A Landmark Decision, A Democratic Victory

In a historic decision regarding the battle for access to documents on Afghan detainees, Speaker of the House Peter Milliken ruled in favour of the opposition, reaffirming the notion that Parliament reigns supreme over the powers of Prime Minister and the Federal Government.

“Before us are issues that question the very foundations upon which our parliamentary system is built,” Milliken asserted. “In a system of responsible government, the fundamental right of the House of Commons to hold the government to account for its actions is an indisputable privilege and, in fact, obligation.”

This was precisely the argument opposition MPs had made in their attempts to obtain uncensored documents containing key information on the reported abuse and torture of Afghan detainees. In December 2009, the three opposition parties unanimously passed a Commons motion which demanded the Harper government provide them access to the confidential detainee files believed to reveal government knowledge of torture. After months of stonewalling by the Conservatives, as well as the Prime Minister’s adamant refusal to comply with the December motion, the opposition raised the question of privilege with the Speaker of the House, calling for the government to be held in contempt.

Milliken was tasked with wading through the debate, and in an unprecedented ruling, found the Harper government had violated parliamentary privilege and overstepped their powers in their handling of the request for unredacted documents.

“It is the view of the chair,” stated Milliken “that accepting an unconditional authority of the executive to censor the information provided to Parliament would in fact jeopardize the very separation of powers that is purported to lie at the heart of our parliamentary system and the independence of its constituent parts. Furthermore, it risks diminishing the inherent privileges of the House and its members, which have been earned and must be safeguarded. Therefore, the chair must conclude that it is perfectly within the existing privileges of the House to order production of the documents in question.”

On the decision by Harper to thwart the opposition’s motion by appointing former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci to independently review the documents, Milliken had this to say:

“The (Harper) government has argued that in mandating this review by Mr. Iacobucci, it was taking steps to comply with the Order consistent with its requirements to protect the security of Canada’s armed forces and Canada’s international obligations. However, several Members have pointed out that Mr. Iacobucci’s appointment establishes a separate, parallel process outside of parliamentary oversight, and without parliamentary involvement. Furthermore, and in my view perhaps most significantly, Mr. Iacobucci reports to the Minister of Justice; his client is the (Harper) government.”

In a telling observation, the Speaker addressed accusations coming from the Conservative caucus that granting opposition MPs access to confidential information somehow posed a threat to national security.

“There have been assertions,” noted Milliken “that colleagues in the House are not sufficiently trustworthy to be given confidential information, even with appropriate security safeguards in place. I find such comments troubling. The insinuation that Members of Parliament cannot be trusted with the very information that they may well require to act on behalf of Canadians runs contrary to the inherent trust that Canadians have placed in their elected officials and which Members require to act in their various parliamentary capacities … from the submissions I have heard, it is evident to the Chair that all Members take seriously the sensitive nature of these documents and the need to protect the confidential information they contain.”

Milliken called for co-operation from all parties involved, and though he acknowledged “finding common ground will be difficult,” he urged them to work together to find a solution to the ongoing stalemate.

“Now, it seems to me, that the issue before us is this: is it possible to put into place a mechanism by which these documents could be made available to the House without compromising the security and confidentiality of the information they contain? In other words, is it possible for the two sides, working together in the best interest of the Canadians they serve, to devise a means where both their concerns are met? Surely that is not too much to hope for.”

“But the fact remains that the House and the Government have, essentially, an unbroken record of some 140 years of collaboration and accommodation in cases of this kind. It seems to me that it would be a signal failure for us to see that record shattered in the Third Session of the Fortieth Parliament because we lacked the will or the wit to find a solution to this impasse.
The House has long understood the role of the Government as ‘defender of the realm’ and its heavy responsibilities in matters of security, national defence and international relations. Similarly, the Government understands the House’s undoubted role as the ‘grand inquest of the nation’ and its need for complete and accurate information in order to fulfill its duty of holding the Government to account.”

In granting the Government and the opposition fourteen days to break the current impasse, Milliken warned “if in two weeks’ time, the matter is still not resolved, the Chair will return to make a statement on the motion that will be allowed in the circumstances.”

