B.C. reservist’s ability to build ‘genuine rapport’ earned Afghans’ trust

Published: May 8, 2014
Canada-British Columbia-India

Lieutenant-Colonel Harjit S. Sajjan

JOHN COLEBOURN
VANCOUVER DESI

Name: Harjit Sajjan, 43

Rank: Lieutenant-Colonel

Hometown: Vancouver

Afghanistan Dates: Three deployments: 2006-2011

On his first deployment to Afghanistan as a Canadian military reservist in 2006, Harjit Sajjan relied on the skills he learned as a gang squad member while he was with the Vancouver Police Department.

But there were days where no amount of training would prepare him for the physical and mental challenges of being a front-line soldier involved in the critical intelligence-gathering part of the Canadian mission in the dangerous Taliban-controlled Panjwayi District, located about 35 kilometres west of Kandahar City.

Sajjan, 43, began his military reserve service in the Bosnian conflict and went on to proudly serve on three missions to Afghanistan. His third deployment to Afghanistan was with the famed American 10th Mountain Division as a special adviser to U.S. General James Terry.

The highly-decorated general picked Sajjan for his information-gathering intelligence efforts with the villagers in the Kandahar region that was key to the success of the Canadian-led “Operation Medusa” (Sept. 2-17, 2006).

Leading up to Operation Medusa, Sajjan recalls how the Canadians were shocked through their day-to-day interactions with the locals about how many armed Taliban were holed up all around them in the Panjwayi District.

“There were clues popping up all over the place,” he said of evidence they were gathering that showed the Taliban was operating, and more importantly, recruiting in of the rugged, inhospitable area. “We figured out the Taliban were building a base in our backyard in Kandahar City, “ said Sajjan.

Once they began the critical task of communicating with the villagers, Sajjan said they were able to determine that 1,500 Taliban were keeping a low-profile presence in the region.

“I knew from my experience as a police officer that if you focus on building a genuine rapport, the people who eventually trust you will supply the information,“ said Sajjan. “Some of us owe our lives to the Afghans who helped us. I lost count of how many times we would be told there was an ambush set up.”

BC Armed Forces-Vancouver-Sikh

Lieutenant-Colonel Harjit S. Sajjan

And while the aim was to peacefully find out key information, there was always the risk of confrontation.

“We did a lot of fighting, we had to,” recalls Sajjan. “But as we were fighting, we were turning off the tap — we were fighting corruption on their behalf,” he said.

“Very few people had better intelligence on the Taliban than we did.”

As well, Sajjan said the inroads they were making helped slow down the new recruits the Taliban were hoping to bring into their ranks.

One of the toughest parts of the Afghan service work was the heat, admits Sajjan.

“The only way I can describe it, is to put yourself in an oven.”

Another constant stress was the missiles flying through the air, especially at night. “You would be sleeping and the rockets would come,” he said. “You would hear the whistle and roll out of bed before the explosion.”

Like other soldiers who saw unspeakable things during their duty, Sajjan admits it can be tough when you get home.

He keeps in touch with many of the people he served with and thinks it is gratifying to know that on Friday Canada is taking time to recognize their efforts.

He feels it is important Canadians recognize the sacrifices soldiers have made in not just Afghanistan — but all wars.

“Remembrance Day or this service for the Afghan vets, it is the best way to honour us,” he said. “It means to me that you don’t take for granted what we have in Canada.”

“Canadians have a lot to be proud of with their soldiers,” he said.

Sajjan moved from the police force to a military position in 2010. He is now a Lieutenant-Colonel serving as commanding officer of the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own). Sajjan is the first Canadian Sikh soldier to take commmand of the B.C. Regiment.

“The work I did back here helped,” he said of his early policing career in Vancouver. “We wanted to communicate with the locals, help out, and once we built up that rapport it was the people who let us know what was going on. I knew from my experience as a police officer that if you focus on building up a genuine rapport, the people who trust you will supply the information.

“Sometimes, simple gestures go a long way.”

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