Thursday, December 10, 2009

On detainees...yet again...all the time

My god, we've spent a lot of time and energy on this. I'm with Platt. Is this really the most important aspect of the Afghan file to be dealing with right now?

Regardless of whether we should be fixating on detainees and who knew what when, we are. And the conversation is spinning in so many different directions, I don't have enough arms to play whack-a-mole with all the poor arguments, thinly veiled attacks, and downright misinformation. But here, in no particular order, are my thoughts on a few of them.

"This just proves that we're not doing any good over there and should pull out immediately."

Well, so much for your crocodile tears on the plight of Afghan detainees. Do you honestly think Afghans will be more humanely treated by their jailors if we pull out?

No, you're just looking for another excuse to abandon the Afghans because you're against the mission. Whether or not Afghans were abused in jails by other Afghans is immaterial to your position. So give it a rest.

"Colvin's just an honest whistleblower, and doesn't deserve to have his reputation smeared like this."

The government has certainly gone out of it's way to appear thuggish with Colvin. Some of the criticism of him has been unprofessional at best. It has certainly been ill-advised. Colvin supports the mission:

I volunteered to go to Afghanistan. Canada’s objectives are noble: to help bring peace, prosperity and hope to Afghans after 30 years of war and the repressions of the Taliban.

And although he wasn't the first to make these arguments, he does present two of the only cogent arguments against the former Canadian detainee policy that I've seen: that if proven deficient, it could expose Canadian soldiers to war crimes prosecution; and that it undermines our campaign for the trust of the Afghan people. I think the seriousness of both of those arguments is overstated, but they're the best ones out there and deserve to be addressed. More on that later.

Unfortunately, some of what Colvin asserted needed rebuttal. Here's the first place I found the full transcript - read it yourself:

Frankly, the operational security argument makes no sense to me. If we go into a village and take away three Afghans, everyone in the village knows exactly who we have taken. In practice, the information was being concealed not from the Taliban, but from NATO ISAF, the Red Cross and the Canadian public.

To recap, Canada took far more detainees than the British and Dutch, and unlike our NATO allies, we conducted no monitoring. Instead of hours, we took days, weeks or months to notify the Red Cross, which meant nobody else could monitor. We kept hopeless records and apparently to prevent any scrutiny, the Canadian Forces leadership concealed all this behind walls of secrecy.


According to a very authoritative source, many of the Afghans we detained had no connection to the insurgency whatsoever. From an intelligence point of view, they had little or no value. Frankly, the NDS did not want them.

Some of these Afghans may have been foot soldiers or day fighters, but many were just local people, farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants, random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time, young men in their fields and villages, who were completely innocent but were nevertheless rounded up.

In other words, we retained and handed over for severe torture a lot of innocent people.

Much as Colvin avers that he has nothing but respect for Canadian soldiers, the above-noted passages are unfair to them. When he says we took far more prisoners than the Brits or the Dutch, the clear inference is that we took them unnecessarily. He reinforces that perspective with his assertion that we rounded up innocents. His opining on this front takes makes no allowance for the extensive use of gunshot residue tests in determining who is detained. Now it may be that many of those detained weren't considered of high enough value to the NDS to be kept in custody, or that the NDS was still figuring out how to deal with their newly-imposed legal burdens. But one cannot on one hand call the NDS an unprofessional band of torturers and abusers and on the other hand entirely trust their judgement or standards.

Furthermore, Colvin's assessment of what constitutes a valid operational security requirement is a bit outside his lane. I've been critical in the past of the CF's broad use of OPSEC. I feel it isn't being sufficiently balanced against the need for public information to make the case for the mission - another type of battle, but one that is also mission-critical.

But Rick Hillier makes a decent case for OPSEC in this passage from his book:

We were aware, very early in our mission, that the Taliban were putting an enormous amount of effort into trying to determine what had happened to their fighters and commanders. All they knew was that some of them...didn't come back from ambushes or firefights...One of their fighters would show up after being missing for a couple of weeks and the Taliban commanders would debate if he was still one of them or if he was a traitor...The more effort the Taliban put into determining what had happened, the less time and energy they had to plan and carry out attacks against us. That was an important edge and a fundamental reason not to talk at all about detainees.

