On Colvin's story: what we can learn from an earlier military inquiry - Macleans.ca

On Colvin’s story: what we can learn from an earlier military inquiry


Sorting through Richard Colvin’s disturbing testimony yesterday before the House committee on Afghanistan will no doubt take months. But some troubling questions that arise from the diplomat-whistleblower’s allegations can be answered right away with a fair degree of confidence, thanks to a military report released early this year.

At least the way I read it, the Canadian Forces board of inquiry report of Feb. 6, 2009, titled “Afghanistan In-Theatre Detainee Handling Process,” offers solid support, not for Colvin’s specific charges, of course, but for much of his description of the context surrounding detainee transfers.

The three senior military officers who made up the board looked into the cases of three villagers who were captured by Canadian troops in Kandahar in spring 2006 and then turned over to the Afghan authorities. The details of that episode are interesting in their own right, but in light of Covlin’s explosive charges, the board’s broader findings on detainee policy and practices in Kandahar take on a new urgency.

Keep in mind that the board exonerated Canadian troops in the case it studied, declaring there was no evidence the three Afghan detainees were mistreated—at least, not while they were in Canadian hands.

Moving past that reassuring finding, what else do we learn from this report, conducted by men in uniform who were, I think it’s fair to say, instinctively sympathetic to the situation of our soldiers in the combat zone and the officers commanding them?

The first thing that leaps off the report’s pages, at least for me, is this: we know very little about the detainees our troops turned over to the Afghans. “The board did receive some written evidence to support that at least one of the three detainees was a member of the Taliban,” it says. “However, in the final analysis, the board was unable to conclude whether or not the detainees were in fact insurgents.”

This remarkable assertion about the three detainees in question tends to support Colvin’s general observation that Canadian troops, in many cases, captured Afghans who were probably not hardened Taliban fighters, and might well have been entirely innocent.

The second point that strikes me as crucial to keep in mind in assessing Colvin’s account is this: detainee policy was not an improvised afterthought, but rather a top preoccupation of senior military officers and bureaucrats. “Very early on it was recognized that the handling of individuals that were detained by the [Canadian Forces] in the course of conducting operations would be very important,” says the report.

It goes on to leave no doubt that the thorny issue of how to handle detainees in the war zone was considered far beyond the Department of National Defence. Developing detainee policy “incorporated the requirements of several other departments, such as the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade” and “involved major interdepartmental effort and took significant time.”

Just in case that description leads anyone to imagine that detainee policy might have been batted around by so many departments, so many officials, that, in the end, nobody took final responsibility, consider a third key point: the report explains how Gen. Rick Hillier, the chief of defence staff at the time, now retired, put himself very much in direct control of the Afghanistan mission early in 2006.

“ At the strategic level,” says the report, “a major transformation of the command and control structure was implemented on 1 February 2006, designed to put the organization on a more command-centric footing.” It quotes another officer saying that from that date Hillier “took a different tack and decided to move out of the staff-centred environment and create commands, Commanders responsible to him as the Commander of the Canadian Forces.”

This tends to lend credence to Colvin’s suggestion yesterday that Hillier would have been informed of warnings from diplomats in Afghanistan that detainees being turned over by Canadian troops to Afghan authorities were in dire risk of being abused.

Finally, here’s a summary paragraph from the report that I think puts the situation, at least back in 2006 in Kandahar, in a useful frame:

“Afghanistan has been a complex operating environment for the Canadian military, and overall, as a theatre of operations it was an intense combat experience for Canadian troops. Detainee handling was a major strategic issue that was understood throughout the chain of command. Evolving command and control relationships triggered by the CF transformation initiative created a command environment characterized by change, adjustment and adaptation.”

All this seems to me to provide telling insights into how seasoned military officers who closely studied the spring 2006 detainee case came to see the situation. (By the way, the board spent two years studying the episode, hearing 121 witnesses from Defence, Foreign Affairs, and CSIS.)

