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The anatomy of Harjit Sajjan’s Afghanistan operation apology

The Minister of National Defence expressed ’regret’ for his claim to be the ’architect’ of a key mission—but not before he missed an earlier opportunity to clarify
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks during a conference on foreign affairs in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks during a conference on foreign affairs in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks during a conference on foreign affairs in Ottawa on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

A day before he backtracked from his false claim that he was the “architect” of Operation Medusa, one of the biggest and most dangerous missions of the war in Afghanistan, Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan inexplicably and stubbornly stood by them in correspondence with me. What happened over the last five days might be called the anatomy of an apology.

The controversy stems from an April 18 speech the minister delivered at “Conflict Prevention and Peacekeeping in a Changing World,” a conference in New Delhi, India. “On my first deployment to Kandahar in 2006,” the minister said, “I was the architect of Operation Medusa where we removed 1,500 Taliban fighters off the battlefield … and I was proudly on the main assault.” It was an odd comment. Though Sajjan was a veteran of the 2006 operation, he was in no way the key planner. That role is typically credited to retired Maj.-Gen. David Fraser, then the commander of the Multinational Brigade for Regional Command South, and the man who organized and led Operation Medusa.

On Monday, April 24, I began hearing from a number of senior military veterans who called Sajjan’s claim about his role in Medusa an “exaggeration” and demanded that he correct the record. None of the sources would go on the record because none wanted to question the legitimate bravery Sajjan showed during the 2006 battle, and his three tours of duty in Afghanistan. Still, they regarded his comments in India as an inappropriate embellishment of his role. “Sajjan had as much to do with designing Medusa as I did with designing NAFTA,” one source told me.

What did Sajjan really do in Medusa? Back in 2006, then-Brig.-Gen. Fraser wrote a letter commending Sajjan’s “personal bravery” in battle. Fraser wrote that Sajjan’s “analysis was so compelling that it drove a number of large scale theatre-resourced efforts, including Operation Medusa … that resulted in the defeat of the largest Taliban cell yet identified in Afghanistan, with over 1,500 Taliban killed or captured.” So Sajjan’s bravery as an intelligence officer was never in question. But that’s a long way from being the architect of the operation. I contacted Fraser to ask about Sajjan’s recent claim, but he flat out refused to comment.

On Wednesday, April 26, I wrote to the Department of National Defence and asked why the minister had called himself the “architect” of Medusa. “I do not want to diminish the extraordinary role the Minister played,” I wrote. “However, I have had feedback from several sources who suggest the use of the term ‘architect’ is an exaggeration. I can find no citation where the Minister is credited as the ‘architect’ of Operation Medusa. He was an important member of the team, but no one I spoke to saw him as the ‘architect.’ That role has been credited to the General, in this case, Fraser. As this was a major military operation with many senior military planners, can you please tell me if it is accurate for the Minister to say he was the ‘architect’ of the operation? Did he plan it? Did he originate the plan? Was he the leader of the operation plan? Was he involved in the planning or did he provide Intel that was then verified and used? Why did the Minister call himself the ‘architect” of Medusa?”

MORE: Behind the sunglasses: Harjit Sajjan’s rise to cabinet

I fully expected the minister to clarify his role, thinking he would repeat what Fraser had written back in 2006—that his intelligence had played a key role in the operation. Instead, he avoided the question and tried to skate. “Operation Medusa was successful because of the leadership, service and sacrifice of many dedicated women and men in the Canadian Armed Forces,” Sajjan wrote. “I was proud to have served with extraordinary Canadians, U.S. and Afghan soldiers who made Operation Medusa successful.”

I immediately wrote back to say that this did not address the fundamental question: Why did the minister call himself the “architect” of Medusa? I asked his department to further clarify, but they refused to say anything else. “I don’t have anything to add beyond what I just sent,” wrote the minister’s communications person.

It was odd that they were sticking by the minister’s original statement in India, which was so patently misleading. Medusa involved over 1,000 Canadian soldiers working in a coordinated attack with British and Dutch troops against the Taliban position in Panjwa’i district. It was a complex, high-level operation led and developed by Fraser and his planning department. Other key planners of Medusa included the highly respected Lt. Col. Omer Lavoie, then commander of the 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. At the time, Sajjan was a major, nowhere close to the top of the command structure and so nowhere close to being the “architect” of the operation. “Sajjan’s second claim has a grain of truth to it—being on the final assault—but he was present like thousands of other soldiers,” one source said. “But from what I gather, he [was] not ‘engaged’ in combat.” The military personnel I spoke to were clearly furious about the minister’s comment.

As the week wore on, more veterans contacted reporters about the minister’s claim. Suddenly, on Thursday, I got another message from Sajjan’s office. They had a new, updated statement from the minister. He was no longer going to try to spin his way out of it. “My comments were in no way intended to diminish the role that my fellow soldiers and my superiors played in Operation Medusa,” Sajjan wrote. “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. Operation Medusa was successful because of [the] leadership of General Fraser and the extraordinary team with whom I had the honour of serving.”

Within hours of that email landing in my inbox, the brilliant Postmedia reporter Matthew Fisher published a story about the military backlash against the Mmnister and his apology. The controversy erupted immediately.

It remains a mystery as to why the minister would make the false claim in the first place, and even more baffling why, when I asked him to clarify earlier in the week, he decided to stick to it. “There is an old saying: ‘Victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan,’ ” one source wrote to me. “There were tens of thousands of architects for Medusa—in Canada, NATO, Kabul and Kandahar. Dave Fraser was key to it, influenced by those thousands, and he wrote and spoke many complimentary things about all of them. They—all of them—could and should receive the credit. God knows, they would have received the blame if things had not worked out.”

Sajjan did heroic things in service of Canada during a dangerous period of war. He risked his life. There was simply no need to embellish that. It is a terrible shame that might tarnish his service.