq operations.
The only true growth will be in Latvia, where the government plans to add 80 new soldiers to 450 already there. And the $40-million cost of Canada's training efforts in Iraq will come from previously approved funds, one senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the talks.
The NATO training mission will build on a smaller program that since November has seen 20 Canadian military engineers, working out of a base near Baghdad, teach about 150 Iraqi soldiers how to defuse roadside bombs, improvised explosive devices and other forms of the deadly traps that are the hallmark of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIL and Daesh.
Canada plans to provide a senior general to oversee the NATO mission, which will see hundreds of military trainers teach their Iraqi counterparts to counter IEDs, maintain armoured vehicles, work with civilian authorities and provide emergency medical aid.
"That is the next step in the challenge in Iraq, which was first defeating Daesh and now we have to rebuild that democracy and strengthen it," Trudeau told an audience of NATO officials, foreign representatives and defence insiders during a pre-summit discussion in Brussels.
"This is something that we believe in deeply."
Canada's contribution to the mission will include a number of helicopters and crew to ferry NATO personnel around the country, the senior official said, as well as 50 trainers, 20 headquarters staff and 150 soldiers to protect the force.
The Canadian military has had a presence in Iraq since September 2014, when several dozen special forces were deployed to the country as part of a U.S.-led coalition to help local Kurdish forces beat off an ISIL offensive that threatened to overwhelm the country.
The intervening years saw Canada deploy fighter jets, surveillance planes and air-to-air refuellers, a transport aircraft, a medical hospital and hundreds more special forces to help the coalition and Kurdish and Iraqi military forces push ISIL back and eventually defeat it on the battlefield.
The mission's activities have since been curtailed, and in some cases suspended, as a result of ISIL's defeat and ongoing fighting between some of the different Iraqi factions that Canada and its allies had been supporting.
Some of those activities will continue, said Gen. Jonathan Vance, Canada's chief of the defence staff — including the deployment of Canadian special forces to Mosul to help Iraqi forces ferret out existing pockets of ISIL resistance as thousands of people displaced by years of fighting return to the city.
— With files from Teresa Wright in Brussels
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press