The debate the past few weeks since it was revealed that Canadian Special Operations Forces (CANSOF) has pondered the meanings of combat and accompanying. My friend, Roland Paris, is most concerned about mission creep--that the CANSOF folks doing targeting on/near the front lines may not just lead to firefights but a broader engagement with much more combat. I am less worried about mission creep because I focus on domestic politics--that any deeper involvement would raise risk for the election next fall.
The point I want to make today is a simple one (as I have too much work to do pre-ISA to do any complex thinking/writing). Canada is engaged in a bombing campaign in Iraq. It seems to be the case that the air campaign has helped to blunt the ISIS offensive, even reversing some of its gains (Kobani is the visible example in Syria, I don't have a handy battle/town to cite for Iraq). If one is going to do bombing, then risks are there to be managed: do you act to faciliate more accurate targeting, putting some of your troops at risk or do you avoid risks to your troops and thus have less accurate bombing?
I ask this because I doubt that the CANSOF troops that have approached the front lines, whatever that means, to paint targets just for the fun of it. Maybe so, but probably because they felt they could do the job better than the Iraqis they are training. More accurate targeting means two things--more effectiveness from the Canadian and coalition planes above and less (albeit non-zero) risk of hitting civilians on the ground. While drones and recon planes are handy, having eyes on the ground is generally seen as better. Indeed, the big German mistake in Kunduz, Afghanistan was in large part because there were no eyes on the ground.
The CANSOF do have some restrictions (a.k.a. caveats)--they are not engaging in raids or other clearly offensive operations. They are engaged in combat, as I understand it, since they are painting targets for the planes dropping bombs, whether this leads to them being in firefights on the ground or not. Anyone insisting that the CANSOF not facilitate the targeting process must ask themselves--would this kind of caveat be aimed at reducing the risks facing the CANSOF? If so, at the expense of both Iraqis and effectiveness?
Despite my general criticism of caveats, some make sense. Not engaging in raids makes sense as that significantly increases the risks not just of casualties but of capture. Which would complicate things greatly. But a caveat against providing support for the air campaign? That would not eliminate risk but move it from the CANSOF to the Iraqis in ways that also harm effectiveness. As such, tis a bad idea.