On June 22, there was a audible buzzing coming from Parliament Hill.
The press bounced off the walls, waiting for the deluge of information ordered by House of Commons speaker Peter Milliken. Last year, the Kingston MP had assembled an ad hoc committee to release thousands of pages of documents pertaining the issue of detainee abuse in Afghanistan.
The ensuing Tintamarre, to use the Acadian phrase for creating a lot of noise, was frenzied by midday, but by dinnertime coverage was all about the upcoming royal visit.
Before the story went to the great newsroom archives in the sky, some mused that these documents were boring and speculated that the other 21,000 pages that were held back are the real scandal goldmine.
While some journalists did produce worthwhile stories, most outlets provided a quick summary and moved on to obsessing over Princess Kate's wardrobe.
So that's how the issue died, not with a bang but a whimper.
But while the royal newlyweds fascinated the Canadian media, I was pouring over the documents (which can be viewed here). There's a story to be told.
These documents show quite clearly, in policy and in practice, that the boots on the ground had little say in what happened with the detainees. Prisoners captured by Canadian soldiers would be handled by the military police. They were to be passed along to the Afghans as fast as humanly possible, spending no more than 96 hours with the Canadians.
In an interview with the Military Police Complaints Commission, Major Bernie Hudson recounted that he tried to limit the soldiers' exposure to the detainees, as it posed a risk for a abuse. Hudson was with the military police and had been in charge of a detention facility.
"[Sometimes] you capture a few that just finished shooting at you or killing one of your buddies," Hudson told interviewers, explaining that he had been concerned about issues of abuse for some time.
Occasionally a situation arose at the point of capture where some detainees alleged that the Canadians used undue force or turned a blind eye to Afghan abuse. Those accusations appear to be few and the more explosive allegations were proven to be unfounded. When these issues arose, thorough investigations were conducted.
By most accounts, the Canadians Forces did everything by the book.
Hudson recounted that at his facility, the detainees would be offered ample food that was cooked in accordance with Halal. They were told when it was time to pray and given a mat. Capturing a detainee also meant that they would receive a battery of medical tests.
In a surreal moment, Mr. Mills, the interviewer, chimes in:
"Well, we've certainly heard that with some detainees they weren't interested in being released. They were being treated so well," reads the transcript.
While the four days the detainees spent with the Canadians may have been magical, the reviews of the Afghan torture spas were less so.
From beatings and electrocutions to being forced to stand for days at a time, the accounts hearken back to images of Warsaw Pact countries, not an area controlled by Canadian Forces.
For the first two years of our control of the Kandahar province, we seemingly had no eyes into the cracks and crevasses of the Afghan security apparatus. While the English and Dutch had established post-transfer follow-up processes, we didn't establish a proper monitoring process until it became a political football in 2007.
But then standard operating procedures were established! Bureaucrats were assigned! Reports were filed!
Unfortunately, at the end of the day, it didn't appear to improve the realities of being imprisoned in Afghanistan.
For starters, there seems to be fundamental disagreement on who should take the detainees. The Afghan National Police are, by all accounts, a rag-tag group. In our rush to bolster their numbers, we recruited, to say the least, under-qualified candidates. The National Directorate of Security (NDS) was generally more professional and was the preferred means to transfer the detainees.
However, after becoming aware of their use of harsh interrogation tactics, ambassador Richard Colvin suggested that the Canadians shouldn't transfer to the NDS. The Forces knew little about the NDS' reputation, because DFAIT didn't seem to relay their findings to the military police.
Some of those in the country suggested that, as long as the Afghans were incapable of respecting human rights, the Canadians ought to set up their own detention facility. Unfortunately, staffing issues seemed to kill this idea.
Addressing torture 'strategically'
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT) was given point on doing follow-up on the detainees. The detainee would arrive at an Afghan facility and would usually be visited by a Canadian official within a couple of months to ensure their well being. If we could find them, that is. Frequently, the detainees were transferred again and the Afghan security would conveniently forget to tell us.
While the new procedures gave Canada more information on the realities in Afghan detention facilities, it still failed to provide recourse for actually dealing with torture or mistreatment.
