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Canadians Behaving Badly (?) In Afghanistan

October 20, 2009

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.

Malalai Kakar, an Afghan policewoman not averse to dispensing the occasional bit of rough justice. Photo: Lana Slezic

Malalai Kakar, an Afghan policewoman not averse to dispensing the occasional bit of rough justice. Photo: Lana Slezic

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.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 20, 2009 9:38 pm

    I see your fondness for end/stopped/rhyme continues with a fragments from its master. And coupled with that disturbing photo – ah. Well. Your post inspired me to haul out some back-reading. Look forward to your comments.

    And yes, this statement might need a bit of un/packing:

    “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.”

    1. Isn’t Canada on for the Geneva Convention etc and isn’t obeying international law kinda important, precedence wise, for a host of national interests re borders, oceans, migrants, free trade etc? If we are “lax” about what happens to prisoners of war contrary to whatever treaties we’ve signed re international law, doesn’t that harm us in a host of other ways and does it then follow, a priori, that to be “exercised about lax/ness” re the rights of prisoners during war/time, is to then of necessity espouse a colonial imposition on another sovereign country?

    I dunno know. Seems like the movement from sentence one to two and beyond in the selected paragraph is a bit of a leap. Jus’ call me the Parsing Queen.

    2. “our only legitimate military role is to help a friendly, sovereign Afghan government”
    Is our role, re our military mission, legitimate? I’m not sold on that. Er, bin’ doin’ some readin’ on it, too. Check out my new post and let me know what you think?
    Afghan government: Friendly? Really?
    Sovereign? Er, what? You mean before or after fraud? And not in the least to be vis a vis the “current Sovereignists” in A/Stan, in a colonial way – one thinks here of hanging chads and GWB in that bastion of the brave and the free.

    3. “Their country, their tradition, their rules.” Yup. I believe this is a point you’ve consistently and ably raised. That’s the rub, eh? B/c it goes to why are we there, doesn’t?

    As always i look forward to your response. Perhaps a tidbit is on point as well, in this discussion: from Richard C Holbrooke, “you know I hear about nation-building, and that’s we used to call, pacification, the hamlet strategy, you know, in Vietnam.” (this from memory, see the New Yorker article or my earlier post).

    • corsullivan permalink*
      October 21, 2009 1:12 pm

      Dear Parsing Queen,

      As always, you’ve given me lots to think about. Here goes…

      I see your fondness for end/stopped/rhyme continues…

      Calumny! It’s just that I couldn’t think of any other poems, or even juicy prose quotations, that described prisoners being tortured in Afghanistan. Can you?

      Isn’t Canada on for the Geneva Convention etc and isn’t obeying international law kinda important, precedence wise, for a host of national interests re borders, oceans, migrants, free trade etc?

      See my reply to Shauna for thoughts on how the Geneva Conventions apply in this situation. In any case, however, a lot of states seem to bend international law around the edges without suffering too many adverse consequences. Without really strong enforcement mechanisms (like an international court backed up by military forces that are answerable to it alone), international laws are little more than gentlemanly understandings among nations that fundamentally remain in a Hobbesian state of nature with respect to one another. Violations are punished only to the extent that the will to punish exists among the community of nations. This bothers me rather less than it seems to bother some people.

      Is our role, re our military mission, legitimate?

      Legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder, and forgive my possibly misleading phraseology, O Sublime Queen of Parsing. What I really meant was that, if we have any legitimate role in Afghanistan, it’s as supporters of a friendly and sovereign government rather than as colonial overlords with a self-awarded mandate to impose their own moral and political norms on the population.

      “Friendly and sovereign?” you ask. Well, a lot friendlier and sovereigner than any Taliban faction you care to name, for one thing. We’ll need to treat whatever government emerges from the second round of the election as friendly, because it will be the only partner available. And we’ll need to treat it as sovereign because the only alternative, again, is to behave like colonial overlords and try to run the country ourselves (with our allies, of course). At the moment, I think we’re flirting with overlordly behaviour to a shameful extent, by interfering with the government whenever it does something we find disturbing (from “rape laws” to torture of prisoners). As much as anything, red-blooded Pashtuns are likely to regard a president who can only govern within narrow limits set by Western powers as a contemptible puppet, regardless of how many elections he (it won’t be a she anytime soon) managed to win. And will they really be wrong?

