In fighting ISIS, Canada not trying to be ‘little U.S.’

Washington (CNN)This week’s state visit of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spotlighted Canada’s new focus in battling ISIS, which his two top national security ministers consider a more sustainable, and uniquely Canadian, approach to a conflict that focuses more on qualitative results than the size of the military footprint.

For some in the United States, Trudeau’s decision to suspend Canadian airstrikes called into question Canada’s commitment to the fight at a time the United States was seeking greater military contribution from its coalition partners.

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    But soon after withdrawing its F-18 fighter jets from the air campaign in Iraqi and Syria, the Canadian government announced it would triple its training effort in northern Iraq, double its intelligence efforts and take on a greater role in addressing the region’s ever-growing humanitarian crises.

    For two of Trudeau’s top national security ministers, it was a more sustainable, and uniquely Canadian, approach to a conflict that focuses more on qualitative results than the size of the military footprint.

    “Instead of trying to do everything a bit, why not concentrate on areas where Canadians are considered one of the best,” Foreign Minister Stephane Dion said. “What we want is not only to fight terrorism today, but prevent its ability to come back tomorrow.”

    Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, a decorated veteran from three tours in Afghanistan where he fought alongside U.S. forces, came away from several visits to the region convinced that what Iraqis needed to defeat ISIS was more training, not airstrikes.

    Sajjan hopes the new Canadian mission will serve as an example for other countries to use as a guide when determining their own contribution.

    “It’s about seeing what the gaps are,” he said. “What do the Iraqis need now and what do they need for the future. Frankly, we have the capability to do more, but we wanted to be responsible and take politics out of the equation.”

    With Arab states promising to contribute troops to a U.S.-led ground effort in Syria, and some U.S. presidential candidates vowing to send tens of thousands of troops, Sajjan warned against “knee-jerk” decisions that are destined only to repeat history’s mistakes.

    “We’ve seen examples, with the U.S. being [in Iraq], sometimes bringing boots into the fight can make the problem bigger,” he said. “We can go in and defeat Daesh but when do you pull out? We have to focus on training the Iraqi security forces ability to help them with the political vacuums that were created. ”

    In addition to bolstering capacity for countries like Lebanon and Jordan to help them alleviate the burden of refugees, Prime Minister Trudeau has already made good on his campaign pledge to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees since taking office four months ago and plans to welcome more.

    Even though the United States has made scant progress toward its goal of resettling 10,000 refugees this year, Dion said it is un-Canadian to “lecture.”

    “The Canadian tradition, it works,” Dion said. “It has been a tremendous success, an asset for our country.”

    While both ministers avoided wading into the U.S. presidential campaign, it was evident the anti-Muslim comments espoused by Republican front-runner Donald Trump have rattled America’s notoriously tolerant neighbor.

    “I don’t want to interfere in your politics, I just want to say that in Canada it is possible to have a Muslim community that is an asset for the country and it is important for us to show it,” Dion said, when asked about the campaign rhetoric. “Muslim Canadians are fighting terrorism as much as any other Canadians and we are all together in this fight.”

    For Sajjan, the former soldier, Muslim-bashing is just bad business.

    “I don’t like rhetoric, regardless of what country is making it, because it impedes our commanders from doing their jobs,” he said.

    Sajjan said he first learned as a police officer combating drug gangs in Vancouver’s gang unit that the real solutions to problems come “through the eyes and ears of the community.”

    In Afghanistan, much of his success in Kandahar grew out of the relationships he built with village leaders once aligned to the Taliban. Those contacts among Afghans provided key intelligence that allowed coalition forces to strike at Taliban targets, taking 1,500 fighters and commanders off the battlefield.

    “Anyone in a leadership role needs to know that when you are looking at conflict, you can’t look inward,” he said. “You need to work with society. If you alienate them, you are not going to have the tactical success, even if you have the best bombs in the world and the best intelligence and thousands of troops.”

    Both ministers echoed the sentiment of Trudeau during his press conference with President Obama on Thursday, in which he suggested the different “scales” of U.S. and Canada made for a complementary, rather than imbalanced, partnership.

    “For us, the United States is a friend. It is an ally. It is not necessarily a model. We have our own model. We learn a lot from you, but the way we do things is different. We should not try to be a little United States. We should be ourselves. And in being ourselves, we will be effective and useful to everyone, including the United States.”

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