with Anthony Fenton
VANCOUVER - Despite the government's official position abstaining from combat
in Iraq, Canada has dispatched yet another top general to the command group
overseeing day-to-day operations for the US-led occupation and counterinsurgency
Brigadier-General Nicolas Matern, a Special Forces officer and former commander
of Canada's elite counterterrorism unit, will serve as deputy to Lt. Gen. Lloyd
Austin III, incoming commander of the 170,000-strong Multi National Corps-Iraq
beginning in mid-February.
Matern is the third Canadian general to serve in the command group of Operation
Iraqi Freedom as part of an exchange program that places Canadian Forces officers
in leadership positions in the US military. His deployment is part of a three-year
post with the US Army's 18th Airborne Corps, based out of Fort Bragg, North
Officials at Fort Bragg confirmed that Matern has already been deployed to
Iraq, though no official statement has been made by Canadian officials.
Meanwhile, 42 Canadian tanks and armored personnel carriers left Edmonton last
week destined for Fort Bliss, Texas to participate in pre-deployment training
exercises with the US Army before a summer rotation in Afghanistan. A Department
of National Defense press release characterized the training as "massive,"
with more than 3,000 Canadian soldiers taking part in Exercise Southern Bear.
Such joint exercises are commonplace throughout all branches of the armed forces
and beyond. A report from the US Department of State's counterterrorism office
described how "the governments of the United States and Canada collaborated
on a broad array of initiatives, exercises, and joint operations that spanned
virtually all agencies and every level of government."
During his first visit to Washington as Prime Minister in 2006, Stephen Harper
boasted that the North American alliance was the "strongest relationship
of any two countries, not just on the planet, but in the history of mankind."
As much as 90 percent of Canadian trade is with the US, with upwards of two
billion dollars a day in goods and services crossing the border.
There are also economic interests in Iraq itself. The April 2007 Iraq Reconstruction
Report lists Canada as the fourth largest importer of Iraqi oil. Industry Canada
records that total Canadian imports from Iraq have risen from 1.06 billion dollars
in 2002 to 1.61 billion dollars in 2006, making Iraq second only to Saudi Arabia
as a Middle Eastern source for Canadian imports.
According to Canada's Defense Policy Statement, the increased collaboration
with the US military will "not see the Canadian Forces replicate every
function of the world's premier militaries," but rather fill niche roles
that allow Canada's interventionist capabilities to be relevant and credible.
To this end, Matern's Special Forces background is seen as an asset. "He
comes in with a unique set of skills," Col. Bill Buckner of the 18th Airborne
told the Ottawa Citizen. "We're the home of the airborne and the
special operating forces, so he fits in very nicely to this warrior ethos we
Matern was a commander in the secretive commando unit, Joint Task Force-2,
before being promoted to deputy commander of the newly created Canadian Special
Operations Forces Command.
Canada's most important foreign policy documents list Iraq, along with Afghanistan,
Haiti, Sudan, and Israel-Palestine, as areas of "strategic priority."
Canada was an active participant in the 1991 Gulf War and helped enforce the
crippling blockade on Iraq throughout the 1990s, but declined to join the so-called
"coalition of the willing" in March of 2003 when the US launched the
invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein without a final UN resolution authorizing
Nevertheless, Canada's contribution to the mission is notable. In 2003, Canada
pledged 300 million dollars in aid and reconstruction in Iraq. The Royal Canadian
Mounted Police has helped train more than 30,000 Iraqi security forces in neighboring
Jordan, and has had top level advisors operating within the Iraqi interior ministry.
As well, Canadian frigates continue to operate alongside the US aircraft carriers
in the Arabian Gulf that are a primary staging platform for bombing raids in
Indeed, during the first week of the war in 2003, then-US Ambassador to Canada,
Paul Cellucci, said that Canada had provided "more support indirectly to
this war in Iraq than most of the 46 countries that are fully supporting our
Around the same time that Canada opted out of combat in Iraq, it increased
its combat role in Afghanistan, ultimately taking command of the counterinsurgency
war in southern Afghanistan.
Unlike the Canadian deployment in Afghanistan, which is subject to relatively
significant coverage domestically, Canada's participation in Iraq is handled
much more carefully by Canadian officials.
Defense Minister Peter MacKay did not return a call seeking comment and no
official statement has accompanied Matern's recent deployment.
Opposition New Democratic Party defense critic Dawn Black expressed reservations
about the implications of the special military relationship: "We're concerned
about an overemphasis on interoperability with the US," she told IPS from
her British Columbia office. "It affects whether we have an independent
foreign policy and sovereignty as a country."
Though approximately 93 percent of the coalition troops in Iraq are American,
the US has long been keen to emphasize the multinational component of a war
that former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described as "illegal."
Major General Peter Devlin, a Canadian Forces officer currently operating as
deputy commanding general in Iraq, recently told the Washington Post
that the effect of the multinational element is in bringing "greater legitimacy
to the effort here in Iraq."