Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan pays price for rash battlefield boast

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OTTAWA—From badass to beating a retreat.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is offering some clarification around his claim that he was the “architect” of the biggest Canadian military offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Sajjan came into the defence post in 2015 boasting impeccable credentials: time in the military; tours of duty in Afghanistan, all reinforced by a photo showing him in uniform, sporting sleek sunglasses, that earned him the moniker “badass.”

But now Sajjan seems to have overreached in a war story, telling an audience in New Delhi, India, earlier this week that he was the “architect” of Operation Medusa, the Canadian offensive in 2006 to push out Taliban fighters from the districts around Kandahar.

“On my first deployment to Kandahar in 2006, I was kind of thrown in an unforeseen situation and became the architect of an operation called Operation Medusa, where we removed about 1,500 fighters, Taliban fighters, off the battlefield,” Sajjan said in his speech.

“I was very proud to be on the main assault of the force,” he said in the speech, which can be found on YouTube.

It doesn’t appear that the comments were a slip of the tongue.

The reference to being the architect of Operation Medusa was contained in the prepared text.

The two-week operation in September, 2006, claimed Canadian lives, but is credited with reducing the Taliban’s hold around Kandahar.

Yet Sajjan’s version of events, first reported by the National Post, stirred anger in military circles from those who thought the former soldier had overstated his role.

That forced a statement from the defence minister, who is now anxious to share the credit for Operation Medusa with “Canadian, American and Afghan soldiers.

“Every military operation our Forces undertook in Afghanistan, including Operation Medusa, relied on the courage and dedication of many individuals across the Canadian Forces. My comments were in no way intended to diminish the role that my fellow soldiers and my superiors played in Operation Medusa,” Sajjan said in a statement provided by his office.

“What I should have said was that our military successes are the result of the leadership, service and sacrifice of the many dedicated women and men in the Canadian Forces.

“I regret that I didn’t say this then, but I want to do so now,’ he said.

The statement did not offer any detail on Sajjan’s involvement in planning the offensive. As well, his office said that Sajjan, who was a major at the time, did indeed participate in the offensive, but declined to spell out his exact role on the battlefield.

Military historian Jack Granatstein said that Sajjan was a good intelligence officer in Afghanistan who probably provided important information, but added, “that’s probably all you can say.

“He certainly wouldn’t have been the chief planner.

“That he would say such a thing in a public address is bizarre,” Granatstein said in a phone interview.

Granatstein said the faux pas shouldn’t force the minister to resign.

But he said it sure doesn’t help the cause of a minister he said has been weak in his post.

“It’s not going to help him with the military.

“He’s not a very strong minister thus far. He hasn’t delivered anything thus far for the (Canadian Forces).

“This is going to make people think he’s a little bit deluded,” he said.

Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, who, himself, served several tours commanding troops in Afghanistan, was in no mood to talk about the issue Friday when he appeared at a news conference to talk about misbehaviour in the military ranks.

“I’m not really aware of this case, and, quite frankly, I’d like us to keep our eye on the ball about sexual misconduct,” Vance said, pointedly refusing to take a follow-up question from the reporter.

It’s a serious misstep for a defence minister whose record of military service has given him impressive credentials to interact on defence and security issues on the world stage.

It’s a puzzling misstep too since Sajjan’s service in Afghanistan had already given him plenty to boast about without stretching tales.

Sajjan served three tours in Afghanistan, including one attached to U.S. forces. He received a mention in dispatches that credited his understanding of counter insurgency tactics for helping the planning and execution of an operation in September, 2006 — it doesn’t specify which one — to secure key terrain.

Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, the now retired Canadian officer who was commander of the NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, sang Sajjan’s praises in 2006, saying his intelligence work in the field “drove” several large scale theatre-resourced efforts, including Medusa.

“He was the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre, and his hard work, personal bravery and dogged determination undoubtedly saved a multitude of Coalition lives,” Fraser wrote in a letter addressed to Vancouver police, Sajjan’s employer at the time.