Politics

Trudeau Admin Prioritized Rescuing Afghan Sikhs over Canadians from Taliban, Failed Both

Canada’s Globe and Mail dropped another bombshell on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s faltering government on Thursday, revealing that Trudeau’s former Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan prioritized rescuing Afghan Sikhs ahead of Canadians after the Taliban stormed Kabul in August 2021.

According to three military sources who spoke with the Globe and Mail, Sajjan intervened after the Canadian military decided its top “operational priority” was to rescue Canadian citizens from the chaos unleashed by U.S. President Joe Biden’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The original priority list of Canadian special operators like Joint Task Force 2 (JTF-2) was to go after Canadian citizens and Afghans who worked directly for the Canadian government before the Taliban captured Kabul. “Vulnerable groups, such as feminists, human-rights activists, minorities and LGBTQ people” came next, and then anyone else who could be saved.

Sajjan stepped in and moved a group of 225 Afghan Sikhs to the top of the list and actively participated in their rescue, relaying “local information and other details about the Sikhs” to Canadian special operations forces.

“The way it was presented to us at first was: If we can do this and pay attention to it, great, but not stopping doing everything else. But a day or so later, it came back to us as a firm order. Our leadership was furious. They were very upset,” one special forces officer said of the order to rescue Sikhs first.

“There was such furious anger that the last 24 hours were solely dedicated to getting the Sikhs out. We were unsuccessful,” the officer said, adding a melancholy coda to the affair.

Other sources told the Globe and Mail that Sajjan’s effort to rescue the Sikhs failed because “the frightened Afghan Sikhs left the rendezvous point shortly before Canadian soldiers arrived to take them safely to Kabul international airport.”

Luckily for them, most of the Sikhs in question were able to survive the Taliban coup and escape to India several months later, some of them using planes chartered by the Indian government.

The Globe and Mail noted Sajjan is “an influential figure in the Sikh community whose father served on the board of the World Sikh Organization” and Trudeau’s Liberal party was desperately courting Sikh votes at the time.

Sajjan admitted all of the details of the story were correct, including his text messages to Canadian military forces in Afghanistan with information about the group of Afghan Sikhs, but he angrily denied he did anything improper by putting foreign nationals ahead of Canadian citizens on the rescue list.

Among other things, Sajjan argued that the Sikh group was in more direct jeopardy than the Canadians he bumped down the rescue list, although the fact that they survived and later evacuated to India would seem to argue against that contention.

The Globe and Mail’s sources also disputed Sajjan’s contention that diverting some troops to rescue the Sikhs was not a big problem, describing the change of orders during the mad chaos of the Afghanistan evacuation as a “logistical nightmare.”

Sajjan argued that the paperwork for the Sikhs had already been completed by Immigration Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and he merely “provided direction to the Canadian Armed Forces” to pick them up. The IRCC, however, was rather vague about whether it issued travel documents to any of the 225 Sikhs in Sajjan’s group or not.

“The operational details of how and where to do this work was left to military operational commanders and tactical decision-makers on the ground,” he insisted, essentially denying accounts from the Globe and Mail’s military sources that he took a much more direct hand in diverting resources to save the Sikhs.

David Lavery, a former Canadian special forces soldier who was in Kabul working with the Veterans Transition Network at the time of the evacuation, said it was entirely plausible that Sajjan’s actions left people who should have been higher on the priority list stranded in Afghanistan, while ultimately rescuing none of the imperiled Sikhs at all.

“I can guarantee we left people behind because of that. We probably left from 500 to 1,000 people, easy. Probably more than that. There are still hundreds we are trying to get out,” Lavery said.

Canada’s Department of National Defense (DND) mulled the story over and said ultimate authority for ordering troops on the ground in Kabul rested with the Chief of Defense Staff, who was (and remains) Gen. Wayne Eyre. This prompted one of the exasperated special forces operators to ask if they were supposed to disregard instructions from the Defense Minister of Canada as mere “suggestions.”

Sajjan angrily told reporters on Thursday that the Globe and Mail story was “utter B.S.”

“Those who were following on the evacuation missions and the events previously to that, know quite well that there was an approved government policy to safely evacuate as many vulnerable Afghans as possible,” he said.

“All effort was done to carry this out, to get as many people out as possible,” he said, insisting he did his best for both Canadian citizens and Afghans during the withdrawal crisis. Sajjan said it was “obvious” that the rescue policy put Canadians first, but urged the military to do what it could for foreign members of persecuted religious minorities.

Sajjan fumed that he would not be harassed about his actions as defense minister “if I wasn’t wearing a turban,” a line he also included in his written statement about the affair.

The World Sikh Organization backed his play, dismissing the allegations against Sajjan as “unfounded” and “influenced by bias against his Sikh identity.”

The WSO added that other Canadian officials tried to rescue Sikhs and Hindus during the Afghanistan withdrawal, including members of Canada’s opposition parties, although that point would seem tangential to the question of whether Sajjan gave orders during the crisis that interfered with special forces efforts to rescue Canadians.

Sajjan took some fire from an unexpected quarter when NDP party leader Jagmeet Singh, himself a Sikh, blasted the Liberal government’s rescue operations in Kabul as a “massive failure.”

“Canada has a responsibility to provide some relief to folks and didn’t do a good job,” Singh said, declaring himself agnostic on the question of whether Sajjan acted inappropriately by rearranging the rescue priority list on the fly.

Conservative MP James Bezan, the shadow defense minister (i.e. the opposition leader who specializes in criticizing the Liberals on defense issues) said the Sajjan controversy was another example of the Liberals failing the military “because they don’t trust or respect the expert leadership of our men and women in uniform, be it on procurement, recruitment or in operations.”

Former Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole called for a formal inquiry into Sajjan’s actions on Thursday, and another of Canada’s opposition parties, the Bloc Quebecois, said it will introduce a motion to hold parliamentary hearings.

“The government has a lot to answer for this because it is clear there were other politics and priorities at work,” said O’Toole, who led the Conservatives at the time of the Afghanistan evacuation in 2021. He is also a former officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

The current Conservative leader, Pierre Poilievre, said through a spokesman that his party will give “appropriate and due consideration” to Bloc Quebecois’ call for hearings.

The Sajjan controversy comes at a bad time for Trudeau and his Liberals, who are still reeling from a shattering election loss in Toronto-St. Paul’s this week, as Conservative Don Stewart won a seat held by Liberals for three decades. Trudeau resisted calls for his resignation after the debacle as more Liberal seats began looking vulnerable in upcoming special elections.

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