I don't know if it outweighs the need to win over our own public, but it's a reasoned argument. And, Colvin's sensational and disappointing assertion notwithstanding, it puts the lie to any thought that senior CF leadership was being secretive just for the sake of being secretive, or to obfuscate the issue for the Canadian public. They honestly believed they were following the best course.

I'm not shooting the messenger. I'm simply pointing out that just because one man said it doesn't make it true. I only wish the Government of Canada could have done the same.

"Why attack Colvin? All he wanted was for Canada to do what the Brits and Dutch did and monitor detainees better."

First of all, I wonder just how much better Dutch and British detainees were treated by the fledgling Afghan justice system than ours were. I've expressed some curiosity about that in the past, but haven't been able to find any results online or through CF contacts.

For the sake of this discussion, let's assume our allies' MOUs were much more effective than ours - not just that they looked better on paper, but that they achieved better results.

We did emulate those agreements once we discovered concerns with our own. Some, like Colvin, will argue that it took too long, that we turned a blind eye. Fair enough. I have no idea who knew what and when. I suspect a few government ministers will shortly be discovering the consequences of their remarks in that regard. But without condoning misleading the Canadian parliament or public, if that was what happened, I believe one thing should be kept in mind when pursuing that line of criticism.

Think of Afghanistan as a very badly injured patient. A medical professional performs an assessment, and catalogues the injuries. The key in treating the patient is then to prioritize those injuries; you don't ice the bump on an elbow before you stem the abdominal bleeding, for example. The treatment of detainees shouldn't be at the top of that list. I have no doubt not everyone, especially on the political side, had motives this pure, but I'm sure some of those who tried to skate past this issue did so because they didn't want it to distract from other problems much more fundamental to the success or failure of the mission. They didn't want a sideshow to become the main show.

That hope has proved futile. And worse, counterproductive, as now it looks like they were trying to cover stuff up. So much for hoping it would all go away.

But back to the question at hand: monitoring detainees better, and setting priorities. As I've written before, there's a list as long as my arm of things that need fixing in Afghanistan. We're trying to help the Afghans fix them. Including their prison system, by the way. But the brutal and unfair truth is that the more we focus on detainees, the less we focus on something else. What else should drop off the table to accomodate our fixation on detainees? Because, like it or not, there's an opportunity cost to everything we do over there.

"People like you just want to stifle anything the least bit critical of Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, no matter how important the issue!"

Egad. Where to begin?

The other day on the CBC, I was accused of saying those who question our involvement in Afghanistan are unpatriotic. I made sure to correct the record: asking questions isn't unpatriotic, it's essential to a functioning liberal democracy.

But for heaven's sake, ask decent questions: here are some points I consider legitimate on the detainee issue. These are perspectives in opposition to my own that I can at least respect:
  • Complicity in torture could result in Canadians being tried for war crimes. Serious stuff, that, and worth a serious response. First of all, the CF has teams of lawyers whose job is to look into exactly those sorts of repercussions any time a policy is written. I would hope their professional judgment is proven sound. Either way, all the CF leadership can do is trust their experts on such a point. I do find it interesting that with all the missions Canadians have undertaken in all the failed and troubled states around the world over the decades, with all their desperate prisons and security services, this is the first time this concern is being taken seriously. I mean, who was talking about pulling out of Haiti because of the potential for Canadians to show up in the dock at the ICC? If the only places Canadian soldiers can be deployed are countries with a fully developed and accountable prison system, well, so much for "the world needs more Canada."

  • Handing detainees over to known torturers undermines our effort to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans. This concern is at least mission-focused. It likely has some truth to it, in that the Afghan government is largely mistrusted in the Pashtun south and east of the country, and any involvement with that government is going to reflect poorly upon international forces in the eyes of many. But there's the key: Afghans don't expect to be treated well in their own jails:
    Sadly, as an observer of Afghanistan who has closely monitored the security apparatus for almost a decade now, the revelations of Colvin are nothing new. Most Afghans would also express little surprise; their only shock would be over the naïveté of those who believe some form of torture is not a routine aspect of prison life in Afghanistan. You would be hard-pressed to find an Afghan who does not know someone, whether a family member or friend, that has not been mistreated in some form or another by the security establishment over the past eight years. One Afghan police official I spoke to during a recent trip looked puzzled when I inquired about prisoner abuse. He didn’t understand why Canadians are so fixated on the issue.

