On Hillier's assertion the Afghan detainees were killers

There was a lot to ponder in Gen. Rick Hillier’s testimony yesterday before the House committee on Afghanistan. But the retired chief of defence staff’s affronted “nothing could be further from the truth” response to diplomat-whistleblower Richard Colvin’s claim that Canadian troops have detained Afghans who were not really insurgents is particularly worth considering.

“We detained,” Hillier said, “under violent actions, people trying to kill our sons and daughters, who had in some cases done that, been successful at it, and were continuing to do it.” Listening to him, I can’t have been alone in thinking back to his famous remark about Canadians fighting “detestable murderers and scumbags” in Afghanistan.

No doubt the Taliban is full of killers who fit that description. Still, Hillier’s assertion does not quite square with the most thorough probe of a detainee incident conducted by the Canadian military itself: the “Board of Inquiry into In-theatre Handling of Detainees,” a exhaustive investigation of the treatment of three individuals detained in Afghanistan in April 2006.

The inquiry was prompted by media reports suggesting those detainees might have been mistreated while still in Canadian hands. In its Feb. 6, 2009 report, the board exonerated the Canadian Forces members involved. It spent two years combing over the incident in question, and heard from 121 witnesses from Defence, Foreign Affairs, and CSIS.

So I think it’s safe to say the military has a clearer picture of this case of taking detainees and passing them over to the Afghan authorities than any other similar incident. And here, getting back to what Hillier said yesterday, is what the board of inquiry concluded about what is known about the three detainees in question:

“It is important to note that the Canadian Government, through efforts by the CF National Investigative Service (CFNIS), attempted to locate the three detainees once they launched their investigation. After several attempts by CFNIS, in coordination with local authorities, none of the detainees were located. The board concluded for its own purposes that the detainees were therefore unavailable to testify. The board did receive some written evidence to support that at least one of the three detainees was a member of the Taliban; however, in the final analysis, the board was unable to conclude whether or not the detainees were in fact insurgents.”

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