In one case, Correctional Services officials visited an NDS facility in Kandahar City. They interviewed a man who claimed to have been beaten on several occasions. He showed the Canadians a four-inch bruise on his back, and even backed it up by finding the electrical wire that was used to whip him.
"The allegations of abuse and mistreatment should be taken very seriously but should be addressed strategically," the official wrote, concluding that they "should conduct an additional visit within 2 weeks and conduct interviews with several detainees before we raise the issue."
A full four months after the new procedures came into place, Colvin did not see measurable improvement.
"Unfortunately, DFAIT's response to this challenge has been timid, inadequate and ineffectual," he writes in an email.
Around this time, Colvin begins to become a thorn in the side of the Canadian mission. In one report, Colvin recommended that the Forces capture fewer detainees in order to be better able to keep track of those we did take. According to a briefing for the big-wigs in the Forces, that opinion contradicts the government's policy in Afghanistan and "suggests a lack of faith in Canadian military leadership as well as with Canadian soldiers." The briefing goes on to suggest that Colvin should stop writing reports that do not conform with the opinion of the Canadian government.
Our inability to put our foot down and stop this torture is so pervasive that, according to multiple sources, then-Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khalid allegedly operated a "prison" underneath his house. According to others, there may have been more than one.
This governor stayed in power for the majority of the Canadian mission in Kandahar. He somehow weathered accusations of torture, allegations that he had five UN representatives murdered (information which was redacted in these documents) and allegedly threatening the life of Globe & Mail journalist Graeme Smith. That didn't stop him from appearing on CTV for a nice chat or shaking hands with Peter MacKay.
In October 2007, Colvin once again becomes the internal watchdog and blasts the foreign service's inaction on Khalid.
"Rather than tackle this (governance issue) Canada has systematically avoided it," he writes, although much of his opinion is redacted. He does, however, conclude that Canadian-captured detainees likely ended up at Khalid's prison.
In early 2008, Stephen Harper and his ministers stood up during question period, after calls for Canada to force Khalid's resignation, and argued that Afghan sovereignty must be preserved. The prime minister went so far as to chastise then-Foreign Affairs minister Maxime Bernier for stating that the governor should be removed. Never mind that talks in the prime minister's office to remove Khalid began in 2006.
The governor stayed in power from 2005 to 2008. Eventually he was removed by President Hamid Karzai and given a job in the Afghan cabinet as the Minister for Tribal and Border Affairs.
And then there was CSIS
Maybe the biggest question left unanswered by these documents is; what the hell was CSIS doing there? The spy agency had long admitted to having a role in the mission, but we never really knew what that entailed.
These documents tell us that CSIS agents were rarely seen by Canadian troops -- including those MPs who looked after the detainees.
Odd, because CSIS's role would arguably be to collect intelligence on security issues. Why would they not be interrogating high-priority detainees in the first four days after their capture?
Other documents released over the past few years clearly show that CSIS conducted interrogations in Afghan facilities. Detainees also alleged that Canadians were present while they were tortured. That makes the sheer scope of our failure is astounding. It's one hand not knowing what the other is doing, if the other is hooking up a farmer to a car battery.
The scope of our failure
We didn't know where our detainees were going. Between our poor records and the Afghan's disinterest in helping us, we lost many of them. If we managed to track them down, they often experienced some level of mistreatment.
Our main recourse was either complaining to the ones responsible, or to groups that held no real jurisdictional power like the Red Cross. The man running the province was himself complicit in extrajudicial killings and torture. Our government, afraid of the PR backlash, focused resources to exonerate the Canadian Forces and neglected to implement any genuine recourse for what happens when we come across torture. Finally, our spy agency was in the belly of the beast, and the rest of our foreign service generally did not know about it.
We invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly, to improve human rights. While our military mission in the country may be over, we still have 1,000 troops remaining in a training capacity. If we could have one legacy in the country, a genuine human rights regime should be it.
And if we're to do that, we need to see the rest of the documents. We need to know the full story.
Thank you for reading this story…
More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.
rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.
So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.
And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.