Harjit Sajjan on the difference between the Taliban and Islamic State, why Russia is not behaving like a democratic nation, what we may have done wrong in Afghanistan, and a candid answer concerning hisleast-favourite thing about being a politician
Canada’s war against the Islamic State has switched into a higher gear. Hundreds of our special operations forces are flooding into Iraq, backed by helicopters, deepened intelligence capabilities and deployments of more than 100 soldiers to neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan. And in Iraq, at least, the likelihood is that the troops will be in combat, since they are going in on the same advise-and-assist mission that saw Canada’s troops placed in harm’s way last year.
But Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s minister of national defence, doesn’t want to call it a war. Not yet, anyway. And don’t call it a combat mission either, even though there will be combat.
Despite the semantic evasions, Sajjan takes up his new post with a reputation for solving tough problems. He is not just a former lieutenant-colonel, an Afghanistan combat veteran and a former gang-unit detective. He is also reportedly an all-star thinker whose analysis of enemy networks in Kandahar Province earned him repeated tours and accolades. And it brought him to his current position.
Now, Sajjan’s training as an intelligence officer is being tested on a bigger stage. The world is complex, he says, and we can’t hope to stop threats unless we understand where they come from. Sajjan is always thinking about the big picture. As such, he sometimes sounds like he may suffer from the paralysis of a man who understands too much—aware of the situation’s complexity, of underlying causes and third-order consequences and the relentless nature of a negative feedback loop. The question then becomes one of where to act, when, and why.
To get a better sense of the new minister and his objectives, Legion Magazine conducted a brief, lighting-round-style phone interview with him as he sped toward the airport in Ottawa, slightly behind schedule. While he is certainly more forthcoming than many recent ministers, Sajjan has already picked up the politician’s game of dodging a question as if it’s a sport.
|The Honourable Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of National Defence, presents medals to the members of CANSOF Task Force during a visit to Iraq on December 21, 2015.|
PHOTO: SGT YANNICK BÉDARD, CANADIAN FORCES COMBAT CAMERA. IS01-2015-0007-040
Sajjan: It was not about winning or losing. It was about making sure we brought the Afghan National Security Forces and the government structure to a point where they were taking greater responsibility. You have to leave at some point; otherwise there is no long-term solution for it. And I think that was accomplished.
LM: Can you compare the Taliban to the Islamic State? Which one was or is the greater threat to Canadian national security?
Sajjan: ISIL is definitely a greater threat to Canadian security. The Taliban stayed within the borders. You didn’t have a lot of conversation regarding what they wanted to do outside their borders. The brutality is literally the same, but one thing is that ISIL uses social media to get brutality out. The Taliban were just as brutal, although only some of us who were in certain areas knew and witnessed some of that.
LM: Here’s something harder to understand: we responded to the Taliban with military force, and indeed, occupation of their country. But we respond to ISIL with more of a hands-off approach, with less combat. So can you describe why we respond to the greater threat with less force?
Sajjan: Well, it’s not about us bringing capabilities and force, it’s about the totality of what you’re trying to do. If you look at how long the United States was at war in Iraq fighting the insurgency, and in the end, some Sunni tribes came onto their side and things were okay and they left. And what happened all of a sudden was that ISIL, a small radical organization that came out of Syria, became so big. This fight has to be done by the local regime. Yes, we can go in and fight and potentially get to a stalemate and even win. But it’s not about just defeating ISIL, it’s about allowing the Iraqi forces to defeat ISIL so we can have more of a long-term solution. And that’s far more important, because at the end of the day, we only have so much force, even with the U.S. and the European Union working together.
“As you fight, if you do not deal with the
recruitment, you will just keep fighting.”
LM: It seems that Sunni extremism—an ideology that gave rise to both al-Qaida and ISIL—is the real problem here. How do we deal with Sunni extremism?
Sajjan: I think any extremism needs to be dealt with. And in this particular region, ISIL—a small but very radical group—is at the forefront. Any group gets its recruitment based on its population. Even though we’re fighting, what we’re really doing is buying time to separate the population from the radical group and once you do that you end up fighting a smaller organization. And that’s the critical piece that has to be done in Iraq.
LM: So your proposal to defeat Sunni extremism is to separate the extremists from the population?
Sajjan: Well, in any counter-insurgency strategy, you have to do that. As you fight, if you do not deal with the recruitment, you will just keep fighting. So the base that they have to recruit from is absolutely critical to getting the long-term success that we’re looking to achieve.
“Dialogue is the absolute key to
understanding Russia’s intentions.”
LM: What do you believe is the greater threat: ISIL or Russia?
Sajjan: You can’t separate them. You have to look at the threats in a different manner. With Russia, you have far greater regional and strategic issues. And with all the aggression they are showing around the world, the hope is that they’ll get back to a place of dialogue and be partners in the dialogue, which is better for their county. However, in ISIL you have a group you can’t negotiate with and so you have to deal with them in this [forceful] manner. So we need to be able to isolate that group and ensure they don’t take advantage of the political issues that have been created to push or pull the greater population. Once we isolate this radical organization in order to be able to destroy it, that’s going to be critical. But you can’t really look at which one is the greater threat. It’s like looking at apples and oranges, really.
LM: In your read, what is animating Vladimir Putin’s aggression? What is animating Russian aggression?
Sajjan: That’s pretty difficult to say for me, looking at it from the outside, like any other Canadian, having only recently gotten into this. It’s important to know what the person’s mindset is and what experience they have. When you’re leading a country like Russia, it cannot be done in an irresponsible manner, where you just invade other countries, regardless of what issues you have. Democratic nations deal with difficult issues. You come to the table and discuss them.
|Defence Minister, Harjit S. Sajjan speaks with Antoni Macierewicz, his counterpart from Poland during the annual Defence Ministerial Meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on February 10, 2016. |
PHOTO: SGT YANNICK BÉDARD, CANADIAN FORCES COMBAT CAMERA. IS01-2016-0001-010
Sajjan: I’ll be going to my first NATO meeting in a week and half or so, and these are a lot of the important discussions that we will have. It’s important to have the right balance, but I think dialogue is the absolute key to understanding Russia’s intentions. But NATO has a really important role and has had for a really long time. We have to stay unified. We’re going to stay steadfast with our partners, with Ukraine and some of the other Eastern European countries, but the opportunity for dialogue will always be there.
LM: Your career as a soldier is over. What was its defining moment?
Sajjan: In Afghanistan in 2006, when an infantry section allowed me to do the work I did, it really opened my eyes. Just because you have rank doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Some of the best answers and solutions come from unlikely sources. And I don’t know how many times that golden nugget of a clue we were looking for came from troops on the ground. I can look back and say, wow, our troops really are second to none. The thought processes they can bring to the table, the heart that they have, and the fight that they bring. They can easily turn around from doing humanitarian work in a village to fighting within the hour. Being able to switch on a dime like that is pretty hard to achieve. Just being able to work with people like that was the highlight.
LM: What is something you don’t like about being a politician?
Sajjan: I would say that the discussions that sometimes happen in the House take away from the real work that’s being done for Canadians. In Ottawa now it’s like being in a bubble and fighting to stay out of that bubble so you keep connected with Canadians and the real issues and what’s going on. In the Canadian Armed Forces, we do have a perspective on politicians, but at the same time we know that a lot of people who’ve gotten into politics, especially the colleagues I know, really do want to make a difference. When we serve, we all know that if you think you can make a difference and you have the capability and the experience that you should seek and accept responsibility. I felt that my experience was needed and I didn’t like how certain things were being done, so I stopped complaining about it because I felt I had the capability to do something and so I did.