What Harjit Sajjan really did while serving in Afghanistan

Truth being the first casualty of war has taken a decidedly different turn with growing outrage in both the political and military community about Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's characterization of himself as the architect of Operation Medusa.

At 'no time was he in on the planning' of Operation Medusa, soldiers tell CBC News

Harjit Sajjan, right, looks on as Canadian Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner talks with U.S. Maj.-Gen. James Terry in this 2010 photo. Sajjan, who is now defence minister, was serving his third tour in Afghanistan at the time. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Truth being the first casualty of war has taken a decidedly different turn with growing outrage in both the political and military communities about Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's characterization of himself as the architect of Operation Medusa in Afghanistan.

The bloody, protracted battle in the scorched grape fields west of Kandahar city in September 2006 was a significant milestone in Canada's five-year combat mission in the country and an emotional touchstone for many soldiers involved.

Sajjan's claim, made earlier this month during a visit to India, is not the first time the former lieutenant-colonel has referred to his role in the battle in this way.

On a regional B.C. podcast called Conversations That Matter, he said the current chief of the defence staff, Gen. Jonathan Vance, considered him to be the central figure.   

"If I could quote him, he said I was the architect of Operation Medusa, one of the biggest operations since the Korean war that Canada has led," Sajjan said in July 2015, when he was running as a Liberal candidate.

The political and social media firestorm that followed the India speech, made April 18, prompted a pinched apology from the minister, who regularly references his three tours of Afghanistan as a reserve officer to burnish his credibility in the defence portfolio. He followed up with an apology on Facebook Saturday. 

His appointment to cabinet in November 2015 was followed by a series of flattering stories about his service, including photos of him smiling in the field, clad in a flak jacket, prompting some to call him "Canada's badass defence minister."

This photo of Sajjan in the field, serving as a combat officer in Afghanistan, prompted several people to call him 'Canada’s badass defence minister.' (Twitter)

There has, however, never been a critical examination of his role beyond vague suggestions that he did some intelligence work.

In fairness, Sajjan has tried on occasion to downplay the notion he was an intelligence officer, but that has only muddied the perception.

He has declined to discuss his work in Kandahar in detail.

Soldiers who were there in 2006 tell CBC News that Sajjan did have a key role, but at "no time was he in on the planning of the operation."

Soon after arriving he was "bolted to the hip" of the battle group commanders.

First it was Lt.-Col. Ian Hope and then, in September 2006, Lt.-Col. Omer Lavoie, who led the fight in Zhari district against Taliban militants who had chosen to stand and fight a conventional battle rather a hit-and-run guerilla campaign.

Intelligence gathering

Sajjan was the liaison between Canadian commanders and two local Afghan leaders, the notorious governor Asadullah Khalid and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half-brother of the former Afghan president and head of the Kandahar provincial council.

"My responsibilities were vague at first," Sajjan told military historian Sean Maloney in the book Fighting for Afghanistan: A Rogue Historian at War. "I discovered there was a gold mine of information flowing into the [governor's] palace."

Eventually, "Harj was able to send two pages of solid intelligence to [Task Force] Orion per week," said the book, which provides the most detailed public accounting of Sajjan's time in the field.

In the run-up to Operation Medusa, the Afghan leadership was putting pressure on the Canadians to stop the Taliban buildup west of the city.

Remains of the Little White Schoolhouse, a former Taliban stronghold that was a focal point of the fighting during Operation Medusa. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

"At meetings in Kandahar and Kabul, senior Kandahari leaders — including Governor Asadullah Khalid and presidential brother/provincial kingpin Ahmed Wali Karzai — have suggested that NATO's ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] is 'unwilling to take the fight to the Taliban,'" said a Canadian diplomatic cable, written on Aug. 28, 2006, and quoted in the book The Savage War: The Untold Battles of Afghanistan.

How much of a role Sajjan's assessments played in convincing Canadian commanders that an offensive was necessary is not clear.

Politically, the exaggeration is likely to hurt Sajjan's standing among the troops more than anything else.

Conservatives have for weeks been eager to point out other misleading statements Sajjan has made, including references to the Iraqis being satisfied with Canada's withdrawal of CF-18s from combat against ISIS.

No architect of Medusa

A diplomatic readout of the December 2015 meeting with the Iraqi defence minister, dug up by Conservative researchers and shared with CBC News, flatly contradicted the minister.

Canadian soldiers often like to describe themselves as "quiet professionals" and take a dim view of bragging, which they consider to be an American quality.

"There was no one hero of Medusa, no one architect," said one senior officer with direct knowledge of Sajjan's role in Afghanistan.

He asked not be named because he didn't want to get dragged into the unfolding political battle over the minister's credibility.

It spoke volumes on Friday when Vance was asked about the controversy and declined to answer, choosing instead to go on answering questions about the politically toxic issue of sexual misconduct in the military.