Thursday, December 17, 2009

Globe & Mail's Christie Blatchford supports boots on the ground in detainee dispute

Christie Blatchford is known for her candid if not blunt opinions at times. Here she explains why she thinks the issue of Canadian troops handing over prisoners to local Afghan authorities (said to abuse and torture their prisoners) is overblown.


Published on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009 12:00AM EST Last updated on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009 2:30AM EST

I am not one of those smart Ottawa reporters who, having suffered through too many Question Periods, know what constitutes torture better than anyone else. Nor am I a mandarin, politician or aide, all of whom have endured the same, plus the practice of jackal journalism, which is what the modern game has become.

So perhaps, when such good people raise their voices, as they did this week, and cry "Torture! Cover-up! Bombshell!", I should simply defer to their greater collective wisdom and yield the floor.

Alas, I am constitutionally unable. Also, for the most part, I think they're blowing smoke out their bums. Besides, since Parliament has now ordered the government to produce thousands of uncensored documents on Afghan detainees, it seems clear that whether officially or through leaks, many of these documents over the coming weeks and months will one way or another be making a public appearance.

I confess my biases right now.

I spent a good part of 2006 in Kandahar -- three tours of between four to six weeks each in about 10 months, with another tour in '07 -- as an embedded reporter with Canadian troops. I counted on them to keep my ass safe, and they did. I liked them hugely. The experience was one of the most significant of my life (if not on a par with the drama of being, say, in a budget lockup) and I treasure every minute of it. I made some lifelong friends, and I love some of these men.

In that time, I never saw Canadian soldiers behave less than honourably. I saw them treat with kindness a wounded Taliban soldier, and a dead one with respect. I might have seen them detain some Taliban too, but that particular day, I was sitting, too scared to move, inside a light armoured vehicle, left witless by the fighting the night before.

I hold no particular brief for the Stephen Harper government, or any of its ministers, or the institution that is the military. I think they have all handled the detainee file clumsily. What they needed to say, ages ago, was that the detainee agreement wasn't very good to start with, and that they muddled along for the first year, finally fixing it in 2007.

If they wanted to be partisan about it -- and Mr. Harper's government is said by its critics to be fiercely partisan about everything -- they could have pointed out that the agreement was the result of the great wide streak of anti-Americanism that ran through the Jean Chrétien government circa 2005, when detainee policy was first fixed.

Canada should have agreed to hand over prisoners to the Americans, where they could have been ably monitored by embedded Canadian Military Police; such arrangements are common among allies.

Instead, to avoid that hideous spectacle, the government of the day opted for handing over prisoners to the barely functional institutions of a country that had been pulverized during decades of war and whose culture is demonstrably punitive, physical and primitive. It made no sense then, and not much more now.

All of which is to say, perhaps the coming release of documents, whether by trickle or flood, will reveal government or high-level military duplicity. I haven't a clue.

My faith begins and ends with the Canadian soldier and goes as far up the chain as his commanding officer, with a couple of generals, whom I have come to know a little, above them thrown in for good measure.

With that in mind, I offer the following observations. The first is that the hysteria of this week to the contrary, there is still no evidence that any prisoners taken by Canadian soldiers and handed over to Afghan authorities were tortured.

What there is, after General Walt Natynczyk's clarification late this week - this was the "bombshell," though I prefer the French as per the Liberal Party's news release, "La bombe lancée par Natynczyk" - is one case of an Afghan who was sort of and only briefly in Canadian custody, handed over to Afghan authorities, and then rescued by Canadian soldiers, though not from torture.

What happened, I have been told by an army source, is this: On June 14, 2006, a Canadian Military Police officer who was working with the Afghan National Police was on the scene when the ANP stopped a van leaving a battle. The ANP said one of the three men inside was definitely a Taliban. The MP photographed the man and wrote his name down, but agreed to let him travel with the ANP back to Patrol Base Wilson. It was a 15-minute trip. Back at the base, the MP dutifully checked on the fellow and found the ANP beating him with their shoes. The MP then took the man back and made him an official detainee.

The event was reported, but was considered by everyone to be a minor, low-level battlefield incident. The ANP unit in question had had one of their own killed just the day before. This is not to justify what they did to the fellow, but torture, to my mind, it was not. That's one thing.

Secondly, the MP didn't photograph the man purely to show he was in good condition when he got into the ANP truck. Canadians routinely photographed every prisoner they detained, in part because most Afghans don't carry identification and sometimes have only one given name, but also so that international monitors, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, had solid evidence of who was who.

Thirdly, it would be helpful if politicians on all sides of the House remembered to make the distinction between the conduct of Canadian soldiers -- who by every account behaved exactly as Canadians would want them to behave -- and the detainee issue.

The Conservatives can't deflect every question by pointing to the yellow support-the-troops pins on their lapels; they have no patent on patriotism. If I were a member of that government, I'd release every document I could, protecting only names and information that must be protected. But neither can Opposition members casually toss around words like torture and phrases like complicity in torture and expect to be simultaneously seen as defenders of the troops: After all who, if not the Canadian Forces, would have been complicit in the torture they allege?

Finally, I remind everyone who wants to comment upon all of this to be aware that what they are doing is parsing, reviewing and assigning nuance to decisions that were made on the battlefield, in the warmth and sometimes the heat of battle. I have every confidence in those decisions, and the soldiers who made them, and very little in anyone else.

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