      “Their country, their tradition, their rules.” Yup. I believe this is a point you’ve consistently and ably raised. That’s the rub, eh? B/c it goes to why are we there, doesn’t?

      Ably? Why, thank you. Be that as it may, I’m beginning to think it’s about time I did a post specifically about the question of “why we are there”, especially now that the issue seems to be under heavy discussion again in Canada and beyond. For now I’ll just say that I don’t think defeating the Taliban is very important to Canada’s security, and that in my opinion trying to impose Western norms of democracy, pluralism and human rights on Afghanistan is not only a futile project but also a rather ugly one. It’s like turning the country into a giant residential school, and are these norms of ours really so terrific anyway? I certainly don’t think so when I read about the latest juvenile antics on Parliament Hill, or when I consider the cultural and environmental consequences of our rampant consumerism. Among other things.

      So why stick around in Afghanistan even until 2011? Well, for the combat and counterinsurgency experience, to increase our international profile, and because some of the Taliban’s opponents within Afghanistan strike me as people well worth helping and befriending – even if their worldview continues to differ from ours in some fairly fundamental ways.

  2. October 20, 2009 5:23 pm

    I think you venture onto a slippery slope here. If Canada is supposed to be in a country to support the transfer of power to a democratic and, – one would hope – a less corruptive state, then it can not be sidestepping international law or participating in corrupt activities to get there. I appreciate the complexity of the situation but I don’t believe that it is appropriate for Canadian officials to be handing over prisoners if they know that they will be tortured, nor do I think it is appropriate to be bribing parties to ensure our own protection. Many officials have stood up against such practices – both Afghan men and women and Canadian officials. I would prefer that we abide by international law, demonstrate integrity in our operations and support those within the country who have the courage to counter human rights abuses and expose corruption.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      October 21, 2009 12:23 pm

      Valid concerns, of course. Personally, I think creating stability in Afghanistan is much more important, from Canada’s perspective, than fostering (imposing?) democracy and eliminating corruption. Given that you seem to be more attached to the idea of transforming governance in Afghanistan than I am, it’s not surprising that you’re also more worried about the prisoner transfer issue in particular.

      However, I would argue that there’s a strong political case for transferring prisoners to Afghan custody, since refusing to do this undermines the authority of the Afghan government and makes it look (more than ever) like a puppet regime that isn’t trusted even by the very powers that are pulling its strings. Fortunately, I don’t think it strains either the spirit or the letter of the Geneva Conventions to treat Taliban prisoners as simple criminals rather than POWs. Under the conventions, people who expected to be treated as POWs are supposed to “carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war”, whether or not they belong to regular units. Most Taliban members probably fall short of this standard by a fair distance, so there’s a strong argument for regarding them as criminals. And even if you think it’s Canada’s responsibility to protect criminals from a government that might torture them, there are probably far more pressing concerns in a country as destitute and war-torn as Afghanistan. So I still say hand them over.

      I have to admit that I’m slightly baffled by the idea that paying protection money to insurgent groups represents a form of corruption, rather than a tactical decision. Corruption usually means either paying someone to behave illegally, or distributing resources in a way that unfairly favours friends and allies. Paying enemies not to attack you hardly seems to fall into either of these categories. As I see it, the only real disadvantages of the practice are (1) it costs money, (2) it puts money in the hands of the enemy, (3) it can make us appear weak, and (4) it may encourage other groups to threaten us in the hope of extorting money. All of these, however, are primarily practical and strategic problems rather than moral ones.

      On the other hand, we can’t pick simultaneous fights with every Taliban faction, ornery warlord, and xenophobic tribe in the Kandahar area, so we presumably need to cut deals in order to keep at least some of these potential belligerents off our backs. With any luck, we might even win some of them over to our own side, as the Pakistani army seems to be attempting to do with tribal militias in South Waziristan. If the commanders on the ground think that a bit of cash will lubricate some of these necessary deals, and that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages in a particular case, then in my opinion it’s money well spent.

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