Having provided a thorough analysis of the events which played out over the past year, explaining in depth the reasoning behind his decision, Milliken rendered his verdict on the conduct of the Prime Minister and the Conservative government.

“Accordingly,” ruled Milliken “on analyzing the evidence before it and the precedents, the chair cannot but conclude that the government’s failure to comply with the order of December 10, 2009 constitutes prima facie a question of privilege.”

Somewhere in the span of his 45 minute address, the Speaker of the House reignited the flame of democracy that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had all but extinguished. Members of the opposition applauded Milliken for his hard work and dedication concerning the matter, and political observers celebrated a rare victory for transparency and accountability in the ‘culture of deceit‘ that embodies the Harper government.

There is much work yet to be done, and it will take an honest effort from all parties involved to agree on a course of action from which to proceed. Nevertheless, with the balance of power between Members of Parliament and the Federal Government restored, Milliken’s decision was an unequivocal victory for democracy in Canada.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca

These are some of the redacted documents which, until now, have been the only form of documents released to members of the opposition by the Harper government.

Behind The Redactions

The detainee document game of hide-and-seek the Conservatives are engaging in is an affront to members of Parliament and a subversion of the Military Police Complaints Commission. It cannot be allowed to continue, and this government must be held accountable for their willful complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees.

Although the Prime Minister would prefer to continue his autocratic reign, never having to answer for the actions of his government, Canadians will not stand for the continued assault on our access to information and our right to know.

The refusal by Harper to submit the requested unredacted documents to the MPCC, who have the highest level of security clearance, speaks volumes to the extent of the incriminating evidence being hidden behind layers of black ink.

The audacity of Defence minister Peter MacKay to accuse those asking questions of undermining our troops serves only to insult those very soldiers who adhere to the Geneva conventions and conduct themselves with courage and honour.

There is no doubt as to whether this Conservative government violated the rules of the battlefield; it most certainly did. But precisely who was aware of the prisoner abuse, and to what extent detainee torture took place remains unclear, because the answers lie in the files Harper is so desperate to suppress.

If the Prime Minister is found in contempt of parliament, and chooses not to produce the uncensored files being demanded by the opposition, Harper may well find himself and fellow Conservatives before the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of war crimes.

The increasing sense of urgency exhibited by the government in the face of fresh requests for document disclosure suggests the ICC may just be the perfect venue for the Conservatives to answer for their crimes.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca

The video shows Peter MacKay in a media scrum following the testimony of the Generals in November 2009. The reporter wants to know how it is the Generals obtained the documents while the opposition MPs were still being refused access.

Denial And Deceit: The Harper Government And Torture In Afghanistan

Canada has long been known as a peacekeeping nation; lauded for our humanitarian missions and respected for our international contributions. The unassuming nature of Canadian soldiers garners an admiration few other militaries can boast; A history of moral and honourable service.

But for the mission in Afghanistan, the ethics and standards that once guided military decisions have been all but abandoned by the military brass. Under the Harper government, the rules governing the battlefield are ignored; the Geneva conventions are flouted and war crimes are committed.

The Prime Minister has long been aware of the repercussions his policy on detainees was having, and the implications on his government if the warnings were not heeded. But it wasn’t until a diplomat, who’d been muzzled by Harper, broke his silence that most Canadians became aware of the misconduct being perpetrated by our government in Afghanistan.

Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin began working for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Kandahar, shifting later to Kabul where he was the second in command at the Canadian Embassy. His 2006 arrival in Afghanistan came one month after the U.S. State department issued a report concerning the “continued and routine” torture and abuse of Afghan detainees by local authorities, including “pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, beatings, sexual humiliation, and sodomy.”

In November 2009 during his first appearance before the Afghan Committee in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Colvin described what he encountered upon visiting detainees transferred by Canadian forces to the Afghan intelligence service, or NDS.

“As I learned more about our detainee practices, I came to a conclusion they were contrary to Canada’s values, contrary to Canada’s interests, contrary to Canada’s official policies and also contrary to international law. That is, they were un-Canadian, counterproductive and probably illegal,” Colvin testified. He also claimed many detainees were not “high-value targets,” but “according to a very authoritative source, many of the Afghans we detained had no connection to insurgency whatsoever … many were just local people: farmers; truck drivers; tailors, peasants – random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time … From an intelligence point of view, they had little or no value.”

