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Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015
Brig.Gen. Jon Vance, right, speaks with Lt.-Col. Harjit Singh Sajjan in Kandahar City in 2008. Matthew Fisher/National Post
ROTA, Spain — Seven years ago, then Brig.-Gen. Jon Vance sought out Lt.-Col. Harjit Sajjan's crucial advice on whom to trust and whom to stay away from in the political and very real minefield that was Kandahar.
In a totally unexpected turn of events, it is now Gen. Vance, as Canada's top soldier, who will provide advice to Sajjan, who was named Wednesday as Canada's new minister of national defence.
They won't have to wait long to renew their relationship: The Canadian Forces are already spooling up to provide support for the new government's plan to quickly bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, a mission that has tentatively been given the working name of Operation Provision.
I was with a group of senior officers and NCOs on a NATO exercise in Europe as they listened intently on an Internet
link as the names of the new cabinet ministers were being read out in Ottawa. When Sajjan and his portfolio were announced there were hoots of amazement followed by immediate congratulations for a soldier turned politician that many of them knew and held in high regard.
Operating in the background in Kandahar City and even more dangerous places such as Zahri and the Horn of Panjwaii, Sajjan created a complex, proprietary chart that soldiers with Task Force Kandahar likened to "a spider web" because it identified and provided links between enemies, neutrals and those that Canadian and U.S. forces could safely work with. In so doing he worked closely with some of the most malignant and corrupt political leaders in Kandahar.
Sajjan collated such vital information for Jon Vance during his first tour as commander in Kandahar in 2008, as he had for then Brig.-Gen David Fraser in 2006. Sajjan did so a third time for then Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner when Milner led Task Force Kandahar in 2010-2011 as well as for U.S. Army Maj.-Gen. James Terry of the 10th Mountain Division, who commanded RC South for ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) at the time.
"Harj was the key. He developed a detailed, sophisticated understanding of the tribal and political dynamics," said Milner, who is now a major-general running the 1st Canadian Division.
"He (Sajjan) was very much right. Because of that he was our 'go-to guy.' He was a serious soldier but one you could also shoot the breeze with."
I came to know Sajjan during his tours with both Vance and Milner. We rode together in the back of cramped, unmercifully hot armoured vehicles as we navigated mine-infested highways and dirt tracks to meet with Kandahar's leaders — including ruthless, unpredictable war lords whose tentacles of influence reached into everything.
Sajjan spoke at length during the many stops that were part of those long, perilous journeys about how being from India and speaking Punjabi helped him to understand the Afghan culture and to communicate with locals who had learned similar languages while in refugee camps in Pakistan. Being a cop on some of Vancouver's toughest beats had, he said, given him insights into the pervasive quasi-criminal mindset that dominated much of Kandahar's leadership.
A former commander of the British Columbia Regiment, Sajjan discussed how his Sikh faith was one of his anchors and how proud he was that the Canadian Forces allowed Sikhs, who come from a long warrior tradition, to wear turbans as part of their uniforms while many other western armies did not.
"Harj kept coming back to Kandahar because he was the one who could reach out for us there," said Howard Coombs, a professor at Royal Military College who was Milner's civilian adviser in Kandahar. "He was not loath to establish first hand contact because he understood that that was the way to understand the nuances of the culture.
"I really respect him because he is intellectually agile. He impressed me more than others because he could adapt to a changing environment, with dissimilar cultures, roll with it and figure out ways to solve problems. He was real value-added."
When I spoke with Sajjan after he announced his candidacy for the Liberals in Vancouver South earlier this year, he modestly scoffed at my suggestion that he might soon become defence minister. In an email to me after winning his riding two weeks ago, he wrote that he was looking forward to reviewing the files on ISIL and Syria, among others.
But he gave no hint that he was being considered as minister of national defence, let alone that he might be immediately thrown this week into intensive planning with his old boss.
"I believe that the positive relationships that people establish in hazardous place such as Afghanistan bode well later on," Coombs said. "In this case it signifies something positive for defence that the minister and the commander of the Canadian Forces deployed together, worked well together and are back together again."
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