The federal Liberal candidate in Vancouver South, Harjit Sajjan, isn’t afraid to examine the “root causes” of terrorism. Although Prime Minister Stephen Harper has condemned this thinking as “trying to rationalize” extremist violence, Sajjan, a highly decorated lieutenant-colonel who served in Afghanistan, says it’s essential if Canadians want to understand security threats.
“I got to see the root causes of issues,” Sajjan, 44, said in an interview at the Georgia Straight building. “The Conservatives try to turn it into a taboo word but, regrettably, it’s not.”
Sajjan is also a former member of the Vancouver police gang squad, but he quit the force when he decided to return to Afghanistan for a third tour of duty. After returning to Canada in 2011, he became the first Sikh to command a Canadian military regiment. Although Sajjan openly stated that he was very good at fighting the Taliban, he said the solution for long-term success was thwarting its recruitment of young Afghans.
“We focused on building rapport and looking at what the real issues were,” Sajjan recalled. “Instead of living in bases, we lived with the population.”
He maintained that the Taliban is not a monolithic entity, and the key was isolating and defeating the most extreme radicals. He also stated that some village leaders supported the Taliban because they felt they needed help in countering corruption, land-grabbing, and extortion.
“They weren’t evil,” Sajjan said of the locals. “They were just people who wanted to live their lives.”
While doing intelligence work in Afghanistan, he relied on some of the same methods he employed on the Vancouver police gang squad to gather information on the Taliban. He has also taught this approach to Canadian and U.S. troops.
“The organizations are different, obviously, but when it comes to the psychology of recruitment, it’s really the same,” Sajjan said. “When young males want to eagerly join something [like a gang or the Taliban], they usually have a lack of self-worth and want significance in life. They usually have seen something that they feel is social injustice, and they think they’re going for a good cause. Sometimes the cause may not be good, but in their mind at a young age, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.”
He believes that young males are at greatest risk for gang recruitment after making the transition from elementary school to high school. That’s because they move from being big and important in Grade 7 in elementary school to being “small fish in a very big pond” in secondary schools.
“I think Grade 8 to 10 is the most vulnerable period in high school,” he said. “That’s when there’s organized recruitment, and they create the situation to pull some of these kids into that lifestyle.”
Sajjan moved to Canada from the small village of Bombeli, Punjab, when he was five years old. “I came at a time when we had nothing.”
He chuckled as he recalled visiting Afghan villages and hearing fellow Canadian soldiers express shock at how hard people’s lives were. “I said, ‘Actually, this was better than what I had.’ ”
Sajjan pointed out that most Afghans wanted the same things as most people in Canada: security and a job. It’s why he opposed sending millions of dollars of aid into poverty-stricken areas. “It’s actually insulting because these people are very happy where they are,” he maintained. “If you do this, it will create a state of dependency, and that’s going to cause problems for us in the future.”
He claimed that most Afghans despised the Taliban. Military operations gave Canada the time to identify the problem, which was often corruption.
And alleviating it, Sajjan said, would undermine the Taliban’s ability to recruit new members. He described the root cause as the “have” tribes not sharing with “have-not” tribes.
Sajjan suspects that this dynamic has also contributed to the rise of ISIS, with Iraq’s Shia-led government failing to extend any help to Sunnis. However, he emphasized that he can’t be certain about that because he hasn’t delved deeply enough into this issue to consider himself an expert on the subject.
To him, the central point is that if young males have a grievance and don’t have meaning in their lives, a radical group can give them a cause around which to rally. It’s one of the reasons why he’s so keen to become a politician: so he can promote mentorship programs to help youths at risk and enable them to reach their potential.
“No one should be surprised that ISIS became this radical, because in the evolution of gangs, organized crime becomes far more violent,” Sajjan noted. “We could have seen this coming.”