Canadians Behaving Badly (?) In Afghanistan
Afghanistan has never been famous for the gentle and humane treatment of prisoners of war. Rudyard Kipling put it like this:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
I don’t know how much the women of Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes ever really lived up to their Victorian reputation for cutting up hapless prisoners. In more recent times, however, every faction that held power in Afghanistan before the Western invasion – the Communists, the Northern Alliance, and of course the Taliban – proved to be capable of considerable brutality towards its enemies. Even Malalai Kakar, the famous policewoman who was assassinated last year by the Taliban, seemed to consider inflicting the occasional beating to be part of her job description.
Against this background, it’s hardly surprising that Canada’s policy of transferring prisoners to Afghan custody led to trouble soon after it was implemented in 2006. In that same year a diplomat, Richard Colvin, began writing memos to his superiors alleging that the prisoners were being tortured by the Afghans.
Earlier this month, Colvin was due to testify before a Military Police Complaints Commission set up “to investigate what military police knew – or should have known – about possible torture by Afghan authorities”. The government essentially prevented him from testifying, at least for the moment, and Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay have both denied ever having seen Colvin’s memos. A written statement by Colvin has been sealed under Section 38 of something called the Canada Evidence Act, which apparently means that the government thinks it might be damaging to national security if publicly released.
This sounds like yet another example of the Harper government’s almost pathological secretiveness and obsession with managing information. I would certainly like to see the government come clean about what Colvin’s memos contained, and about how (or indeed whether) military and civilian officials responded to them at the time. However, I must admit to being fairly relaxed about the allegations themselves. Unless we are planning to turn Afghanistan into some sort of Canadian colony or protectorate, we need to acknowledge that our only legitimate military role is to help a friendly, sovereign Afghan government suppress an insurgency on its own soil. As helpers, we should certainly be open to the idea of handing over prisoners to the Afghan authorities, who are the rightful arbiters of proper behaviour in their country. We can make the case that proper behaviour should not include torturing prisoners, but in the end it’s simply not our call. Their country, their traditions, their rules.
Another tempest in the teapot of our Afghan mission has involved allegations that Canadian forces have paid “bribes” to Taliban commanders to avoid being attacked. The Times broke the story with an article about similar payments that were supposedly being made by Italian troops to insurgents east of Kabul, which worked fine until the French took over responsibility for the area without knowing that the payments were being made. The protection money (or blackmail, in the original sense of the word) stopped, and the French promptly lost ten soldiers in an ambush. A subsequent article mentioned reports that Canadians had also been paying blackmail, which our military promptly denied.
Peter MacKay reacted huffily, calling the talk of Canadian payments “Taliban propaganda”. Once again, however, I don’t really see the problem. Provided the payments don’t strain the budget too badly, and conversely don’t contribute too much to the coffers of the insurgency, paying the enemy not to attack is a strategy well worth considering on a local, temporary scale. Even the Times itself editorialised that “[it is reasonable, and conceivably even far-sighted, for coalition forces to use economic inducements to scatter the Islamist enemy.” The scandal, in its view, lay not in the Italian payments but in the fact that they had been made unilaterally, without consulting the French or anyone else.
Taken together, the torture-scandal and the bribery-scandal suggest to me that a certain toughening of Canadian sensibilities is necessary if we are going to do much good in Afghanistan before we end our military involvement in 2011. Having a moral compass is one thing, but trying to follow an unwavering needle straight through every morass and quagmire is suitable only for saints, lunatics, small children and Dudley Do-Right. Sane adults recognise the necessity of detours.
Meanwhile Hamid Karzai, a man of many detours, has conceded that a run-off will be needed to decide the outcome of the presidental election. The vote is planned for November 7, which means that Afghanistan may in for a tense, and interesting, couple of weeks.