The board tells us that the handling of detainees was understood well in advance, and by very senior officers and federal officials, to be a thing to get right. So nobody should be allowed to fall back on excuses about the confusing situation they found on the ground in Kandahar. As well, Hillier put himself very directly in charge, so he must answer for how detainees were handled.

Returning to the first point I highlighted, we should keep in mind, throughout the coming debate on Colvin’s allegations, that even in the case of the three detainees whose circumstances the Canadian military has studied in the greatest detail, we don’t know if they were insurgents to begin with. Yet we sent them into Afghanistan’s notorious prison system.


On Colvin’s story: what we can learn from an earlier military inquiry

  1. Wasn't Hillier given free reign on this file at the beginning and if so isn't he the next logical step to go before the committee?

    • I would love nothing more than to see a loose cannon like Hillier appear before the committee. I don't think that the Libs and Tories would want him there, though. He's likely to bring down this govt and the previous one with him.

      If Canada is going to walk away from its peacekeeping role and get into the business of counter-insurgency, we need to make sure that this blatant disregard for international law does not happen again.

  2. wow! So Hillier could wear this…assuming it goes anywhere at all. Who'd like to bet that Harper wouldn't let him swing?
    Of course as JG says perspective is important in this debate. It seems to me that the "only" defensible arguement that govt fans have is this one. It was a complicated and entirely alien experience for the military [ although we had already been there a while ] and mistakes are comman place in war time. Our enemy is ruthless and our learning curve steep – all reasonable pov. Sometimes it seems to me in our 24/7 wired world that we really are striving to hold our whole govt process to a standard of perfection that would have seemed ludicrous only a generation or so ago. But nevertheless we are demanding that to the best of our ability high standards be maintained. So, let's not entirely lose perspective while trying to maintain those high standards, but equally let's cut out the false equivalencies of how" those' guys have no standards at all so why should we?

  3. And before we get off in a big huff on this one, let's see what the other testimony has to say about this. We have heard from one witness, not really subjected to any real challenge. He may be right, but he may be wrong.

  4. Be careful what you wish for Libs.

    The first Cdn captured prisoners were in Jan 2002 and handed over to the US. (Eggleton investigated in committee)

    It took the Liberal govt 3 years and 11 months to draft a prisoner protection agreement. Prisoners were being handed over all the while, with no assurance, what so ever, of their treatment. (Amnesty Int'l launches court case)

    And the Liberal govt did not even sign the agreement,
    General Hillier did, Dec 2005.

    Colvin started his letter writing campaigne May 2006,
    a new enhanced protection agreement for detainees, between the Harper govt and Afghans was signed May 2007.

    • Well that was nice of the Harper Government to provide cover for the previous Liberal administration. So, wilson, you must want to get to the bottom of Colvin's allegations, no?

      • And note that there was no question of he libs covering up anything, which is the core of Colvin's allegations. The worst they could be accused of is incompetence…which is hardly news. What's more i'm not sure Wilson isn't spiinning the 3 years 11 months deal – anyone else know the facts?

        • Technically, Canada wasn't responsible for the management of detainees until they took over Kandahar sector in mid 2005. Until then, Canadian Troops in Afghanistan were under the command of US or ISTF leadership and operated in accordance with their policies.

          As one would expect in any command structure.

          In addition, the case in question in the article refers to the operation of small commando forces, being the JTF Unit, turning those they captured over to the larger main military force, the US Army, and not the Afghanistan government. While the JTF was likely to be assigned to tasks that would see them target "high priority" enemy individuals, the kind who were likely to end up in Guantanamo, there's no reason they should not have expected a fellow Geneva signatory to behave inline with their convention obligations.

          Nor, I suspect, would Wilson have been particularly appreciative of the suggestion that they would not at the time.

  5. Without ignoring Hillier, he has his own guilt/innocence to keep him awake – but Colvin was in a diplomatic stream and it is his mandrins where any inquirery should go. The military is working on its' own.