THE BLOG

Canada Should Remember the Afghanistan War With Shame

11/18/2014 12:57 EST | Updated 01/18/2015 05:59 EST
AP
Canadian soldiers of Ist Bataillon, Royal 22nd Regiment along with U.S soldiers stand during a ceremony marking the Canadian handover of forward fire base Masum Ghar to U.S. forces in Panjwaii district in Kandahar province southern Afghanistan, Tuesday, July 5, 2011.Canadian combat operations ended this week. Canada will transfer to a non-combat training role with up to 950 soldiers and support staff to train Afghan soldiers and cops in areas of the north, west and Kabul.(AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

It was five years ago today that Richard Colvin delivered his explosive testimony to a House of Commons committee examining Canada's role in the torture of Afghan detainees. Colvin, a diplomat at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), had served in Afghanistan for 17 months, first as a senior representative at the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team run by Canada, and later as the acting ambassador in Kabul. And in no uncertain terms, he told the House committee on November 18, 2009, that Canadian Forces personnel were capturing Afghans and turning them over to Afghan authorities to be tortured in contravention of the Geneva Conventions.

"The most common forms of torture," he said, "were beating, whipping with power cables and the use of electricity. Also common was sleep deprivation, use of temperature extremes ... and sexual abuse -- that is, rape." Moreover, he noted that "many of the Afghans we detained had no connection to the insurgency whatsoever...we detained and handed over for severe torture a lot of innocent people." The torture allegations were also corroborated by the Globe & Mail's correspondent in Afghanistan, Graeme Smith, who later wrote in his memoirs on the war that it was "common knowledge that bad things happened to prisoners who were handed to the Afghans, but nobody talked about it." Colvin did talk about it, however, warning his superiors about the matter only to be repeatedly ignored.

Of course, we now know that the Stephen Harper Conservatives viewed the detainee scandal as an existential threat to their then minority government. They refused to release relevant documents to Parliament and then Harper shut down Parliament itself to avoid the issue altogether. Still today, some 36,000 government documents pertaining to the detainee torture issue remain heavily censored. Canadians may have now forgotten about it -- to the government's delight, no doubt -- but the matter remains unresolved.

This torture cover-up is just one of many disturbing untold stories from the mission, however. Another one involves the sexual abuse of young boys in and around Canadian military bases in Afghanistan, which Canadian soldiers were ordered "to ignore." We first learned of this in 2008, when the Toronto Star revealed that it had interviewed seven Canadian Forces personnel, including military chaplains and a lieutenant colonel, who said they had knowledge of boys being brought near or into Canadian Forward Operating Base Wilson by allied Afghan soldiers and interpreters in order to be raped. One soldier, Travis Schouten, told the newspaper that following an incident, he saw a boy "with visible signs of trauma, his bowels and lower intestines falling out of this body." After the soldiers' accounts were made public, the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service looked into the matter and, without even sending an investigator to Afghanistan, quickly concluded that there was nothing amiss. A second and more comprehensive military investigation, meanwhile, has been at work since 2008, and today, after more than six years, we have yet to hear of its conclusions.

We should be upset about all this, of course, and demand answers. But sadly, we should not be too surprised, for Canada's mission in Afghanistan, which formally ended earlier this year, was a scandal of incredible magnitudes on so many fronts. Tragically, Canada lost 158 soldiers, a diplomat, and several civilians over the course of the mission. Collectively, we also spent some $18 billion. But we have very little to show for all this.

Kandahar Province, once a Canadian responsibility but now under the control of the American and Afghan militaries, remains restive and the recent decline in insurgent attacks in Kandahar City come at the expense of a US-backed local police force that is itself charged with serious and widespread human rights violations--abuses that may well be helping the Taliban recruit more fighters while it regroups in the hinterland. As the International Crisis Group warned earlier this year, "the increasing presence of Afghan forces and their brutal tactics are breeding resentment in the countryside, leading to growing violence in the villages."

Canada's development projects have not fared much better. Nipa Banerjee, who headed Canada's aid program in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2006, observed in 2012 that: "All the projects have failed. None of them have been successful." A case in point is the much-lauded Dahla dam and irrigation "signature" project that Canada began in 2008, but ultimately failed to deliver. The Ottawa Citizen's David Pugliese visited the dam earlier this year and reported that "it still isn't fully functioning" and that "even now, water doesn't reach 30 per cent of the 500 kilometres of canals that Canada paid to refurbish..."

As Canadians who paid for this war, we were subject to various forms of propaganda -- bold claims that Canadian and foreign forces were winning against the Taliban "scumbags" as development projects were being implemented with great success -- and anyone questioning the war and strategy was ridiculed--remember Taliban Jack? As the University of Ottawa's Roland Paris has rightly observed in his analysis of what went wrong with the mission, even as the situation in Kandahar deteriorated, "Canadian commanders gave little indication that anything was wrong, continuing to deliver positive reports of progress," an approach that "smacks of a deliberate communications strategy aimed at maintaining popular support for the war."

And if truth is the first casualty of war, then democracy and civil liberties must not be too far behind. At least this is what my partner, Terry Stavnyck, learned through first-hand experience.

As a concerned citizen, Terry had been interested in attending the Afghan detainee hearings that Colvin had just testified at and arrived on December 9, 2009, to make his way into the East Block of Parliament Hill, which is controlled by the Senate Protective Service (SPS). He had been wearing a button on his hat that read "War is not the answer" and surrendered it, along with other items, to the SPS before entering.

He didn't get too far, however: SPS officers, apparently interpreting his anti-war button to mean that he posed a threat to the Senate, demanded that he leave to face questioning. And when he refused, stating that the had a democratic right to attend the public hearings, they grabbed him, flipped him to the ground, hand-cuffed him, dragged him outside into the snow, and held him to the ground "with brute force", as a judge would later describe it. The SPS then claimed that Terry kicked one of the guards and turned him over to the RCMP, which laid criminal charges after detaining him for 12 hours.

This began a lengthy and costly trial process to clear Terry's name. Video surveillance footage reviewed at the trial didn't corroborate the SPS's claims that Terry had been in any way violent towards the guards -- in fact, it showed quite the opposite. And Justice Heather Perkins-McVey found the SPS officers' testimonies unconvincing. Terry's arrest was deemed "unlawful" and he was acquitted of all charges in June 2012. But the damage was done.

Indeed, Canada's war in Afghanistan was a shameful episode in our history. There was damage inflicted in Afghanistan and damage done to our democracy and civil liberties at home -- things we ought to reflect on as we now get involved in the new Iraq war.

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