Sajjan hints at boost to military funding but is guarded about his recent controversy

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Sajjan hints at boost to military funding but is guarded about his recent controversy

Post by Loader on Thu 04 May 2017, 09:08

By Bruce Campion-Smith Ottawa Bureau, May 03 2017


Lee Berthiaume - Videographer


OTTAWA—Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is dangling the promise of “significant” new funding to help Canada’s military dig itself out of a hole caused by years of underfunding that now threaten core capabilities.

But first Sajjan has to dig himself out of a hole of his own making, caused by his own statements overstating his role during a major offensive in Afghanistan.

Sajjan has retracted his controversial claim that he was the “architect” of Operation Medusa in 2006 and apologized.

In an interview with the Star Wednesday, Sajjan wouldn’t talk about the term “architect” or say what prompted him to use it to describe his role in the Afghan battle.

“I’m not going to make excuses for it. Rationalizing, giving reason, is about making excuses, and I’m not going to do it,” Sajjan said.

The defence minister, who did three tours in Afghanistan, was even guarded about speaking about his time there, this time eager to avoid any hints of boasts.

What I don’t want to get into here is also talking about what I did,” Sajjan said, adding that he didn't want to “showcase” his work.

But he was quick to clarify his role. He says he was not, contrary to many reports, an intelligence officer. “I’m an armoured reconnaissance officer by trade,” he said.

“I did a lot of different things at different times... So a lot of people saw me in different ways,” Sajjan told the Star.

He says he was seen as a liaison with the Afghan police, called a cultural advisor, sometimes mistaken for an interpreter, even a cleaner.

Yet he describes a role gathering information as he worked with the battle group, the provincial reconstruction team and the command team at the multinational brigade at various points, he said.

“At the end of the day I was there to do a job, and I used my experience,” Sajjan said.


It was the underfunding of those “bread and butter projects,” that were the main focus of Sajjan’s address to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and which senior defence officials say pose the biggest problem.  (Adrian Wyld)  


“We were able to bounce around, do all these things in some very difficult circumstances, in a lot of different villages and find out what was really going on which helped us immensely for everybody,” he said.

“Because I was involved in so many different things, I began piecing things together and those pieces of information led to a lot of things that I was involved,” Sajjan said, during the interview on Parliament Hill.

And he says that intelligence paid dividends.

“I know what we accomplished. I worked with a vast array of people in different organizations... Yeah, the information was extremely useful for Operation Medusa and some of the other work down the road,” he said.

Yet he went further when speaking to an audience in New Delhi last month, telling them that he was the “architect” of that operation, a major offensive to regain ground from the Taliban around Kandahar.

When that characterization was challenged, Sajjan said he felt dismay at his choice of words.

“I was more upset at me that I… possibly took anything away from somebody else who had served. I’ve always made it a point to recognize folks who, there are so many people who allowed me to do my work,” he said.

But he had said it before, telling a B.C. interview in 2015. that Gen. Jonathan Vance, the current chief of defence staff who was previously a commander in Afghanistan, saw him as a key figure in the 2006 offensive.

“If I could quote him, he said I was the architect of Operation Medusa,” Sajjan said in that interview almost two years ago.

Asked Wednesday whether Vance would agree with that assessment, Sajjan appeared to back down. “I made a mistake in characterizing my role in that,” he said.

The controversy has put Sajjan in the crosshairs of Conservative MPs. Again Wednesday, they called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to bounce Sajjan from cabinet. Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose said the minister’s reputation is “forever tarnished.”

“The only thing that is going to fix this is someone new and a fresh start,” Ambrose said in the Commons.

The controversy — which has called Sajjan’s credibility into question — couldn’t come at a worse time, just as the defence minister prepares to sell Canadians on a new vision for Canada’s military — and big investments required to pay for it.

Sajjan used an Ottawa speech Wednesday to deliver a reality check on the state of the military, warning that the army, air force and navy have all been underfunded.

“The state of affairs is, in some ways, worse than realized by most observers,” he said.

“Governments have not delivered predictable, sustainable, long-term funding for the Canadian Armed Forces,” Sajjan said.

Instead, he said that under successive governments, defence spending has been up and down. Today, with a defence budget of around $19 billion a year, Ottawa spends less on defence than it did in 2005, as a percentage of GDP, Sajjan said, and even that is not enough.

“We are now in the troubling position where status quo spending on defence will not even maintain a status quo of capabilities,” he said.

Sajjan vowed that the coming defence policy review would deliver a strategy and funding to fix those problems.

“It will be a plan to get out of the hole we are starting in, and it will be a plan to build an even stronger military,” Sajjan said in a speech to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

“It will be a plan to allocate realistic funding to those ‘bread and butter’ projects that will keep our military running efficiently and effectively for years to come.”

But the cost of tackling the required upgrades and replacements just to retain existing capabilities has been estimated at “tens of billions of dollars,” according to one senior government official.

Sajjan acknowledged that the funding needs are “significant” and hinted that the Liberals would respond.

“By us outlining it, we own it now and have to do something about it. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Sajjan said.

But Peggy Mason, of the Rideau Institute think tank, said that “hard choices” will need to be made.

“Because to do everything that one can credibly argue Canada needs to do would require massive military spending increases that the Canadian public simply won’t support,” Mason said during a question-and-answer session.

Asked whether the controversy has hurt his standing in the eyes of the rank-and-file, Sajjan said they will ultimately judge him on his actions, notably the coming release of defence policy review.

“I think that’s how any minister or any government will be judged. ‘What did you do?’ So it’s our actions that will speak louder,” he said.

https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2017/05/03/military-grappling-with-years-of-underfunding-sajjan-acknowledges.html
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