Colvin said he believed Canada’s “complicity in torture” undermined the efforts and goals of the strategy in Kandahar. “Instead of winning hearts and minds, we caused Kandaharis to fear the foreigners. Canada’s detainee practices alienated us from the population and strengthened the insurgency.”

The Canadian diplomat began alerting Ottawa to the “serious, imminent and alarming” circumstances surrounding detainees in 2006; sending a series of memos to both the senior ranks of the military and Department of National Defence.

“At first, we were mostly ignored,” Colvin recalled. “However by April 2007 we were receiving written messages from the senior Canadian government co-ordinator for Afghanistan to the effect that I should be quiet and do what I was told, and also phone messages from a DFAIT assistant deputy minister suggesting that, in future, we should not put things on paper, but instead use the telephone … Immediately, thereafter, the paper trail on detainees was reduced; Reports on detainees began sometimes to be censored with crucial information removed.”

Following his testimony, the Conservative government set their sights on Colvin; Intent to undermine his credibility and reputation. The relentless smearing of the well respected diplomat prompted twenty-three former Canadian ambassadors (joined later by an additional twelve) to release a letter to the media condemning the behaviour of the Conservative government.
One of the letters signatories, former ambassador Paul Durand, singled out Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s particularly reprehensible attacks.
“He savaged him in public, and ridiculed him,” said Durand. “And that’s not the way to treat a guy who’s doing his job. He is not a whistleblower. He was hauled before a parliamentary committee and had to state the truth.”

Though the government and military brass vehemently deny allegations it was aware of what was happening to detainees, a series of information leaks to the media reveal a pattern of deceit and denial from the Harper government and military brass.

Details emerged that military allies had lodged complaints over Canadian’s “secretive manner with which it handled detainees … stonewalling on providing basic information on the Afghans it was capturing.” Reports from The Globe and Mail note that “Mr. Colvin wasn’t the only foreign service officer relaying criticisms about detainee transfers to Ottawa. A Sept. 11, 2006, memo from a Canadian NATO staffer alerted the government to the fact that the ICRC had singled out Canada’s practice of handing over prisoners to the Afghans on the battlefield, a practice it feared could result in human-rights monitors losing track of detainees.”

It was also revealed that in 2007, Canadian diplomats in Afghanistan were ordered omit information regarding the treatment of detainees in reports sent to Ottawa. Sources told The Globe that the order, “issued soon after allegations of torture by Afghan authorities began appearing in public, was aimed at defusing the explosive human-rights controversy … There was a fear that graphic reports, even in censored form, could be uncovered by opposition parties and the media through access-to-information laws, leading to revelations that would further erode already-tenuous public support. The controversy was seen as ‘detracting from the narrative’ the Harper government was trying to weave around the mission, said one official. ‘It was meant to put on happy face’.”

In direct contrast to MacKay’s assertion “not a single Taliban prisoner turned over by Canadian Forces can be proven to have been abused,” uncensored documents and sworn testimony by senior officers detail an instance in 2006 where an detainee transferred to Afghan police was so severely beaten, Canadian troops had to intervene and ultimately took the man back. The Globe notes “the Canadian soldier’s account, handwritten in a field notebook in the hours after the June 19, 2006 incident, is corroborated by a medic’s examination of the detainee’s injuries and photographs, which the (Harper) government refuses to release.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done everything in his power to deny opposition MP’s access to key documents, allowing them access only to heavily redacted files ‘in the interest of national security.’ However, upon close examination it’s clear the redactions have less to do with national security, and everything to do with concealing the government’s knowledge of torture.

In a delay tactic veiled as co-operation, Harper called upon former supreme court justice Frank Iacobucci to review the unredacted documents. It’s unclear how may documents Iacobucci will review, which documents he’ll be provided, how long it will take, or if the government will even take into consideration recommendations made. Meanwhile, opposition parties issued motions in the House of Commons calling for a vote that would hold the government in contempt of parliament, a ruling that would force Harper to provide opposition MP’s with the unredacted files they’ve repeatedly requested. The decision currently rests with speaker of the house Peter Milliken, who is expected to issue his decision this week.

