Tories Ask Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan If He Believes Afghan War Was A 'Mistake'

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A defence minister who fought the Taliban directly was asked Tuesday if he felt Canada's war efforts in Afghanistan were a mistake.

It was, perhaps, another example of how Harjit Sajjan's life has changed amid heightened pressure to explain Canada's contribution to the mission against the so-called Islamic State.

In question period, Conservative national defence critic James Bezan said his party was "very concerned" by Sajjan's remarks a day earlier, in which the minister warned against "repeating the mistakes of the past" when it comes to combat.

harjit sajjan
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan responds to a question in the House of Commons Tuesday. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

In the House of Commons Monday, Sajjan suggested he needed time to craft a plan that will not "send our men and women into harm's way for no reason." Liberals have pledged to pull Canada's CF-18 jets from Iraq and Syria and focus instead on enhancing the training of Kurdish forces on the ground.

In an interesting turn, Bezan reminded Sajjan that more than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan and 159 died.

"Was it a mistake that the hard work of our armed forces enabled millions of children to go to school, including over three million girls? Was it a mistake that we restored the rights of women so that they could work and have health care?" Bezan asked.

"Does the minister believe these successes, as we fought the Taliban, were all just a mistake?"

Sajjan, in turn, reminded Bezan that he served "from the start of the combat mission, right to the end." The remark sparked applause from Liberals.

The minister said he bore witness to both the successes of the mission and moments where those on the ground felt political leadership back home had "failed" them.

"And this is why I will take the time to make sure… as we create future plans… that those lessons are not lost," Sajjan said.

"Does the minister believe these successes, as we fought the Taliban, were all just a mistake?"

The Tory MP also highlighted how Sajjan ducked a reporter's question earlier on what Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion told anti-ISIS coalition partners when they met in Rome Tuesday. Sajjan urged the journalist to ask Dion what was said.

"Canadians really want to know who's actually in charge of the Canadian Armed Forces," Bezan said. "Is it the minister of defence or is it the minister of global affairs?"

The defence minister shot back that the "election is over" and that his words shouldn't be taken out of context. Again, he said the Liberal government's anti-ISIS plan will heed past lessons.

"When we come up with a plan, it will be a plan that Canadians can be proud of," he said.

Tories have repeatedly accused the Liberals of having a completely "incoherent" policy on ISIS and have called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep Canada's jets in the fight.

Pressure from the NDP, too

But while Tories are pressuring Sajjan to keep the CF-18s there, New Democrats are wondering aloud why it's taking so long to bring them home.

NDP national defence critic Randall Garrison rose in question period to point out that airstrikes are continuing despite a Liberal pledge in the election campaign to end the bombing mission.

Garrison asked Sajjan to confirm if the government was planning to expand the number of troops that will be on the ground in Iraq.

Sajjan responded that the new government is "committed to ending the airstrikes," but will do so in a way that considers coalition partners.

"There are a lot of things to factor in," he said. "When we do end (the bombing mission), it will be done in a responsible manner."

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