Interview: David Fraser on Canada's changing role in the fight against ISIS

CTV News Chief Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme spoke with retired Maj.-Gen. David Fraser on Canada’s changing role in the coalition fight against the Islamic State, and whether tripling the number of trainers will increase the risk for Canadians on the ground.

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LaFlamme: First of all, great to have you in the newsroom tonight. Give me some perspective on this. Training, advising -- how close to the pointy end of this conflict are Canadian forces going to get?

Fraser: The mission’s not changing. It just has expanded at least three-fold of what we’ve been doing in northern Iraq. And there’s a lot of similarities of what we have done for the last 10 years coming out of Afghanistan, which was a comprehensive whole-of-government approach where we had diplomacy, security and development. We’ve just heard the same thing again today. But when you train, advise and assist, it comes with risk. And we’ve just expanded that risk significantly by tripling the number of trainers there. We’ve added a helicopter contingent potentially, we’ve added medivac in there, we’ll probably take on more of the line responsibilities. Shooting will not stop; shooting will continue. And our soldiers and sailors, airmen and airwomen who are on the ground there are going to be exposed to a lot more risk than they have been in the past.

So let’s break that down a little bit. We all saw first-hand how what it was like to train Afghan army and Afghan police. Is that the similarity you see? In that case they were right out there in the villages with the Afghan army and Afghan police. Is that what we’re seeing with this mission? It’s not some behind-the-wire training operation?

In northern Iraq it’s going to be very similar. The Peshmerga are right on the front lines. Our trainers are just behind them. They may pull them off the line to do some training, but then they put them back up on the line. We’ll defend them if we need to. And we’ll defend ourselves. This is not inside the wire, this is not way, way back out of harm’s way. We are in that zone. Incidents happen.

This is combat.

The prime minister may say it’s not combat. We are not the major combatants. But we are in a combat zone.

So does that make it a combat mission if you’re in a combat zone?

I don’t think you want to use the term “combat” because we’re training and advising and assisting. But that being said, we will defend ourselves if we have to. We’re not in a position where we’re not armed -- we’re going to be armed. We are training people who are going to be in combat. And even though we’re not there to do the combat for them, we’re close enough that things are going to happen. And as the Chief of the Defence Staff said today, there will be shooting.

He was really clear about the fact that this just got a whole lot riskier. But we have seen our forces in action. We know they’re really good at this. How tough a challenge is it though to actually be part of the training operation for Peshmerga or Iraqi forces?

We are great at this. We’ve been doing it for 10 years and we’ve developed a tremendous amount of expertise that our allies are happy we’re there. And Canadians don’t lean back. When the men and women are on the ground there and they’re training, they’re going to lean in and support those men and women who are doing the fighting, and they’re going to make sure they have the training and support that they succeed on that battlefield. So we may not be there on the front lines pulling the trigger, but we’re not going to shy away from it. So I think we’ve got to realize that it’s more of the same, and what Canadians have seen in the last couple years of what we’ve been doing over there, we should see a lot more.

Now you have such great insight into how a coalition works and the intricacies of that. Is this giving the coalition what it wants -- Canada delivering on that front?

Coalitions are like anything: they have an insatiable appetite for more. So what we just gave them today was exactly what they wanted: more trainers, a lot more humanitarian aid, a lot more intelligence, we’ve got two survey aircraft there, we’ve got a refueller there. They love it. They can’t say anything bad about it. But we are now seeing in the campaign a change where we were defensive, now we are actual changing the momentum and we are taking the fight to ISIL. They are going to come back to Canada and say, ‘We need more right now to finish this off -- defeat ISIL, not stop them, but defeat them. So that means we’re going to need you to do more.’

So your prediction at this early stage? More means what? More special forces?

I think they’re going to come back and say, ‘We want you to reconsider your CF-18s. Maybe not now, but maybe down the road. We thank you for what you’re doing but we want offensive capability from you in addition to what you’re doing.’ Because as the campaign evolves and as we push ISIL further back, coalition members will be asked to do more until such time as those trainees that we’re training actually come up to the level of capability that they can do this on their own. They still need the coalition capability to press ISIL back until such time as the men and women on the ground can take on the fight themselves. They can’t do it by themselves now. That’s where the coalition members are, and what Canada was doing, and what we should expect to be asked to do in the future.

So you’re saying this whole concept of, ‘Look, the CF-18s, they were just six fighter jets, they really didn’t make that much of a difference with the whole coalition,’ that’s basically untrue?

I think our six airplanes actually punch far above what they say they are. Our pilots are some of the best trained in the world. We can do dynamic targeting. They were doing a lot -- combat sorties. We were actually punching much, much higher than what the number would communicate. And you look at the Five Eyes community -- there’s always a small core that does the bulk of the lifting. I think Canada was in that small, small circle. And I think our absence is going to be missed. And I think we’re always going to be thanked for what we’re adding in, but they want us back.


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