    Moreover, even if we're not involved with the prison system, we'd still have to be involved with the police, the army, the domestic ministries and NGOs, and the Karzai government at some level or another. So we can't actually escape that tarnish. All we can do is try to fix the image by fixing the root causes of the mistrust.

  • Handing over detainees to suspected abuse runs counter to Canadian values and cannot be tolerated. A principled objection, to be sure. As something of an idealist myself, I can appreciate this perspective. Unfortunately, I don't think we could accomplish anything in Afghanistan without making some compromises. That doesn't mean we don't promote our values. What it means is that we pick a place to start, and have some patience for their progress. Because I think one of our greatest Canadian values is compassion. And removing ourselves from the effort to aid Afghanistan because we were upset about one aspect of their national standards would be the least compassionate course of action. In other words, I don't believe we should throw the baby out with the bathwater on this issue.

  • This is yet another illustration of the futility of our commitment in Afghanistan. If we can't win, why waste our money and lives on the country? Again, I can appreciate this one. I know people who have lost friends and loved ones over there. I know people whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the experience, and not for the better. My only response is that I don't believe it's a lost cause, and I do believe the betterment of Afghanistan is worth continuing the fight. It benefits our own security to have a stable and productive country there, rather than a failed state that can once again become a haven for those who would hurt us. And helping those less fortunate than ourselves find their way is a very Canadian thing, to my mind.

I may not be swayed completely by these arguments, but I feel that, unlike "NO BLOOD FOR OIL" or some such idiocy, reasonable people can make them in good conscience.

And with that, I hope I can stay away from this issue for awhile. It's emotionally draining to deal with on a constant basis. I firmly believe it's tangential to the success or failure of the mission, and I desperately hope Canadians will see that at some point and move on to more weighty matters.

Unfortunately, I won't be holding my breath for either of those hopes to come to fruition.


Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...



3:38 p.m., December 10, 2009  
Blogger said...

Well put, bud!


3:39 p.m., December 10, 2009  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Very well said, Mark. Much more tempered that I can bring myself to be about it, since it's all yesterday's news, anyway; everything our military has done on this file for at least two years should be widely known and understood as a source of pride.

Still. Like it or not, this is a big public noise at the moment, and you bring some order to the clatter.

Very good post.

7:44 p.m., December 10, 2009  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Er, I should have written, "Very well said, Damian."

8:03 p.m., December 10, 2009  
Blogger James McKenzie said...

Here is how I interpret the situation.

The Liberals, due to a misplaced anti-americanism disguised as canadian patriotism, could not stomach handing over prisoners to the Americans, and made a political decision to hand them over to the unprepared Afghan security forces.

The Conservatives inhereted these procedures, which were not working. They slowly corrected the problem, after a bunch of public prodding.

The Canadian Military could potentially face charges of international war crimes for handing over prisoners into the custody of an army that could reasonably be expected to torture their detainees.

The Canadian Military, which was just following orders, could be tarred because of an inane and kneejerk POLITICAL decision made by the Liberals.

Rather than exploit this failure on the part of the Liberals, the conservatives are attempting to downplay the story, protecting the reputation of the Canadian Military.

The Liberals caused this mess with their infantile anti-americanism. They are now tarring the canadian military for following orders.

3:21 a.m., December 11, 2009  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

A good piece by Brian Lilley, Ottawa Bureau Chief Newstalk 1010 in Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal:

"The government's denials of torture and abuse in Afghanistan are unravelling"


9:19 a.m., December 11, 2009  
Blogger David V. said...

"Unfortunately, I don't think we could accomplish anything in Afghanistan without making some compromises. That doesn't mean we don't promote our values. What it means is that we pick a place to start, and have some patience for their progress."

Interesting thoughts here. It seems to me that if we're going to talk in terms of ethics, it would be hard to explain why tolerating torture is a necessary "compromise." It really doesn't particularly matter whether this is milder treatment than the Afghans would likely be receiving without Western intervention, or (especially) under a surviving Taliban regime. By our standards it is illegal, so it would be rather bizarre to kill and to sacrifice our own for the sake of "nation-building" projects that tolerated torture.

More to the point, as someone on the left who already opposed the war anyways, I think that this has less to do with its immediate effects on the war effort than regarding the appalling level of indifference and obfuscation which the government has demonstrated here.