But the opposition parties are hardly alone in condemning the government’s lack of transparency surrounding the treatment of detainees. The Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC) are now directly accusing Harper of withholding information pertinent to the inquiry, warning that “the (Harper) government’s refusal to release key letters written by Canadian Forces commanders raises troubling concerns about Ottawa’s approach to divulging information in this matter.”

Back in 2007, the MPCC, and then chairman Peter Tinsley, ordered public hearings on the issue of detainees “to ensure a full investigation of the grave allegations.” The Harper government initially agreed to fully co-operate with the MPCC, Defence Minster MacKay promising “(the MPCC) will get the co-operation with respect both to information disclosures and the funding necessary to have a full-blown hearing.”

A Globe report from November 2008 outlined that “more than 20 months after it first promised full co-operation, the Harper government has moved to block public hearings into whether it ordered Canadian soldiers to transfer prisoners to Afghan security forces knowing the detainees would likely be tortured … The government is seeking a Federal Court order that the MPCC can neither investigate nor hold hearings into allegations that transferred prisoners were tortured and that senior government officials and military officers knew it would happen. Government censors have blacked out key passages of secret documents that showed that ministers knew that torture was rife in Afghan prisons.”

In essence, the Harper government has been working to avoid accountability for three long years, and counting.

In December 2009, a year after effectively shutting down the MPCC’s attempt at a public inquiry, Harper refused to extend the contract of Tinsley and opted against appointing someone to replace the outgoing MPCC chairman. Tinsley warned of a ‘chilling effect’ by the Harper government in their ongoing efforts to dodge accountability regarding the treatment of Afghan detainees, and Harper likely believed he’d have no further ‘intrusions’ from the MPCC. So it came as a surprise when, in February 2010, former Windsor police chief Glenn Stannard announced he’d take over the acting duties of former chairman Tinsley since the government hadn’t ‘gotten around’ to filling the vacancy. In other words, the MPCC would resume hearings on the transfer and treatment of detainees, despite the government’s best efforts to block further inquiries on the matter.

No sooner had the MPCC reconvened for hearings, than a series of explosive allegations came to light.

Colvin’s much anticipated return to Ottawa provided further evidence that the government was not only aware of torture, but that it deliberately looked the other way. Colvin testified that his warnings of torture were credible and substantiated, but the government and the military didn’t want to deal with the ‘hot potato’ issue of detainee abuse. He recounted a 2007 meeting in Ottawa with upwards of fifteen government officials, where he urged them to stop transferring detainees to the NDS.

“You know the NDS tortures people. That’s what they do,” Colvin told the officials in attendance. “And if we don’t want our detainees tortured we shouldn’t give them to the NDS.” Colvin said that the government note-taker at the meeting put her pen down and immediately stopped recording.
He also alleged the government actively prevented detainee monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross. “In practice we were blocking them from doing that. They were losing many, if not most, or possibly all, of our detainees.”

The Red Cross had raised concerns over the government’s refusal to take its calls regarding detainees; Waiting weeks, or months, before it bothered to notify the Red Cross about detainees transferred to Afghan authorities. The information delay made it impossible for the Red Cross to effectively locate or follow up on detainees sent by Canadians to the notorious NDS.

The MPCC also heard testimony from Lt.-Col. Gilles Sansterre, commander of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service. Sansterre addressed a 2007 incident where an Afghan’s claim of abuse after being transferred to the NDS by Canadian soldiers was ignored. After the man, who was covered in welts and bruises, showed officials a hidden stash of electrical cables and a rubber hose used to beat him, his accusations were taken seriously. Though military investigators deemed the allegations credible enough to temporarily halt all detainee transfers, they failed to further investigate the matter. Sansterre conceded that the failure to probe the claim of abuse violated the Geneva conventions and ‘raises the possibility’ that war crimes were committed.

