Canadian soldiers made 'progress' in Afghanistan, Sajjan says in response to grim U.S. war report

Kandahar was made a better place by Canada's military presence, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said following The Washington Post's publication of documents that suggest successive U.S. administrations saw the Afghanistan war as unwinnable.

The situation in Afghanistan was 'very, very complex,' defence minister says

Canadian and American troops on a joint patrol in late June 2011, one of the last conducted by Canadians during the Afghanistan war. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press )

Kandahar was made a better place by Canada's military presence, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said following The Washington Post's publication of documents that suggest successive U.S. administrations saw the Afghanistan war as unwinnable.

Sajjan, who did three tours of Afghanistan as an intelligence liaison and later as an adviser to American commanders, said Monday he personally saw progress throughout his time there.

Sajjan defended Canada's military and development record — but on Monday ducked the question of whether the Conservative government of the day knew how deeply pessimistic some of the allies had become about the war's conduct and prospects for success.

Harjit Sajjan as a serving combat officer in Afghanistan. (Twitter)

The troops on the ground, Sajjan said, were fully aware of the challenges they faced.

"One thing I assure you, our understanding of our situation was extremely high," he said, adding the Canadian army's view was shared with its "partners."

Sajjan did not say who those partners were — whether they were elements of the Canadian government or represented allied nations.

The U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, known as SIGAR, conducted a study that looked at the core mistakes made by Washington during the war. SIGAR conducted over 600 interviews with former commanders and decision-makers to compile its report.

Following a three-court fight under the United States' freedom of information law, The Washington Post obtained over 2,000 of the SIGAR documents, including notes, transcripts (some of them redacted) and audio recordings.

A war without a strategy

What emerged was a stark portrait of how the administrations of former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama lacked a clear war strategy — and how their mistakes prolonged what became the longest war in American history.

Sajjan was asked whether he saw the conflict as unwinnable.

"We can't boil it down to very simple things like that," he said, arguing that the situation in Afghanistan was "very, very complex."

Throughout its dozen years in Afghanistan, Canada lost 158 soldiers to combat, accidents and suicides. Dozens more Canadian veterans have taken their own lives since the end of the mission in 2014.

It has been estimated that Ottawa spent up to $20 billion on military operations, development assistance and aid related to its mission in Afghanistan, which was based for the most part in the province of Kandahar. But there has never been a full and complete accounting of the war by the federal government or parliamentary watchdogs.

Sajjan appeared Monday to dismiss the published reports about the SIGAR study, and by extension the interviews with U.S. officials it contains. Many of those officials expressed frustration, exasperation and despair over the management of the war.

"I'll be honest with you, if somebody was to read it in, see it in a certain way, I'm not surprised because it is very complex," Sajjan said.

"But if somebody who's been on the ground and saw the progress, and the work, the ups and downs over the years, I think {they] would understand that this is very, very complex, but the work that has been done on the ground has had a significant impact."

Public doubts

Despite Sajjan's confidence, the former Conservative government of prime minister Stephen Harper did publicly express doubts about the goals of the conflict and the absence of a clearly defined path to victory.

"We are not going to ever defeat the insurgency," Harper told CNN's Fareed Zakaria in an interview in March 2009. "Afghanistan has probably had — my reading of Afghanistan history — it's probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind."

The Obama administration was newly elected in 2009 and was in the process of pouring tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan — a troop "surge" meant to stabilize the country.

"If President Obama wants anybody to do more, I would ask very hard questions about what is the strategy for success and for an eventual departure," Harper told Zakaria that spring.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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