National Column: Sajjan ‘architect’ fuss a scandal about nothing

by Thomas Walkom

In the end, Defence Minister Harjit’s Sajjan’s sin is grammatical.

He has described himself as “the” architect of a 2006 Canadian-led mission against the Taliban during the Afghan War. He should have said “an” architect.

For this, he is being pilloried in the Commons. Opposition MPs have called him a liar and demanded he resign.

A scandal about nothing, it is a classic case of Ottawa overkill.

And like many faux scandals, it obscures the real story – which in this case is that the 2006 mission in question, Operation Medusa, ultimately didn’t work.

Politically, Operation Medusa was critically important for the newly deployed Canadian battle group in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province.

The largest Canadian-led operation since the Korean War, Medusa gave the then-Conservative government a chance to have its troops show their stuff – both to the voters back home and to other coalition partners in Afghanistan.

The attacks on Taliban forces hunkered down in Kandahar’s Panjwai and Zhari districts were also crucial militarily. Previous efforts to pacify these districts had failed. The Taliban would melt away and return after coalition forces had gone.

Operation Medusa, which included U.S. and Afghan troops, was supposed to be the first step in a longer battle for the hearts and minds of the Taliban heartland.

This is the situation in which Sajjan, an undercover Vancouver drug cop and military reservist, found himself.

According to a letter later sent to Vancouver’s chief constable by Brig. Gen. David Fraser, the top Canadian commander in Afghanistan at the time, and later obtained by the online publication National Observer, Sajjan was a marvel.

Calling him “one of the most remarkable people I have worked with” Fraser said that Sajjan “single-handedly changed the face of intelligence gathering and analysis in Afghanistan …

“His analysis was so compelling that it drove a number of large-scale theatre-resourced efforts, including Operation Medusa,” the general wrote, adding that Sajjan’s experience as an undercover cop and his ability to understand criminal networks made him particularly useful in navigating the shoals of Afghan affairs.

“He was the best single Canadian intelligence asset in theatre,” Fraser wrote.

“He personally fused broad sources of information into an extremely coherent picture upon which most of the formation’s major operations were based.”

All of which suggests that Sajjan wasn’t entirely wrong when he twice referred to himself as the architect of Operation Medusa – first in a 2015 interview and more recently at a conference in India.

He may not have been Medusa’s sole architect.

But he was one of them.

Technically, Operation Medusa was a success. Twelve Canadians died, including one mistakenly killed by a U.S. warplane. But 1,500 Taliban were killed or captured and many of the rest forced out.

Like so much in the Afghan War, however, victory was fleeting. The Afghan National Police were unable, or unwilling, to hold the ground that had been taken. In Sept. 2007, the Canadians launched Operation Keeping Goodwill to recapture some of the areas in Zhari district that had been lost.

By this time, according to the Washington Post, the number of Taliban fighters in Panjwai were back up to pre-Medusa levels.

In 2010, Canadian forces were fighting again for the Panjwai, this time as part of Operation Hamkari.

By the end of 2011, the Canadian battle group was effectively out of Kandahar province. By 2014, it was out of Afghanistan altogether.

In the final analysis, it’s not clear what good came out of Canada’s 12-year deployment. Some 158 Canadian soldiers were killed. The Taliban still fights on. The war still rages.

If MPs want to debate the usefulness of anti-insurgent warfare, a long hard look at what Operation Medusa accomplished might be a good place to start – regardless of who its architects were.

But that is not what is being debated in the Commons. Instead, Conservative and New Democrat MPs are hammering away at the reputation of a man, who by all accounts, performed admirably – albeit in a losing cause.

How does that help?

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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