Given how much information there is to digest from Gen. Walter Natynczyk’s extraordinary news conference this morning, an answer he gave that suggests a weirdly distant relationship between the Chief of Defence Staff and the Minister of National Defence might easily go unremarked. That would be too bad.
Natynczyk called the news conference essentially to read aloud from a military field report that leaves little doubt a suspected Taliban fighter first detained by Canadian troops in 2006 was later beaten by Afghan National Police. The report also makes it clear that Canadian soldiers in the field knew of earlier instances in which transferred detainees were abused.
The core issue, of course, is who knew how early that detainees were being mistreated in this way after they were transferred, and why it took so very long for the problem to be seriously addressed by Canadian politicians, bureaucrats and senior military officers.
That’s the marrow of the story. But take a moment to consider what might seem like a secondary question (put to Natynczyk by the Globe and Mail’s Steve Chase, I believe) about whether Defence Minister Peter MacKay has ever asked the country’s top military officer if there is credible evidence that detainees transferred to the Afghans were tortured.
“I’ve not provided him information [on] that kind of terms,” Natynczyk said. “He gets reports from the operations and the intelligence staff on a very regular basis. And so based upon that he makes his assessment. There’s a lot of information that flows in the department, a lot of information. Again, it’s not the Chief of Defence Staff that briefs him on the detail. And so I’ve not provided him with that kind of information.”
What? The minister responsible for the armed forces doesn’t talk directly to the top officer about the salient details of by far the most pressing defence issue of the day? What exactly, then, is the line of reporting between the military and its civilian political masters? If the Minister of National Defence and the Chief of Defence Staff don’t talk about this, what do they talk about?
I’m reminded of Natynczyk’s interview with CBC’s James Cudmore on Sept. 9, in which the general said he was basing his plans for pulling troops out of Afghanistan, not on orders from MacKay, but on the text of the House of Commons motion on withdrawing from Kandahar by 2011. It struck me at the time as bizarre that Natynczyk was working directly from his own reading of the House motion, rather than having the government—presumably through the defence minister—explain exactly how it expected Parliament’s will to be implemented.
The relationship between MacKay and Natynczyk should be much more straightforward. Otherwise who’s responsibility for what will be impossible to sort out. And the demarcations of political decision-making and military leadership will become dangerously blurred.