Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan takes political hit over 'architect' claim in Afghan war
Canada's Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan is under fire for overstating the role he played in a crucial battle in the war in Afghanistan — and critics say the misrepresentation should cost him his cabinet post.
The controversy stems from a speech Sajjan gave at a security conference in India in April.
"On my first deployment to Kandahar in 2006, I was thrown into an unforeseen situation and I became the architect of an operation — called Operation Medusa — where we removed about 1,500 Taliban fighters off the battlefield, and I was very proud to be on the main assault on the force," Sajjan said at the time.
In a statement posted on Facebook over the weekend, the defence minister admitted that while he served with the Canadian military in Afghanistan, calling himself an "architect" of Operation Medusa was not accurate.
"I made a mistake in describing my role. I wish to retract that description and apologize for it. I am truly sorry," Sajjan wrote.
Both the Conservatives and the NDP said his mea culpa wasn't good enough.
In Question Period on May 1, interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose accused Sajjan of "stolen valour" — when someone takes credit for the actions of a soldier.
"What he did was wrong, and now he has lost the confidence of our men and women in uniform," Ambrose said, calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to demote Sajjan out of his defence post.
"[Soldiers] need to have confidence in their leaders, especially when they're putting their lives on the line."
Trudeau has so far rejected those demands.
Ottawa bureau chief for HuffPost Canada Althia Raj tells The Current's host Anna Maria Tremonti that the spectre of "stolen valour" has created a real problem for Sajjan.
"You talk to anybody in the military and nobody would ever take credit for doing somebody else's work," Raj says.
She adds Sajjan may well have played a crucial role in planning Operation Medusa. The problem is that by calling himself the architect, he minimized the roles other military leaders played.
"It's not seen as being honourable. You're supposed to share credit with everybody," Raj says.
Defence staff say Sajjan veered off the text they prepared for his speech in India, although his political staff have not said if they inserted the controversial language.
Raj says Sajjan's recent speech was not the first time he called himself an "architect." In 2015, he called himself an architect of the mission during a podcast, although he attributed the description to General Jonathan Vance, the current chief of defence staff. General Vance has refused to speak about the issue.
What's exacerbating the fallout, Raj tells Tremonti, is that Sajjan and the Canadian military have been so vague about what he was doing in Afghanistan, other than commending him for his work in military intelligence.
"I think we can gather that the defence minister's intelligence was crucial to planning [Operation Medusa], but whether you should be calling yourself the architect of that mission — that's what has really unleashed a firestorm both in Parliament Hill and within military circles," Raj says.
Retired Canadian soldier Bruce Moncur, who fought — and was seriously injured — in Operation Medusa, tells Tremonti that he can't understand why Sajjan would want to take credit for the mission. He says the ill-conceived military strategy was nothing to boast about.
"The architect reduced the aerial bombings from three days to one, and then sent two platoons of soldiers in an extended line in a World War One-style frontal assault where we then were enveloped on three sides, similar to a 2,000-year-old battle tactic," Moncur says.
"For five hours, we fought for our lives. The architect — whoever that person was — deviated from the battle plan and it cost a lot of Canadians their lives."
Moncur says 35 members of his 40-strong platoon were injured or killed during two days of fighting. He himself was shot three times, and had to have five per cent of his brain removed. He has made a full recovery but he had to relearn how to read, write and speak.
Listen to the full segment at the top of this web post.
This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino, Shannon Higgins and Seher Asaf.