Liberals face tough questions on Afghanistan, interim fighter jets

NATO has asked Canada to send police officers to Afghanistan to help train the war-torn country's beleaguered security forces

Damaged cars are seen after a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan May 31, 2017. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Damaged cars are seen after a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan May 31, 2017. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

OTTAWA – Although the Trudeau government launched its long term plan for modernizing the military last week, more immediate realities are tugging for attention on the Liberals’ list of defence priorities.

The government continues to grapple with two critical, short-term questions: what to do about “interim” fighter jets, and whether to take on a new role in Afghanistan?

The Canadian Press has learned that Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan met with the head of Lockheed Martin, the U.S. defence giant behind the F-35 stealth fighter, in Singapore earlier this month.

Word of Sajjan’s meeting with Lockheed president Marilyn Hewson come as the minister told CTV’s Question Period that the government is looking at “different options” for addressing a critical shortage of fighter jets.

The Liberals announced last November that they would address the jet shortage by purchasing 18 “interim” Super Hornets from Boeing, before holding a competition to replace all of Canada’s CF-18s.

But that was before Boeing complained to the U.S. Commerce Department that Canadian aerospace firm Bombardier had sold its CSeries jet liners at an unfair discount with help from the federal government.

The Liberals have since threatened to scrap the Super Hornet plan because of the dispute, which took another turn Friday when the U.S. International Trade Commission said it would continue investigating.

Sajjan’s spokeswoman Jordan Owens confirmed the minister met with Hewson at a defence summit in Singapore at the beginning of June, but could not immediately comment on the discussion.

However, a Lockheed official speaking on background said Hewson told Sajjan that her company was ready and eager to deliver F-35s on an urgent basis if required.

The Liberals recently spent another $30 million to stay at the table as a partner in the F-35 project, while Boeing for its part has emphasized its long-standing economic and commercial ties to Canada.

Meanwhile, Sajjan’s office said Sunday that NATO has asked Canada to send police officers to Afghanistan to help train the war-torn country’s beleaguered security forces.

“We just received this and are looking into it,” Sajjan’s spokeswoman, Jordan Owens, told The Canadian Press. “The door hasn’t been closed yet.”

The request comes as the U.S. and NATO seek to bolster the alliance’s footprint in Afghanistan, where local police and military forces have struggled against a resurgent Taliban.

The situation has been complicated by the arrival of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which has launched several deadly attacks across the country over the past year.

One NATO official, who was not authorized to comment publicly, said alliance members will gather in Brussels later this month to announce what they can provide.

That puts Canada, which ended its military mission in Afghanistan in 2014, on the clock to decide sooner rather than later whether to dive back into the conflict.

Any decision to send Canadians, even police officers, back into Afghanistan is sure to stoke strong reactions given the heavy cost of Canada’s military involvement in the country between 2001 and 2014.

Thousands of Canadians who served in Afghanistan during that period continue to suffer from physical or mental injuries, while 158 soldiers, one diplomat and one journalist were killed.

Canada also contributed billions of dollars in development assistance to the country – money that continues to flow in the form of about $150 million per year for aid and to pay the Afghan security forces.

Yet despite those investments of blood and treasure, peace and stability remain not only elusive, but increasingly scarce as Afghan security forces have lost ground to the Taliban, in particular.