PERSIAN GULF — Two senior Canadian generals have defended the current strategy for defeating ISIL in Iraq and Syria, which U.S. officials have put under review following scathing criticism by President Donald Trump.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis was in Iraq this week after Trump gave the retired marine general until the end of the month to come up with a plan for speeding up the campaign.
During last year's presidential election, Trump repeatedly criticized the slow pace of progress and promised to introduce a new approach that would hasten ISIL's defeat.
"We are closer than we think. And that's the adult discussion that's going to play out here in the next little bit."
But brigadier-generals David Anderson and Stephen Kelsey say they are hardpressed to think of ways to improve the existing strategy, which they have watched unfold firsthand for the better part of a year.
And they worry that rushing to destroy ISIL could in fact undermine the progress that has been made in dealing with the root causes that led to the extremist group's rise in the first place.
"I can't think of a different way to do this that doesn't create all the problems that have been there from the past," Anderson said Monday, before Mattis's unannounced arrival in Iraq. "I think we've got it right."
During last year's presidential election, Donald Trump repeatedly criticized the slow pace of progress and promised to introduce a new approach that would hasten ISIL's defeat. (Photo: Reuters)
Anderson and Kelsey are both based in Baghdad. And while they're Canadian, each holds a key position within the larger international coalition for defeating ISIL.
Since last spring, Anderson has led a multinational team of military advisers posted inside the Iraqi defence ministry in Baghdad, where they have helped formulate and implement the current campaign strategy.
Kelsey has helped oversee the actual fighting on the ground, which is being largely conducted by Iraqi forces with significant assistance from Canada and other countries.
Mattis hasn't said what changes he wants to see in the campaign plan, but reports suggest the options under discussion include putting more U.S. troops on the ground and having them do more of the fighting.
Changes to U.S. strategy will affect all countries
American troops, like the roughly 200 Canadian special forces in northern Iraq, have largely stayed out of the fight and instead provided training, advice and some battlefield support from behind.
Anderson and Kelsey insisted it is up to the U.S. to decide its own approach to defeating ISIL; but any change would impact all countries involved in the effort.
That includes Iraq itself, which has been the scene of more than a decade of violence and strife after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 tore the country apart along ethnic and religious lines.
Kelsey said what's different in Iraq this time around, and what he believes will end the cycle of violence, is that Iraqi troops are the ones doing the fighting and dying for their own country.
"What's happening now with the strategy is we are enabling our (Iraqi) partners to defeat Daesh," he said, using the Arabic name for ISIL. "We're also creating capacity for the longer term.
Praise for Iraqi government
"And in trying to accelerate that or do it for them, we then start owning the problem and affect their ability to create their own capacity, which is the key to long-term stability in the region."
The two generals heaped praise on the Iraqi government and military for the progress they have made over the past two years in fighting ISIL while also dealing with various economic and political challenges.
And they said despite the fact ISIL remains a threat in Iraq and Syria more than two years after Canada and other countries intervened militarily, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
"We are closer than we think," Kelsey said. "And that's the adult discussion that's going to play out here in the next little bit."