Friday, December 11, 2009

Detention Scandal, Canadian Style

The issue of detention has been a hot issue periodically up here, and it gained new heat lately due to a variety of accusations, defenses, and retractions.  The basic issue is not whether Canadians abused Afghans that they had picked up, but whether the Afghan authorities abused prisoners that the Canadians had turned over.

First, some background:
  • Canada faced a huge crisis of confidence in its military in the 1990's as a result of the beating death of one captured Somali by a few members of the Canadian Airborne Regiment in 1993.  The reactions to it, including some effort to dismiss or cover it up, led to trials as well as top officials losing their jobs.
  • When Canada participates in missions abroad, it does build its own prisons.  It does build a temporary containment facility (which I saw in Kandahar).  Instead, Canada, in the past, relied on the US since the US has the wherewithal to build and staff such facilities.  In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, this was no longer sustainable.
  • Canada's mission in Afghanistan is to support the development of a sustainable, secure Afghan government.  Since Afghanistan is sovereign (technically), Canada faced the only real alternative--turn detainees over to the Afghan government.  And this is what most of the members of the International Security Assistance Force do (the US is the exception, I don't think there are others).  
  • Each government has developed its own arrangements about this process and how to monitor the condition of those who have been turned over, as pretty much everyone knows that Afghan standards for prisoner treatment do not meet the standards of the NATO countries.
  • The Canadian agreement come under fire under 2007 for being inadequate--that Canada gave the Red Cross the responsibility for tracking the condition of detainees.
  • The current discussion is about whether the Defence Minister and the Chief of Defence Staff knew about the abuses of prisoners that had been turned over or not.
So, I am surprised that the DM and the CDS denied knowing about this, as the threat and reality of prisoner abuse by Afghans was widely acknowledged during my visit to Afghanistan in December 2007.  

The question is whether the Canadians turned over folks knowing that they would be tortured or might be tortured.  I don't know the legalities of it all as it may be the case that uncertainty of treatment is a violation of international law.  To be clear, this is not the American-style, turn it over to the local folks so that they can do torture on our behalf.  What this is: a country operating in another with very different ways of operating. 

The big problem right now is the perception of a cover-up.  Again, Canadians did not beat Afghans, but at times turned detainees over to folks who might (not would, but might).  And then the military and the politicians were less than clear with the Parliament about this.

Detention is a hidden but important part of counter-insurgency, nation-building and rule of law.  That prisons became incubators for the next generation of insurgents. That developing capacity here is important for any government to function.  Abusing prisoners, losing them to prison breaks, and the rest all diminish the country and the international community.  Bureaucratic politics is partly at play here, since the Canadian International Development Agency didn't want to fund the building of prisons, and that training prison guards is largely outside the purview of the Canadian Forces.  This stuff has gained greater attention and more resources, but is part of the reality that the police side of things has long been behind the Afghan National Army training.

We need not just more OMLT's [Observer, Mentor, Liaison Teams of outside forces embedded in aFghan units] in Afghanistan but POMLT's [Police OMLTs] as well.

My essential assessment of the current storm is that the Canadian Forces did the best they can do in a difficult situation, but the government should have been clearer about what was going on so that the parliaments could be surprised.  Situational awareness is not just for the top generals back at home, but those charged with oversight (even if their ability to engage in oversight is severely restricted). 

1 comment:

Phil L said...

Important to note that the current DM and CDS were not in those positions when the original agreement was signed in 2005, nor when it was revised in 2007.

As for the substance of the problem, I agree with Andrew Coyne on this. Had the government simply noted that they fixed the problem when evidence of torture became overwhelming, it would have taken the wind out of the opposition's sails. Instead, they denied that they knew about the problem in 2006, which will likely prove to be inaccurate.