Saturday, June 25, 2011

Detainee Obession and Distraction

First, a couple of caveats: I am not a scholar of international law; and I am not a Canadian who lived through Somalia of 1993.  Second, I do respect that Canada holds its troops and leaders to more accountability on detainee issues than the US.  I find it appalling that few folks paid a significant price for Abu Ghraib.

Having said that, I do not think the Canadian public has been well-served by the media's and the opposition parties' focus on detainees in Afghanistan.  To be clear, the issue is not about whether the Canadian Forces deliberately transferred Afghans they picked up so that they could be tortured by the Afghan authorities.  This is not a question of American-style rendition.  Nor is it a question of whether the Canadians abused Afghans.  No, the question is: what happens to the detainees once they are handed over to the Afghanistan authorities? 

Clearly, some were abused, as Afghanistan has not had the same set of standards or capacity that Canada does.  Is this a serious issue?  Certainly.  Has the Canadian military taken this seriously?  Well, I have not read the thousands of documents, but I am pretty sure.  Indeed, it is very clear that the detainee issue is one of the four highest priorities for any and all Canadian commanders sent to Afghanistan.  The problem is one of working in a sovereign country (sort of) without the ability to rely on the traditional mechanism (hand detainees off to the Americans who usually are big enoguh to have a facility).  While the original agreement with Afghanistan was far from perfect, the Canadian Forces did stop handing over detainees when they found the Afghans to be abusing them.  How do I know this?  I observed it on a ten day trip to Afghanistan in December 2007.  I am pretty sure the reporters embedded in Kandahar had a good idea of what was going on back then.  The funny thing is that this timeline shows the abuses but does not show that transfers did stop for a while.

Again, to be clear, was there a risk of abuse?  Yes.  Did the CF know that this risk existed.  Sure.  Did they know that guys were certainly going to be abused?  No.  I am pretty sure international law (again, I am not a lawyer) focuses on probabilities, not possibilities.  

Anyhow, the detainee issue has been the focal point of media coverage and of the opposition in parliament.  I find this to be a distraction because these same folks have obsessed about this rather than focus on much more significant issues for the success of the mission, for Canada's impact in the world, and for the accountability of politicians at home.  What would those be?

  • What was the source of the intelligence failure in 2005-2006 (and not just by the Canadians) to underestimate the strength of the Taliban in Southern Afghanistan?  Perhaps it was simply the nature of insurgency to be surprised, but the intensity of the violence was much higher than expected.  Folks should have pondered why NATO blew this--was it wishful thinking?  Or just the fog of war?  I am not saying there is a scandal here, but this is something that bears investigation.
  • Likewise, what has been the role of Foreign Affairs and the Canadian International Development Agency in some of these things that have focused on the military?  What was their role in the decision to go to Kandahar?  The tale is often that the head of the military, Hillier at the time, pushed that decision, but that underplays the reality that Foreign Affairs also was interested.  Where were Foreign Affairs and CIDA on detainees?  This was not solely a military obligation.  Indeed, the "whole of government" rhetoric is more worthy of analysis than the detainee issue--did the Canadian government apparatus do right by the Afghan mission?  Did it overcome the bureaucratic battles to deliver and to improve?
  • Hey, what were the appropriate goals: facilitating the NATO mission or making progress in Kandahar?  Huge temptation for Canadian politicians to insist on putting big Maple Leaf flags over everything, but does that facilitate a sustainable Afghan government?
  • By trying to hide the mission, perhaps the government was responsible for the confusion.  Insisting on tight message control by the civilians (talking points written by the Privvy Council Office) meant that the civilians in the effort would never get much media coverage.  So, perhaps the media and the opposition could have investigated the uneven constraints on the messaging of the war.
  • If we want to focus on the detainees, how come there is a prison break every three years?  We apparently have been training the Afghans to treat their prisoners well, but not to keep them in jail.  Indeed, how about this: the Afghans have been releasing heaps of folks that had been transferred despite pretty clear guilt.  So, catch and release?
  • My favorite question: heaps of corruption in Afghanistan--which ones were most problematic for the effort?  Which ones did not matter much?
Calling the detainee issue a scandal is problematic.  Why?  According to one online dictionary, a scandal is:
1.  a disgraceful or discreditable action, circumstance, etc.
2.  an offense caused by a fault or misdeed.
3.  damage
to reputation; public disgrace.
It is debatable that any of these apply to the Canadian Forces and the detainee issue.  Disgraceful?  No.  Problematic, sure.  But this is a difficult issue: how to ensure proper treatment when it is not your country, but discreditable is a bit too far.  It may damage the CF's reputation but only through the obsessive focus on the wrong set of issues.*
*  The Forces have taken a hit or too for having a Colonel who committed murders in Canada and for a general who had to be cashiered in Kandahar for inappropriate behavior with insubordinates, and rightly so.   
 Again, the care and treatment (and disposition) of detainees is something that folks do need to monitor and care about.  It just is not the most important issue, and we need to be clear about the tradeoffs and limits when doing counter-insurgency in a country with a very different history and with a very different set of norms.  As usual, it is really not the behavior on the ground that mattered so much, but the communications about it.  Perhaps there is a bit of a scandal in how the government reacted to the inquiries, but unless some of the documents reveal some serious lying by the guys on the ground, the real scandal is in Ottawa and not Kandahar.

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