U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told CNN over the weekend he'll consider placing ground forces in Iraq to help locate targets if that's the recommendation of U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dempsey said last week that when it comes to retaking Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, it's possible American troops might be needed to help guide airstrikes and provide support in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
"I'm not predicting they'll need to be accompanied by U.S. forces, but we're certainly considering it," Dempsey told Congress.
Like the U.S., Canada has a no-combat prohibition on its roughly 69 special forces troops in northern Iraq, and the current combat mission explicitly rules out the deployment of conventional ground forces.
But Roland Paris, an international security expert at the University of Ottawa, says Washington's policy appears to be drifting towards another ground war in Middle East and it's important Canada not follow suit.
"My concern is that this mission has the potential to evolve into something different in the coming months," Paris said.
"There are a lot of pressures on the U.S. president to expand America's military involvement in Iraq and Syria. I would expect there may be a change in posture of American ground forces in Iraq and if that all happens, there's likely going to be pressure on allies to broaden their involvement as well."
The U.S. was also very specific recently about how it intends to conduct training for Iraqi forces, Paris added.
Canadian military commanders acknowledged last month that the U.S. was casting about among allies to see if there was any interest in taking part in a training mission, but the Harper government has not said if it would be interested, beyond the special forces commitment Canada has already made.
Last week, deputy defence minister Richard Fadden met with U.S. counterpart Robert Work. The two discussed "collaboration on counter-ISIL operations in Iraq," among other things, according to the Pentagon. There was also Canadian participation at a recent planning conference of coalition military partners in Florida.
The Harper government has been very precise and sparing in its public statements.
When asked what Canada's position was on the evolving debate in Washington, Johanna Quinney, a spokeswoman for Defence Minister Rob Nicholson, listed bullet points from a six-week-old government backgrounder.
Quinney then added: "We will continue working with our coalition partners on the mission going forward."
The government has said that the objective of the war is to "degrade and destroy" ISIL, but has not defined what that means.
With no independent media access to the task force in Kuwait, information on the air force bombing campaign is being funnelled through — and filtered by — National Defence headquarters in Ottawa.
That has worked against the government, especially when other nations, in particular the U.S., get out ahead in reporting on operations where Canadians are involved.
The military has been active on social media, but strictly limits its comments and independent access to decision-makers through media briefings in Ottawa, of which there have been just two since the first combat missions took place.
The government has also refused to estimate the cost of the campaign, unlike the U.S., which provides a running tabulation.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar says the U.S secretary of defence is far more engaged in explaining and defending the coalition war strategy than Nicholson.
"In the United States, you're getting details on what their goals are; how many people are involved; what their timelines are; (and) how much it's going to cost," Dewar said.
"From our government we don't get exactly what the strategy is, what the goals are, and what is exactly is happening. So things could not be any more different."
The Commons foreign affairs committee — at the NDP's insistence — is about to take up a study of the Iraq mission.
Dewar says there has been no accountability to Parliament since the combat mission was launched. The only appearance Nicholson, military chiefs and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird have made before MPs was in September, when only the special forces commitment was on the table.
Heading into an election year, Paris said the Conservatives should rely on the Canadian public to have trust in the government's ability to manage war, rather than hiding behind spin control.
"Establishing regular communication on what this mission is, what its doing, how it might evolve will be critical for Canadians to judge whether this operation should continue."
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