Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Mission Creep: Overblown?

When Canadian politicians were debating the Iraq mission, the Liberals and NDP used fears of "mission creep" to justify their opposition.  While there are good reasons to oppose the international intervention in Iraq, I don't think mission creep is one of them.  Indeed, I was so annoyed with the use of mission creep as a way to scare people that I dressed up as Mission Creep for Halloween.

However, people that I respect, such as Roland Paris, were pushing back at me on this on twitter, so let me explain a bit more why I think "Mission Creep" is more of a canard than a real problem here.  Hint, the answer lies in domestic politics.

First, what is mission creep?  The media likes to think that extending a mission is mission creep--that if the current effort goes past 6 months, leading the government to renew the mission, that this counts.  No, it does not.  Extending and expanding are two different things.  If the mission is substantially expanded, with more troops/units doing more things, then it can be said to have crept.

Last night's twitter discussion focused not on Canadians doing heaps of combat, which is how most people think about and worry about creep, but whether Canadian soldiers, especially their Special Operations units, might start serving as Forward Air Controllers [FAC's].  That is, that they might serve near/at the front lines to help guide the air strikes.  Canada sent Auroras, which are maritime surveillance aircraft that have been re-fitted to do ground surveillance and coordination, which they did apparently quite well over Libya, to fill the gap created by the lack of FAC's.*  I can see how we might see Canada put some troops closer to harm's way to play this role.  Indeed, it may have already happened, since Canada has a small deployment of soldiers who are engaged in "directing, advising and assisting" the Iraqis.
* How can you tell the Chief of Defence Staff is an Air Force officer?  Maybe from the fact that nearly every non-helo deployable aircraft that the RCAF has is involved in Iraq--C-17s, CF-18s, Auroras, and Polaris.

So, to be fair to Roland, this small creep may have already happened and may happen if it has not.  It would entail more risks.  But this is not the creep that the Liberals and NDP raised as their fears.  Nor is it what the Canadian public and media seem to view as creep.  What they seem to worry about is "boots on the ground" in more than a marginal way--the deployment of conventional troops to do the fighting since the Iraqis do not seem that capable.  That would be mission creep in a big way, but I think it is most unlikely.

Yes, we need to be concerned about the capabilities of the Iraqis since the bombing campaign depends on the ground forces to the hard work.  This degrading of ISIL cannot be done from air alone.  But it is also clear that no one has any enthusiasm for putting troops into harm's way.

Why?  Well, for Harper, domestic politics and his priorities play a huge role.  The American calculus was that one soldier in Afghanistan for one year =$1 million.  Which meant that 1000 = $1 billion.  The Canadian calculus is different--Canada does not spend as much--but the point remains valid--that a ground deployment of 2000 troops or so would be very expensive.  This government cares far more about balancing the budget and then cutting taxes (to unbalance it?) than pretty much everything else.  So, any significant ground deployment will make this balancing much harder.

Harper's second priority (perhaps first) is to control the messaging.  Putting a battlegroup into harm's way significantly reduces his ability to control the messaging.  One cannot cut off a couple of thousand of young men and women in uniform from embedded reporters, so the message control that Harper has exerted pretty much everywhere else cannot be extended to the troops.  Thus, keep the troops behind the wire where there are few stories (the training mission in Afghanistan from 2011-14) or send some planes where only a few pilots can be questioned by the media (Libya/Mali) or send Special Operations units since they are covered in secret sauce (Canadian media are far more respectful of the secrecy involved with SOF).

The parallels that people like to draw to Afghanistan miss something critical--not only was the Kandahar decision a discrete choice so that Canada did not slip down a slippery slope, but that the domestic politics were different.  Back then, Paul Martin did not have to worry about domestic politics that much because the Conservatives would support the mission (and did so).  Now, Harper has to consider the domestic politics because his party is the only one supporting the mission.  Yes, he has a majority, but it is an election year and his party has been behind in the polls.  Sure, Canadians support this current mission, but ask them again if the topic of significant group forces come up as an option.

Can Harper say no to Obama, if the latter asks for more help?  Um, hell yes.  The two already have heaps of friction.  Moreover, Obama has been most reluctant to deploy American forces, so it would be very, very hard for him to ask anyone else to deploy ground forces. 

Thus, I cannot help but conclude that this supposedly slippery slope is not nearly as slick as some folks assert.  As always, I bet on domestic politics, which provide a heap of friction that will prevent Harper from slip-sliding in away.

I have to slip off to class, so let me know what I got wrong in my haste to post this.

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