Harjit Sajjan: Canada's Iraq Plan Won't Repeat Mistakes Of Afghan War

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OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan argued Friday in favour of a calm, considered recasting of Canada's combat mission in Iraq.

He pointed to past mistakes, saying that in the Afghan war some well-intentioned development aid actually fuelled corruption and instability.

The Trudeau government — the rookie defence minister in particular — is under increasing pressure to outline what sort of "meaningful commitment" it will make to the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant once CF-18 jet fighters are pulled back.

harjit sajjan
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks during a conference on foreign affairs in Ottawa. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Impatience boiled over in the House of Commons this week during question period and is evident in the diplomatic community, which has been pressing Sajjan behind closed door for weeks for specifics of what the commitment actually means in terms of hardware and capability.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised a more "robust" training mission, but Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion warned this week that Canada will not be able to give its allies everything they want — something Sajjan reiterated on Friday.

Speaking at the closing of the Canada 2020 foreign policy conference, Sajjan politely pushed back at critics, saying a measured approach is needed, considering the ripple effect of decisions. The cabinet debate is focused on understanding the consequences of its decisions.

To illustrate his point, Sajjan produced a slide detailing the intricate, often-confusing spider web of tribal relationships he dealt with in Kandahar as a liaison officer who sifted through intelligence.

"Some of our development strategies of the coalition partners in Afghanistan helped create the corruption that fuelled the insurgency."

He suggested the so-called war on terror has failed.

"Over the last 10 years, we need to do a really hard assessment," he said. "Should we be patting ourselves on the back? And, I'm talking from a security perspective around the world, I think we can say things have not gotten much better. Things have gotten worse."

He said the western coalition in Afghanistan lacked a clear understanding of the situation on the ground, the parties involved and the impact of its intervention, which contributed to Afghanistan's downward spiral after 2006.

Had the allies recognized some of the signs early and adjusted their strategy, a surge of thousands of U.S. troops into Kandahar in 2009 might not have been necessary, he added.

There were other mistakes, particularly when it came to the billions spent on reconstruction.

"Some of our development strategies of the coalition partners in Afghanistan helped create the corruption that fuelled the insurgency," he said.

It is a startling admission from a minister, particularly in light of the fact the Harper government was adamant that the development picture was a success, but Sajjan said he remarks were not meant to be partisan.

But whether his analysis turns into policy paralysis remains to be seen.

Not invited to Paris meeting

After not being invited by the U.S. to two ad-hoc coalition meetings in Paris, Sajjan said he's looking forward to meeting his counterparts at NATO in Brussels on Feb. 10-11, but would not guarantee that he'll have a plan for them to review.

The opposition Conservatives have made the absence of a credible ISIL plan almost daily fodder in question period and claim the Liberal government is letting down its allies at a critical juncture.

The diplomatic community in Ottawa has followed the debate closely and struggled to understand where the new government is headed, said two allied officials, who spoke separately on background because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The political furor over the Paris meetings surprised at least one them, who said in the hard-headed world of international relations, actions speak as loudly as words.

"If you don't want to be in the business of bombing any more, and there is no plan, why would you want a seat at the table?" the official asked.

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