In The Media

Sajjan faces ‘two burdens’: Military, angered by his boast, also expects his defence policy review to ‘fall short’

by Marie-Danielle Smith (feat. David Perry & D. Michael Day)

Ottawa Citizen
May 3, 2017

OTTAWA — Canada’s defence minister may have a harder time selling the Liberals’ new policy to his own military after claims he was an “architect” of a major Afghanistan operation.

There is no doubt Harjit Sajjan has lost respect as a soldier, say sources close to and inside the Canadian Armed Forces, and that this will colour the remainder of his tenure. But whether he retains credibility as a politician will depend on whether he delivers on promises to fix major funding and capability gaps. And there is significant skepticism about whether he can. 

The minister himself acknowledged this reality Wednesday, telling reporters he’ll be judged by “actions, not words.” 

A substantially-delayed “defence policy review,” originally promised for last December, is being put out before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits Brussels for a major NATO meeting May 25. Alongside its release, Sajjan is expected to reveal a dollar figure for Canada’s “significant investment” in the military.

The government of Canada shouldn’t publish defence policy based on what its soldiers think of the minister, or whether or not they trust him

That’s after detailing a list of complaints about past funding shortfalls in an address to military and defence stakeholders in Ottawa Wednesday. Several in the room called the address “frank,” but many noted every politician likes to detail predecessors’ failings before announcing policy. 

In its first two federal budgets, the Liberal government decided to “defer” about $12 billion in military capital spending, itself contributing to the types of shortfalls Sajjan described. 

Sajjan offered few hints as to the substance of the review other than that it will be “rigorously costed” and audited, and that it will ostensibly fill a funding “hole.” He described it as “a plan to allocate realistic funding to … ‘bread and butter’ projects.”

It is unclear whether the review will clarify pending peacekeeping deployments, or how heavily it will focus on North American defence, thought to be a priority of the Trump administration in Washington. It is unlikely, however, the review will recommend the more than doubling of the defence budget that would be required to meet NATO spending targets of two per cent GDP, a target Sajjan called “aspirational.”

Walter Dorn, a Royal Military College professor who is working with a United Nations mission in Lebanon while on sabbatical, said the peacekeeping question is important to Canada’s allies, especially after Canada “dithered” and missed a chance to nominate someone as Force Commander of the UN’s Mali mission.

“The absence also reflects on the credibility of the defence minister who made unfulfilled promises and who seeks to host the next Peacekeeping Ministerial, due to be held in Vancouver in November,” Dorn said in an email. “It will be highly embarrassing if Canada is not fully deployed by then, a full two years after Trudeau’s election night statement that ‘Canada is back.’”

Any action on the review document will ostensibly need to wait until the completion of an “implementation plan” by the Chief of Defence Staff and the deputy minister. 

Opposition parties and some in military circles are miffed after Sajjan misrepresented himself during a recent speech to Indian military officials. Sajjan said he was an “architect” of Operation Medusa, a major offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but accounts from others who served at the time say his role was much smaller than that, focused on intelligence-gathering. He made a similar claim in a 2015 podcast. He has since apologized.

Sajjan “Needs more than ‘regret,'” tweeted retired Lt.-Col. Michael Day, former commander of Canada’s special operations forces. “Good decent (reserve officer) has fallen prey to Political Ambition.”

A veteran and military communications consultant in Atlantic Canada, Tim Dunne, said Wednesday the rank-and-file are “not terribly happy” about the comments.

Now the minister has “two burdens he’s got to shoulder,” Dunne said: defending himself over his comments, and defending the impending review document to a military belaboured by decades of underfunding, which “looks like it may fall short.” 

A current defence official, who spoke to the Post on background because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, said Sajjan never promised the forces they’d get all of their asks, and that the review will succeed or fail based on whether it gets the strategic landscape right. Also top of mind is whether the minister can explain the “mystery” $12 billion in deferred spending, since “there’s lots of important projects we could allocate those deferred funds to.” 

That official said Sajjan’s comments on Op Medusa are “grounds for termination,” and that Trudeau’s response to the controversy — a spirited defence of Sajjan — “shows that he has no appreciation for basic notions of military honour.” 

But continuity is a good thing for the department, the official said, so bringing in a new minister at a critical time wouldn’t be helpful. 

David Perry, a senior analyst with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said “there’s a strong current of skepticism” with officials, but “the government of Canada shouldn’t publish defence policy based on what its soldiers think of the minister, or whether or not they trust him.”

Still, the two are connected, he suggested, arguing the military’s reaction to Sajjan’s Op Medusa comments was “heightened” by uncertainty around the defence review. “It’s behind schedule, and it’s delayed, and there’s a lot of concern that it’s not going to deliver much.”

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