It's not about the soldiers on the ground, it's about political (mis)management by politicos and generals here in Canada. Whether it matters to you or not, the government attempted to throw cold water on this by making statements that weren't true (for example, that there was no evidence of any mistreatment beyond unsubstantiated allegations by our enemies) with regard to actions that are crimes under Canadian and international law.

With respect to the Liberals being the original parents of these policies - this would be a problem only for loyal Liberals, which I am not and which,at least recently, a dwindling number of Canadians are. They should, and so far have not, faced accountability for the consequences of their elements of the Afghan war. But the Conservatives then responded by continuing the same policies until they were forced to reverse them, and then by attempting to mislead the public through misguided PR tactics. Seems to me both parties are guilty here.

9:50 a.m., December 11, 2009  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

David, thanks for your thoughtful response. I'll attempt to clarify.

I'm not saying we should tolerate torture. I'm saying that bringing a state from the point where mistreatment is commonplace to the point where it's abhorrent isn't a short journey. I've been linking to it a lot, but I don't know whether everybody has been following the link: we're working on making the Afghan prison system a better place.

I don't think you can fairly dismiss incremental Afghan progress and say something like "by our standards it's illegal" either. By our standards, the normal living conditions to which Afghan children are subjected are illegal. There's a lot about Afghanistan that doesn't live up to our standards. We're trying to help them move forward on each of these issues bit by bit.

As far as the political mismanagement of the issue, you'll find no argument from me. Although as you might expect, I'd give the generals a bit less of a rough ride. They made their mistakes, to be sure: overbalancing on the side of OPSEC rather than public information, assuming this was less of a serious threat to the CF's reputation than it was, trusting that the other gov't departments were doing their job on the file, trusting the politicians to have their backs on the political side, etc. But I think some of their "mistakes" are really only 20/20 hindsight and Monday morning quarterbacking.

I think the biggest mistake everyone on the file made was the priority level given to this issue. Because looking into this wasn't the Afghans' highest priority, and because it wasn't the military's highest priority in terms of the mission goals, everyone underestimated the domestic political repercussions.

10:08 a.m., December 11, 2009  
Blogger Dr.Dawg said...

More on the GSR issue here (scroll down).

7:08 a.m., December 12, 2009  
Blogger Babbling Brooks said...

Fair enough, Dawg. But a couple of points: we don't know if the CF was using the modified Griess test or another one, and I doubt the Taliban are using the newer leadless ammo that can cause the other false results. Regardless, we weren't rounding people up willy-nilly.

11:05 a.m., December 12, 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

The Liberals and NDP, in a purported bombshell announcement, have now proclaimed to the world, that they have found the smoking gun - the hard piece of evidence - that was needed as proof of Taliban torture, that our Canadian troops were complicit of, in Afghanistan. With this proof in hand , they now demand the resignation of Defense Minister Peter McKay, and want to launch a multi million dollar enquiry that will run for months, a final report for which many of us are lucky if it will be given in our life time, but is guaranteed to balloon bank accounts and secure a fat pension for scores of lawyers and an assortment of moochers, at the expense of the downtrodden and exploited Canadian taxpayer.
The facts of this piece of evidence, as documented by a soldier's field notes, are that in the heat of battle on the battlefield, not in a Afghan jail, a Taliban detainee in the process of being turned over to Afghan officials was attacked with an ordinary shoe. To their credit the fine brave men and women of our Armed Forces ,while under fire, immediately took him back into their custody to prevent this alleged case of torture from continuing.
The last case of a torture with a shoe attack, that I can recall, was when President George Bush was attacked with a shoe by a terrorist ( somebody said it was a member of the media, but as one kibitzer asked, is there a difference), and since the incident was recorded on TV, there was no doubt it occurred, and the proof was undeniable. However what is significant is - did President George Bush demand an enquiry for security, torture, abuse etc. Hell no - he just ducked and smiled and the world moved on, and the terrorist got his shoes back, taxpayers smiled, and everybody lived happily ever after.
Did the Liberals, NDP and the media, that now demand an enquiry for the attack, on a Taliban terrorist with a shoe, demand an enquiry or even raise a fuss, for a shoe attack on our ally the President of the United States? Did they even condemn this act of torture? You are right - not a whimper. The only question that remains is the cheers we heard from them, but were they for Bush or for the terrorist - dumb question you say and I agree. What's wrong with this picture - what am I missing? Is this the game of politics, as practiced by unscrupulous and sleazy politicians?

12:52 p.m., December 14, 2009  

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