Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan arrives in New Delhi, India, on April 18, 2017.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has apologized to Canadian, American and Afghan troops that he served with in Afghanistan for claiming that he was the “architect” of Canada’s most famous and bloodiest combat operation of that war.
The minister made the claim in a speech last week in India. He told a gathering of security experts in New Delhi on April 18 that “on my first deployment to Kandahar in 2006, I was the architect of Operation Medusa where we removed 1,500 Taliban fighters off the battlefield … and I was proudly on the main assault.”
Canadian soldiers on the move in Kandahar Province during Operation Medusa in 2006.
The description was denounced as “a bald-faced lie” by a retired Canadian officer familiar with the planning done for Operation Medusa in the late summer and fall of 2006. Other officers who served in Afghanistan expressed similar anger and disappointment in Sajjan’s speech.
“What I should have said was that our military successes are the result of the leadership, service and sacrifice of the many dedicated women and men in the Canadian Forces,” Sajjan said in a statement on Thursday. “I regret that I didn’t say this then, but I want to do so now.”
“Every military operation our Forces undertook in Afghanistan, including Operation Medusa, relied on the courage and dedication of many individuals across the Canadian Forces. My comments were in no way intended to diminish the role that my fellow soldiers and my superiors played in Op Medusa.”
Sajjan’s office provided a web link to the speech to the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation; the security think-tank put a video link to it online.
Op Medusa was Canada’s biggest combat operation since the Korean War, and it is still widely regarded as the biggest set battle of NATO’s long war in Afghanistan. At the time Sajjan was a reservist major serving as a liaison officer with Task Force Kandahar. It would be highly unusual for majors from the reserves to be the architects of large combat operations. Such duties in Afghanistan were the responsibility of generals and colonels in staff positions at headquarters in Kandahar, Kabul and Ottawa and of battalion commanders in the field.
“Making a statement like that is completely contrary to our military ethos,” said the former soldier who had called Sajjan’s remarks “a bald-faced lie.”
Other retired officers who spoke similar sentiments said they did so on condition that their names not be used because they are still involved in various military projects.
Soldiers from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry conduct operations in Kandahar Province as part of Operation Medusa, September 2006.
The Afghan vets who were part of Op Medusa said they liked “Harj” personally and described him as an effective intelligence officer. But they said they were flabbergasted he would claim to be at the centre of Canadian decision-making in Afghanistan in 2006. They described his remarks in India as “really quite outrageous.”
They said there was no single architect of Operation Medusa, describing it as a highly collaborative effort. Many Canadians with Task Force Kandahar and at higher headquarters were involved in the planning before and during the battle, which stretched over several months in the late summer and fall of 2006.
During his first of three tours in Afghanistan, Sajjan, whose civilian job at the time was as a police officer in Vancouver, gathered intelligence about the enemy, and was not part of the command’s decision-making process, the former officers said.
He was elected to as the Liberal MP for Vancouver South in October 2015 and named minister of defence a few weeks later by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Among the principal battle planners for Op Medusa were then Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, Canada’s task force commander and the International Security and Assistance (ISAF) commander for Regional Command South, as well as his planning staff and his battalion commanders in Panjwaii.
In his apology, Sajjan said Op Medusa had been “successful because of (the) leadership of General Fraser and the extraordinary team with whom I had the honour of serving.”
Op Medusa became famous in Afghan lore because it was the first and last time that Taliban forces massed in their hundreds and perhaps thousands for a battle. Because they were badly outgunned by ISAF forces, the Taliban usually chose to fight in small skirmishes. These often consisted of ambushes that began after homemade landmines were set off under Canadian vehicles or when Canadians went out on foot patrols.
Although no final Taliban death tally was released, there have been estimates that as many as 1,500 enemy fighters died during the battle. More recently there have been claims that the number of Taliban who died during Operation Medusa was considerably less than that.
Lt.-Gen. Michel Gauthier, commander of Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, speaks with Afghan army officers on the eve of Operation Medusa in 2006.