Perhaps the most damning allegations emerged from an April 14 special Commons committee where Ahmadshah Malgarai, or ‘Pasha’ as he was known by his colleagues in the Canadian Forces, submitted stunning allegations about the treatment of detainees. Malgarai, a Canadian citizen born in Afghanistan, served as an interpreter and cultural adviser for Canada’s Joint Task Force Afghanistan unit. He is well respected among his peers and provided MP’s with letters of commendation he’d received from both the military and Afghan government, reaffirming his credibility. In a day of dramatic testimony, Malgarai called out the Conservative government for misleading the public, saying the Canadian military intentionally ‘subcontracted’ torture to Afghan security.

“Canada’s government says detainees have never been transferred to NDS if there is a risk of abuse; but this is a lie,” Malgarai told the hearing. “I saw Canada’s military intelligence sending detainees to NDS, when the detainees did not tell them what they expect to hear. If the interrogators thought a detainee was lying, the military sent him to NDS for more questions, ‘Afghan style.’ Translation: abuse and torture …. the military used the NDS as subcontractors for abuse and torture.”

Malgarai insisted the routine occurrence of torture was well known throughout the military ranks, and all the way up to the Department of Defence. “I cannot believe that Mr. Defence Minister Peter Mackay says that he doesn’t know,” the former translator stated. “I want him to sit across from me look me in the eyes and say he doesn’t know.”

Meanwhile, a secret memo obtained by the CBC effectively debunks Harper’s claim he fixed the flawed detainee transfer agreement in 2007, and backs up testimony that the government was aware that torture was, and still is, taking place. The memo, “circulated at the highest levels of government” in mid 2009, reveals that while the government was telling the pubic the detainee problem was fixed, it was quietly sounding the alarm bells. The confidential memo warns “the notoriously brutal Afghan security service, the NDS, did not change its ways after the new agreement and is still was ‘organized according to a Soviet-KGB model’ with ‘considerable scope for improper methods’ which ‘entails a degree of risk to Canadian interests.’”

The problem, notes the CBC, is that “the Geneva convention, and Canadian law, forbid handing prisoners over to a known risk of torture. But Canada still transfers prisoners to the NDS which is known to use torture routinely.” The memo even “names the head of the NDS … as a man who wants to inspire fear. (He) has openly stated that merely interviewing suspects is not enough to get information out of them.” It acknowledges Canada may be an accomplice in torture, and ‘runs the risk of appearing to condone human rights abuses and acts, which would be illegal under canadian law.’

The CBC report included testimony from a Canadian general who said the NDS “were a very valuable partner … we acted on the intelligence we received from the NDS.” In other words, Canada did use intelligence from the NDS; intelligence which was obtained through torture, which the government was fully aware, making them complicit in war crimes.

A report just released by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) gives credence to Colvin’s 2009 testimony that Canadian forces were taking six times as many detainees as the British and 20 times as many as the Dutch. The statistics, compiled by the AIHRC, reveal of the 267 suspected insurgents transferred by NATO forces in the first 9 months of 2009, Canada nearly doubled it’s allies, transferring 163 prisoners to the NDS. By contrast, Britain’s transferred 93 detainees, while the Netherlands handed over 10, and Denmark just 1. This raises the possibility that the allegations Canadian forces captured mostly innocent people are accurate.

With evidence continuing to mount supporting the claim Afghans transferred by Canadian forces were being tortured by the NDS, the credibility of the Harper government continues to crumble under the weight of the lies it wrapped itself in. As they hide behind Canadian soldiers, accusing those searching for answers of not supporting the troops, the Conservatives demonstrate their cowardice by refusing to be accountable for their actions.

George Peterson, a veteran of the second world war, is also looking for answers. Once a soldier and a guard, he became prisoner number 38 and was systematically starved and abuse for nearly 4 years. He’s not naive to the realities of war, yet knows the importance of the Geneva conventions. Peterson is particularly bothered by the denials from the Canadian government. “I think the Prime Minister, and the Minister of Defence are trying to pass the buck. Blaming the opposition that they’re picking on the military. I don’t think they are. That’s not right.” Peterson hopes there is an inquiry, because without answers “our reputation will suffer.”

