Saturday January 16, 2016

'Of course' allies want Canada's fighter jets to stay, says defence minister

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says sticking with the airstrike mission in Iraq and Syria wouldn't be 'responsible.'

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says sticking with the airstrike mission in Iraq and Syria wouldn't be 'responsible.' (Canadian Press)

Listen 12:07

Canada's allies in the coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria want to see Canadian fighter jets stay in the area, but Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan isn't backing down from the Liberals' campaign promise to withdraw the CF-18s.

"Of course they want to keep our CF-18s there," he said in an interview on CBC Radio's The House in an interview airing Saturday. 

But sticking with the airstrike mission wouldn't be the "responsible" thing to do, Sajjan added.

"The responsible thing, in my opinion, is to make sure we as a coalition partner look at the current situation, the needs of the coalition," he said. "When you look at the current situation, the conversation is [...] 'How do we target more?'"

As the fight against ISIS continues to evolve, Sajjan said the conversation from a military perspective has changed.

"[In] the early days, when ISIL was in the open, you could target them," he said, using an alternative form of the name of the extremist group. "Now the fight has gone into where you need to be able to define and find your target, and then be able to have that impact on the ground."

That doesn't mean Canadians fighting on the ground, though. 

"It has to be the Iraqi boots on the ground — if you don't have the boots on the ground, you cannot win," he said.

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said Sajjan's stance on the CF-18s hasn't been explained thoroughly. In a statement released Friday in response to The House interview, Bezan called the Liberal government "out of step with our allies" in the war against ISIS.

"The Liberals have never been able to explain why withdrawing our CF-18s from the air combat mission is 'responsible' when our allies want us to stay," he said.

Sajjan is looking at increasing the training side of the mission for Canadian soldiers. The training of local troops is going extremely well, Sajjan told host Chris Hall.

Sajjan is preparing to go before cabinet with his recommendations in the coming weeks. The current mandate, which includes airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria, is up in March — but so far, there's no timeline for when Canadians can expect the planes to be pulled.

Operation IMPACT

Canadian CF-18s continue to strike ISIS targets, mainly in Iraq. (Department of National Defence)

For now, the CF-18s continue to strike ISIS targets in Iraq mainly, while 69 special forces trainers are working with Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers.

"Teaching [local troops] how to launch and repel attacks, and doing it in an environment that's close up is extremely important," Sajjan said, adding that the "advise and assist" part of the mission will continue to be an integral part of Canada's contributions — but one that will eventually be dialed back.

"We're fulfilling a very important need right now in the training mission ... having troops on the ground able to carry out operations on their own.

"Just as we phased our training in Afghanistan and were able to slowly pull away, this is one of the effective tools we're very good at."

Military 'can do better' at recruiting women, minorities

Sajjan, who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, said the Canadian Forces has another mission of sorts at home — encouraging more women and minorities to enlist.

Current targets require the military to strive to have women represent 25 per cent of those in uniform. The latest figures from the military show that they are well short of that goal as just under 15 per cent of military members are women. Visible minorities hover around five per cent.

"The military, even when I was serving, has made strides in trying to connect with all Canadians ... but we can do better," he said.

"We need to get the message out, let people know the opportunities of the military is conducive to people's lives."

The goal is for the Forces to be "representative of the demographic of Canada," said Sajjan, who became the first Sikh-Canadian to command a Canadian army reserve regiment, in 2011. 

"[The military] is not for everybody, but for the ones who have served, it's an extremely meaningful and challenging experience," he said.

Canada's commitment to the ISIS fight16:08