‘We left part of our soul there’: What soldiers turned political opponents agree on about Canada’s war in Afghanistan

OTTAWA — As defence minister in the Liberal government, Harjit Sajjan insists Canada is doing all it can do rescue Afghans who fear for their lives. Conservative MP Alex Ruff insists he’s failed at every turn.

It would be easy to peg their respective positions as partisan, except that their feelings are not just political but also personal: both are military veterans of the war in Afghanistan.

So although they see the current crisis in that country — and Canada’s ongoing response — from different perspectives, what they’re feeling comes from the same place: they’re hurting.

Sajjan and Ruff are but two of the 40,000 soldiers who fought for Canada in Afghanistan, and have watched in horror — although not surprise — as the Taliban have retaken control of the country with breathless speed since the U.S. announced it was ending its combat mission there after 20 years.

“It’s damn heart-wrenching,” Sajjan told the Star in an interview, the steady tone he’s used at news conferences in recent weeks dissolving into a mix of anger and sadness as he recounted his years of service in Afghanistan.

Sajjan joined the Canadian Forces in 1989, and eventually rose to the ranks of lieutenant colonel. He deployed to Afghanistan three times.

Among other things, he was honoured for his work during one of Canada’s fiercest battles there, Operation Medusa in 2006 — although his actual role would later become a source of political controversy — which laid the fragile groundwork for peace in Kandahar province. When Kandahar fell back into Taliban hands in July, it was a gut punch for soldiers like Sajjan.

His mind filled with images of villages he’d trudged through, children he’d met, mobile medical clinics he and others had helped set up.

“Those thoughts don’t go through my mind in terms of it wasn’t for nothing,” he said. “It’s all the people that we couldn’t touch, that you can’t help.

“That’s hard.”

Sajjan won’t offer an opinion on whether Canada should have ended its own combat role in Afghanistan in 2011, or its contribution to training for Afghan national forces in 2014. Those decisions were a Conservative government’s to make at the time, he says, and he was far from the centre of political power at the time.

But with a seat in cabinet now, he’s making a personal push for Canada to step up and help the hundreds of Afghans who worked with the military when Canadian forces were there.

He remembers many of them. He shares the story of an interpreter whose decision to point out a man stealing a motorcycle led to Sajjan building enough trust with Afghans that not only did they help identify Taliban who’d infiltrated the village, they’d watch Bollywood movies with him at night.

Sajjan insists Canada will continue attempts to help interpreters and thousands of other Afghans who are now desperate to flee their country.

But he knows that Canada can’t save everyone. And it hurts.

“It’s hard as hell. You see your kids, having this beautiful life and opportunity here,” he said, reflecting on how he was raised in a small village in India before coming to Canada as a child, and the opportunities that the move gave him.

“How many opportunities are we losing with these Afghan girls and young boys who are never going to get this opportunity?” he said.

“So, it’s damn heart-wrenching.”

Ruff spent 25 years in the military, retiring at the rank of colonel in 2018, and making the jump to politics in 2019 as the Conservative MP for the Ontario riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound.

His last deployment was to Iraq. Prior to that, he’d done two tours in Afghanistan — a fierce battle he once waged against the Taliban was chronicled by the Star in 2007.

Watching what’s happening now in Afghanistan is hard, Ruff said during a recent news conference to push for faster action to support Afghans.

“The real hard days are the days when I’m talking to the family members, and those people are so close to people that we lost over there, because that’s when they really start questioning things,” he said.

Ruff is part of a network of war veterans who’ve been working around the clock for months now to track down Afghans who worked with Canadian forces during the war.

He says what’s motivating them is a sense that if Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan are to mean anything at all, Canada cannot just walk away.

“Was it worth it? The answer for me is, yes, it was,” he said.

“But only if we do the right thing now.”

Many veterans groups say the federal government was far too slow off the mark to help Afghans get out of their country.

Had they done as many ex-soldiers did — begin making contact and organizing months ago — far more people could have been helped before the formal evacuation effort ended last week, they argue.

Sajjan says work was being done for months, and one day the government will be able to lay out those details.

But he begrudges no one their anger — the raw emotions being stirred up now are felt by him, too.

“We left part of our soul there.”

SL Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz

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