Harjit Sajjan accused by Tories of 'incoherent comments' on ISIS

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says he won't "repeat the mistakes of the past" by sending troops into harm's way "for no reason." But what, exactly, does he mean?

Defence minister says he won't 'repeat the mistakes of the past,' but which ones does he mean?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has been under pressure in recent weeks to reveal details of Canada's plan to contribute to the fight against ISIS. (CBC)

Memorably dubbed Canada's "badass" defence minister, combat veteran Harjit Sajjan definitely has street cred.

A former cop and a decorated soldier who did three tours in Afghanistan, Sajjan was valued in the military for his understanding of what drove the Taliban insurgency. 

So people listen when Sajjan says that he won't mess up defence policy as the last guys did. But what he has not explained to date is how, exactly, the other guys messed up.

Asked on Monday to say why the Liberals insist on withdrawing Canada's six CF-18s from the air campaign against ISIS, Sajjan counterattacked.

"Where was their government in looking at those issues?" he asked, pointing at the Conservative benches. 

"Why did they allow such an issue to get so big and not attack ISIL, when it was a small organization?"

'Mistakes of the previous 10 years'

That suggested Sajjan thought the battle was joined too late. When his critics persisted, he went further. He was taking the time to get the new policy right, he said, "so we don't make the mistakes of the previous 10 years."

Until his election and promotion to cabinet, Sajjan was a lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces and a former Vancouver police detective. (Twitter)

That was, plainly, a direct shot at the previous government of Stephen Harper. Then, Sajjan went further still.

"I want to make sure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, because every single time we make those mistakes as political leaders, we send our men and women into harm's way for no reason, and I will not repeat those mistakes again."

Hold it. "For no reason?" Did Sajjan and his comrades fight in Afghanistan for no reason?

It is certainly not unusual to argue that the Afghan campaign was not winnable — although Sajjan did not say he was making that case. Nor is it unusual to argue that Canada should have committed to the conflict sooner, because the easier assignments were all taken by the time Canada was stuck with the badlands of Kandahar.

So what did Sajjan mean, exactly? What were these "mistakes of the previous 10 years?"

'Translation' please

Sajjan's predecessor as defence minister, Jason Kenney, was wondering, too. He evidently wished for more clarity and heckled Sajjan, demanding an "English-to-English translation."

Rising on a point of order, Liberal Kevin Lamoureux called that "inappropriate" and asked Kenney to apologize.

No dice. An unrepentant Kenney declared, "I found the minister's comments totally incoherent, so there's nothing to apologize for."

Conservative MP Jason Kenney refused to apologize Monday for saying an "English to English translation" was needed while Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was speaking. 2:31

The next day, the Conservatives pulled again on this dangling thread. Defence critic James Bezan said he was "very concerned" about Sajjan's comments on Afghanistan. 

"Was it a mistake that the hard work of our Armed Forces enabled millions of children to go to school?" Bezan asked.

It was a brave question to ask of a minister who'd served there, since a smackdown seemed inevitable — and promptly arrived.

"I actually served from the start of combat mission right to the end," Sajjan observed as the Liberals rose to applaud.

"I was there to witness the issues that happened. I was there also for the success," he said.

"And this is where, how we talked about how our political leadership failed us. This is why I will take the time to make sure as we make future plans that those lessons are not lost."

So — what lessons? Did we go into Afghanistan "for no reason?" Or were we too slow to go after ISIS?

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says political leadership failed soldiers in Afghanistan 1:23

'Spray paint on the wall'

Sajjan's staff could not offer much clarity. His press secretary, Jordan Owens, pointed to a speech Sajjan had given a week earlier, in which he suggested that Western leaders had failed to appreciate the social and political causes behind the rise of ISIS.

"Today we are dealing with the son of al-Qaeda," Sajjan told a Canada 2020 conference in Ottawa.

"If we don't get the next piece right — and the next piece is not the military piece, it's that political piece — we will be dealing with the grandson of al-Qaeda." 

He then said that "what really disappointed me at that time" — meaning, in Afghanistan — was that the understanding officers had on the ground did not reach the political level. "To be able to say, we know that al-Qaeda, as most organized crime groups, or even terrorist organizations, evolves. They always fracture off. It's almost a staple that happens. One will go this way, one will go more extreme, one will go a little bit moderate, and the other one may want to continue. That's just normally how it works."

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan told a conference on foreign affairs last week Canada must be aware of the 'ripple' effect of its actions when dealing with insurgencies. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Sajjan went on to say that politicians had failed to see the crises that propelled the growth of militant Islam.

"The issues of climate change, of creating grievances in many different parts of the world — not a big deal when you look at, talk about climate change in isolation. But put it into an area of Africa or Syria, which caused those — potentially those grievances when the cost of food started to go up and people started to complain.… that was that little clue.

"But instead of us looking at those little clues, because we're looking at a strategic level, we missed out those clues. I believe it was that — that protest that happened, the spray paint on the wall. And then that one action created that ripple that resulted in what we see today."

Allowing for some syntactical problems in these off-the-cuff remarks, Sajjan seemed to be saying that the root causes are complex. But what does this tell us about how to respond to the effects? If climate change has something to do with the drought and the civil war in Syria — which it probably does — how does that inform the next steps against ISIS?

We're still waiting to find out. On Wednesday, the Conservatives returned to the fray. 

Instead of "mistakes of the past," Bezan demanded, "let's talk about mistakes of the present."

"Taking our CF-18s out of the air combat mission is a mistake," said Bezan. "Incoherent comments are a mistake."

This time, Sajjan confined himself to saying that "we will be enhancing" the fight against the Islamic State with a plan to be announced "soon." It will be a plan, he predicted, that Canadians will be proud of.

Harjeet Sajjan answers questions from Conservative MPS asked first in french and then english 1:58

About the Author

Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.