07/21/2016 07:11 EDT | Updated 07/22/2016 09:59 EDT

Donald Trump's NATO Comments 'Not Helpful': Harjit Sajjan

The Republican nominee said some NATO members aren't spending enough on defence.

OTTAWA — Donald Trump's comments that, if elected president, the U.S. wouldn't automatically come to the aid of allies are "not helpful," Canada's defence minister says.

The Republican nominee caused a stir this week when he said some NATO members aren't spending enough on defence, and are instead relying on the U.S. to protect them. That would change if he's elected, Trump told the New York Times.

"We're talking about countries that are doing very well," he said. "I would absolutely be prepared to tell those countries, 'Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.'"

While Trump appeared to be directing his comments at European allies, Canada spends less than one per cent of its gross domestic product on defence. That is half the NATO target and puts Canada near the back of the pack among the alliance's 28 members.

Harjit Sajjan arrives at a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, June 14. (Photo: Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

In an interview with The Canadian Press Thursday, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan defended Canada's military contributions and NATO. He pointed to Canada's recent promise to lead a NATO force in Latvia and its role in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant as proof the country is pulling its weight.

"We're stepping up in a much bigger way," Sajjan said. "When you put everything together, we have nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, we actually can be very proud of the fact of how much we're doing."

Article 5 of the NATO treaty enshrines the concept of collective defence, in which an attack on one member is an attack on all. The only time it was invoked was after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, which led to the war in Afghanistan.

Some Eastern European members have worried Article 5 will not be honoured if Russia takes action against them. That is partly why Canada and other allies are sending troops to the Baltics and Poland, to reassure those countries that the alliance stands with them.

"When you put everything together, we have nothing to be embarrassed about."

Trump's comments, however, have the potential to stoke fresh concerns about the alliance's unity, particularly as it faces a new Cold War with Russia.

Sajjan said collective defence is central to the alliance, which itself has been instrumental in helping bring peace and stability to Europe and other parts of the world.

"So those comments that are made are not helpful," Sajjan said. "But I understand there's an election campaign and that'll take its course."

Sajjan was speaking from Washington, where defence and foreign affairs ministers spent the past two days talking about the campaign against ISIL — and what will come after.

"Those comments that are made are not helpful."

The immediate challenge is the liberation of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, which ISIL, also known as ISIS or Daesh, has occupied since June 2014.

The minister announced in Washington that Canada will send up to 60 military personnel to lead a nearby field hospital in support of the Mosul assault. That is in addition to the 200 special forces troops already in the area, many of whom are training Kurdish peshmerga forces in preparation for the attack on Mosul.

The liberation of Mosul, which U.S. officials say contains about 1 million civilians, is expected to be the most difficult military operation of the fight in Iraq. Sajjan would not comment on the role Canadian troops would play when the assault begins, citing operational security.

What happens after ISIL is defeated?

But Canadian military personnel have taken the lead in helping the Iraqi government in Baghdad prepare for the aftermath of the Mosul offensive, Sajjan said, as well as the post-ISIL era. This includes what to do with the millions of Iraqis displaced by the conflict with ISIL, and organizing reconstruction efforts.

"We are finally starting the discussions about what's needed after the operation,'' he said. "That plan is going to be created, so we can set the conditions so the people of Iraq, once Daesh is actually defeated, can get back to a normal state of life and have stability in their political structure.''

Such work is essential for ensuring the political, religious and ethnic divisions that contributed to the rise of ISIL in the first place are eliminated, he said, so terror can't take root in the country again.

"If you don't get the political piece right, and deal with the underlying issues that created Daesh in the first place," he said, "we're going to be dealing with the next evolution of Daesh."

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