What Did ‘Badass Defence Minister’ Harjit Sajjan Do in Afghanistan?

This is more than hand-wringing over an embellished record. Reopening questions about Sajjan’s time in Afghanistan means reopening questions about Canadian complicity in war crimes.
May 3, 2017, 8:11pm
Image via. media.defense.gov

It's been a rough week for Canada's "badass" defense minister, Harjit Sajjan.

Last month on a diplomatic trip to India, Sajjan addressed a crowd at a security conference and regaled them with a story about his tour of duty in Afghanistan. Specifically, he told them: "on my first deployment to Kandahar in 2006, I was kind of thrown into an unforeseen situation and I became the architect of an operation called Operation Medusa where we removed over, about, 1,500 Taliban fighters off the battlefield." He had also made this claim on the campaign trail in the 2015 election.


As it turns out, that was not quite the whole truth. There's no doubt Sajjan was a big part of Operation Medusa. Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, the Canadian Forces general commanding NATO forces in southern Afghanistan at the time, had previously praised the minister as "the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre, [whose] courage and dedication… single-handedly changed the face of intelligence gathering and analysis in Afghanistan." But implicitly crowning himself as the operation's chief architect was an oversell on the minister's part.

Exactly why Sajjan felt the need to exaggerate his role in the mission is unclear—especially since it rightfully pissed off a lot of the other soldiers who were there. He's since retracted the self-serving rhetorical flourish, but the Conservatives have been tearing into him hard. He has faced numerous calls from both interim opposition leader Rona Ambrose and CPC defence critic James Bezan to resign on the grounds that he has offended and disrespected the troops by "stealing valour," and that his remarks reveal he is fundamentally untrustworthy.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, has accepted Sajjan's apology and considers the matter closed. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that Sajjan retains his full confidence, so it's unlikely he'll end up resigning over this particular faux pas.

But there is no rest for the wicked. Sajjan is also being accused of downplaying his role in Afghanistan as a way of avoiding an investigation into his complicity in the wartime torture of Afghan detainees in Canadian custody.

When the torture accusations first broke in 2009 and nearly toppled Stephen Harper's minority government, the opposition Liberals demanded an investigation into the claims. But as defense minister in the new Liberal government, Sajjan—who was working with Canadian intelligence in Afghanistan at the time of the incidents—has refused to open any such inquiry. And when questioned by federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson as to whether or not this constituted a conflict of interest, Sajjan told her that he was but a lowly reservist responsible for building capacity with Afghan police and didn't know anything about the detainees.


This apparently satisfied Dawson (who closed her investigation after only speaking to Sajjan), but it doesn't satisfy NDP defence critic Randall Garrison, who was also in Afghanistan in 2006 investigating human rights abuses for Amnesty International. He is alleging that Sajjan downplayed his role to Dawson to avoid facing uncomfortable questions at a torture inquiry. Thomas Mulcair has since demanded that Dawson reopen her investigation.

So what was Harjit Sajjan actually doing in Afghanistan in 2006? It's a legitimate question at this point. It's not clear how to square David Fraser's' praise of him as a game-changing intelligence officer with his statement to the ethics commissioner that he didn't know anything about anything. Especially since, left to his own devices, he's apparently more than happy to tell people that he was one of NATO's strategic masterminds.

Sajjan's braggadocio about his time in Afghanistan is distasteful. But it's small potatoes compared to the possibility that the defense minister attempted to obstruct an ethics investigation and, beyond that, and investigation into Canada's complicity in war crimes.

That warrants a lot more than an apology. It warrants some answers.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.