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

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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.