It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake

The controversy over Canadian treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan reminds you of Talleyrand's infamous diplomatic quip: "It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.

The controversy over Canadian treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan reminds you of Talleyrand’s infamous diplomatic quip: “It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.”

Talleyrand said it after a political blunder by his boss, Napoleon, who ordered a cross-border raid to kidnap and execute a prominent political opponent. Word of Napoleon’s men shooting the Duc d’Enghien in a moat after a snap trial echoed around Europe, convincing many that Napoleon was a tyrant rather than the champion of revolutionary liberty.

Talleyrand epitomized cynical 19th-century diplomacy: a wily foreign affairs adviser as well as an elegant aristocrat, entertaining raconteur, ex-bishop, bribe-taker and father of a string of illegitimate children. Wily enough, in fact, to be Minister of Foreign Affairs for both Napoleon and his arch-enemy Louis XVIII.

One can guess what he would have thought of the Afghan prisoner affair. So far, however, the debate in Canada has focused on two questions.

The first is when did ministers and mandarins in Ottawa find out that abuse of detainees was occurring. The government’s line, although it changes by the day, is roughly that they didn’t know it was happening until 2007, when they made changes to detainee procedures. Reports made earlier by multiple Canadian diplomats and soldiers, backed up by the Red Cross, were not considered “credible.”

Former top Canadian general Rick Hillier described testimony by the former Canadian charge d’affaires in Afghanistan as “ludicrous.” Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter MacKay, other generals and assorted federal spokesthingies have claimed repeatedly that there was no credible evidence of torture.

Current top Canadian General Walter Natynczyk told a parliamentary committee the same thing, but abruptly changed his tune after this Canadian army field report became public. It’s worth reading. It’s from 2006, when the Canadian government says it had no credible evidence of prisoner abuse.

“Field report transcript 20:00 14 Jun 06 [location redacted] Stopped along Rte [redacted] and held up a vehicle that was proceeding south down the route. Stopped and searched the three individuals in the white van and got a very weird feel from one of them.

“Had the terp [interpreter] come and he [unclear] that the individual was in all probability Enemy (Taliban) due to his accent and his false story of being from Kandahar City. So I had him lie down on his stomach, then conducted a detailed search. (I had him empty his pockets prior to this) catalogued all his items and then took down his particulars (name [redacted] from Uruzgan).

“We then photographed the individual prior to handing him over, to ensure that if the ANP did assault him, as has happened in the past, we would have a visual record of his condition.”

Note how the Canadian officer refers to previous abuse and photographs the prisoner. The Canadian troops handed the prisoner over to Afghan police, who began beating him with their boots and weapons, so the Canadian soldiers (quite properly) took him back to protect him.

The government has been trying all kinds of high-school debating club tricks to weasel out of evidence like this. For example, at one point, General Natynczyk argued this kind of person was not a “detainee,” presumably since the army hadn’t officially taken him to base for processing. But being face down in the dust being searched sure sounds like being captured.

The really important point about this incident is that the young section commander, who wrote the report, clearly understood the importance of formal prisoner treatment protocols. He or she investigated the suspect group, identified just one of the three suspects for detailed search, took precautions before handing the prisoner over to the Afghans, and then intervened to protect the prisoner when the beating started. This took enormous courage on the part of the junior Canadian officer, with plenty of cultural barriers, testosterone and assault rifles looming over the scene.

The second issue is the allegation by some human rights professors that Canada’s apparent practice of handing prisoners over to the Afghan National Directorate of Security, where torture is a routine management tool and staff amusement, might constitute a war crime that could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. This would indeed be ironic, because Canada was a strong support of the establishment of this court.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the ICC’s chief prosecutor is conducting a “preliminary examination” into allegations against NATO countries, presumably including Canada. But despite speculation by some academics, we do not yet know enough about exactly what happened on the ground in Afghanistan to know how strong a case might – or might not – be against Canadian troops. Foreign Affairs officials, including senior lawyers, have been careful to make a narrowly legalistic defence of Canadian practices.

For example, finding a braided electrical cable in an interrogator’s office after hearing complaints from prisoners that they were beaten with braided electrical cables is not sufficient evidence, according to Canadian government lawyers. It is too “general” rather than “specific” in legal terms, apparently.

What Talleyrand would have noted is the lack of a broader, political current to the Canadian debate. We are involved in a war, after all, and as Clausewitz noted, war is the continuation of politics by other means.

Even if the debating-club tricks of Peter MacKay and the legal dodging and weaving of the Department of Foreign Affairs succeed in obscuring the situation sufficiently so that no one is held accountable for whatever might have happened, the entire affair has still been a political disaster for our mission in Afghanistan.

To succeed in Afghanistan we need both a finely tuned counter-insurgency strategy and strong support for the mission at home. The abuse suffered by Canadian prisoners in Afghanistan has undermined support for foreign troops in Afghanistan, and sharply weakened the already wobbly domestic support for the mission.

We Canadians face a double failure of our institutions here. To be more specific, the individuals we have in senior positions of trust in Ottawa have bungled a critical file during a war. It appears that the Cabinet wilfully turned a blind eye to the prisoner abuse issue, and then tried desperately to deny the existence of a mounting pile of evidence. And our senior officials, in Foreign Affairs and the military, failed to act decisively to fix a problem that was bubbling up from junior staff as early as 2006.

Instead they spent more time concocting disingenuous talking points and signalling in a particularly Canadian way that subordinates should stop bringing up difficult issues. Both the Minister of Foreign Affairs and General Natynczyk have claimed they didn’t know the seriousness of the situation. This might even be true, and if it is, our colonels and assistant deputy ministers have demonstrated a lack of moral courage by failing to bring it up forcefully enough.

It must be agonizing to be a captain or a sergeant in Kandahar. After doing a difficult job with honour and professionalism, they see public support for their work plummeting at home after colonels and assistant deputy ministers failed to fix a detainee problem they were repeatedly told about.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the

Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a former

Canadian foreign service officer.