Conservatives accuse Harjit Sajjan of lying about allies' reaction to CF-18 withdrawal

Documents from Global Affairs Canada show the Iraqis tried repeatedly at a meeting in December 2015 to keep Canada's CF-18 fighters as part of the coalition bombing ISIS targets. The records appear to contradict assurances Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan made at the time.
Documents show the Iraqis repeatedly tried during a meeting in December 2015 to keep Canada's CF-18 fighters in the coalition bombing campaign against ISIS. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said after that meeting he hadn't heard complaints from allies about the plan to pull the fighters. (Lars Hagberg/Canadian Press)

Despite assurances to the contrary, the Iraqis did not quietly, nor happily, accept Canada's withdrawal of CF-18 jet fighters from combat against the Islamic State, new documents reveal.

In fact, Khalid Obaidi, the country's defence minister, argued for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government to change its mind in a high-level meeting prior to the suspension of the bombing campaign.

The meeting took place on Dec. 20, 2015, in Baghdad, as Canada's newly appointed defence minister made his first fact-finding trip to the region.

The red carpet — replete with an honour guard — was rolled out for Sajjan, a former soldier with a distinguished career in Afghanistan.

"The ensuing discussion touched on a range of issues, but the Iraqi Minister of Defence was clearly focused on Canada's decision to withdraw its CF18 fighter jets from the coalition air strikes, asking Minister Sajjan to reconsider this decision on numerous occasions," said a Global Affairs Canada summary of the meeting, dated Dec. 22, 2015.

The report, obtained by Conservative Party researchers and shared with CBC News, was written by the chargé d'affaires at the Baghdad mission and sent to a senior Global Affairs official in Ottawa who is responsible for Middle Eastern issues in the Gulf states.

A Canadian CF-18 fighter from 409 Squadron taxis after landing in Kuwait, in October 2014. (Handout/Canadian Press)

The narrative the Liberal government promoted — both before and after Sajjan's meeting — was that Canada's allies understood and respected the decision to call a halt to the air force's participation in the campaign, which started under former prime minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

Following the Baghdad meeting, Sajjan flew to the Iraqi city of Erbil, where he had further sessions with Kurdish political and military leaders. Later, during a conference call with reporters back in Canada, he was asked how the withdrawal plan was going over.

"'The irony is, I haven't had one discussion about the CF-18s or discussing our contribution from the humanitarian side of things," Sajjan responded when asked how the Kurds, whom Canada had been working with directly, viewed the plan.

'A blatant lie:' Conservative MP

Conservative defence critic James Bezan said the Liberal government, and Sajjan in particular, deliberately misled Canadians about the fallout among allies.

"He did lie. This is proof that he lied," Bezan said in an interview with CBC News. "When he said there was no request to keep our CF-18s there, that is a blatant lie."

Conservative defence critic James Bezan says the Global Affairs documents show the defence minister 'lied' about Iraqi reaction to the withdrawal of the CF-18s. Sajjan's office denies that charge. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A spokeswoman for Sajjan said the context of the question specifically related to how the Kurds felt about the issue and the minister did not say anything misleading.

Jordan Owens told CBC News the issue was not brought up in Erbil and the revamped mission has since proven its worth to allies.

"Since February 2016, when the government of Canada announced the expansion of our whole-of-government approach to the conflict in Iraq and the region, Canada has received praise from allies, including the governments of Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government and the United States," Owens said in a statement on Monday.

"We value the feedback we receive from our allies and the occasions we have to discuss the opportunities and challenges our nations face as we make policy decisions that impact the international community."

In an interview with CBC's The House, which aired in early January 2016, Sajjan did concede the allies had mixed feelings about Canada's plan.

"Of course they want to keep our CF-18s there," he said.

But sticking with the airstrike mission wouldn't be the "responsible" thing to do, he 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?'"

Election promise

The end of combat operations by the jets fulfilled a Liberal 2015 election pledge, and it was a decision supported by the country's top military commander.

Justin Trudeau made the withdrawal of Canada's CF-18s from the bombing campaign against ISIS an election promise in 2015 - and also vowed not to buy F-35 stealth fighters to replace the aging CF-18 fleet. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

It paved the way for the tripling of the number of special forces troops advising Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and the introduction of higher-level intelligence capabilities to help with the liberation of the northern city of Mosul.

When the Liberals announced the revamped mission on Feb. 8, 2016, Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, said it was the "absolutely correct moment" to end air combat operations.

"The success of Iraq is going to be through its forces on the ground and for us to provide them with training and the expertise to be able to do that, to defend themselves and be able to conduct operations to defeat [ISIS] is exactly where we need to be," Vance said.

But Bezan said the narrative that allies were not fussed by the decision continued past the end of the bombing campaign, which formally wrapped up less than two weeks after the government announced the retooling.

Sajjan was the point man and the December 2015 comments represented, according to Bezan, the beginning of a series of "alternative fact" statements by the minister, which now includes the existence of a "capability gap" in the jet fighter fleet.

The Conservatives say the notion that Canada does not have enough CF-18s to meet its NORAD and NATO commitments simultaneously is political fiction, dreamed up by Liberals intent on not buying the F-35 stealth fighter, another of the Liberals' campaign promises.


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.