Indeed it will, Mr. Peterson. And you, your fellow veterans, and current members of the Canadian Forces certainly deserve better.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca

UPDATE May 7: Afghan authorities beat detainees ‘on a whim,’ military inquiry finds – Investigation into 2006 incident was launched after Chief of Defence Staff had to correct himself a day after Commons testimony

Afghanistan Beyond 2011 – It’s A Done Deal

It’s official: Canada will remain in Afghanistan beyond the mission’s scheduled conclusion in 2011.

The confirmation came Saturday; Defence minister Peter MacKay acknowledging that Canada will play a ‘non-combat’ role in Afghanistan beyond the 2011 withdrawal of combat forces. MacKay stressed he’d work “within the parameters of the parliamentary motion which states very clearly that the ‘military’ mission will come to an end in 2011,” saying Canadian troops would “transition into some of the other important work that we’re doing, that includes a focus on police training.”

The proposed training role outlined by MacKay will surely be welcomed by our partners in NATO who recently requested that Canada remain in Afghanistan, in some capacity, beyond 2011. In fact, the mentoring role Canadian troops are set to undertake was specifically suggested by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. International pressure was likely a factor in the strategy shift detailed by MacKay, but the deepening rift between the Karzai government and the West calls into question the wisdom of such a decision; A decision which comes on the heels of increasingly erratic behaviour by Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who’s recent outlandish accusations drew international criticism and unilateral scorn.

Although many Canadians have been under the impression that Canada’s Afghan contribution would come to a complete conclusion in 2011, MacKay insists “the prime minister has been clear in saying that our commitment to Afghanistan is for the long term.”
You’re forgiven if you don’t recall the ‘clarity’ MacKay suggests came from the PMO; Harper has remained intentionally muted on the issue while others privy to the details offer identically scripted answers to questions pertaining to Afghanistan.

This is why we need a public discussion about Afghanistan; Canadians want clarity on the mission they’re being asked to support, and answers to fundamental questions surrounding the proposed new plan.

What is the ultimate goal of the mission? What will a continued ‘non-military’ presence achieve? How many troops will be involved? Will the renewed commitment be an open ended one, or will it have a scheduled termination? Most importantly, with Canada and our NATO allies questioning the sincerity of the Karzai government, how will continuing to support a corrupt, dishonest, opportunistic regime amount to anything but a frivolous attempt toward an unachievable ideal?

The soldiers who’ve already served in Afghanistan, and those who died in the battle, did so with honour and conviction; Their contributions were not in vain. However, over the course of eight years the circumstances have changed; The military is exhausted, NATO forces are worn out, and the battle has shifted beyond Afghanistan into Pakistan. It’s clearly become an endless crusade, and one that cannot be sustained.

Unless the Harper government is prepared to commit our troops to the indefinite struggle of creating, and maintaining a sense order in the Middle East, it’s difficult to imagine that the proposed extension of Canadian involvement will result in any substantive gain. Unless there is a comprehensive strategy and detailed plan to justify a continued presence in Afghanistan, it’s time to bring our troops home.

All of them.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca

UPDATE April 25: More questions than answers as RCMP plans training for Afghan police

Debating Afghanistan: The Case For Withdrawal

Yesterday, I discussed the need for an open discussion about Canada’s future in Afghanistan, focusing primarily on recent requests from our NATO partners to extend our commitment to the Afghan mission. I was careful to remain personally neutral on the issue, though the article largely supported the argument to prolong the Afghan presence. However, as is the case in every debate, there are key arguments supporting the opposing point of view. In regards to the future of the Canadian forces in Afghanistan, there are serious concerns that need to be addressed and troubling developments that can not be ignored.

Following Hillary Clinton’s interview on CTV, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff appeared with Tom Clark to debate the future of Canada’s presence in Afghanistan. Ignatieff directly responded to Clinton’s request for an extended role, telling Clark that “any renewal of a combat mission is just out of the question.” Ignatieff also addressed the possibility of ‘non-combat’ training roles.

If it’s in Kandahar, we’re right in the line of fire. If it’s in Kabul it’s another question. Who are we training? what kind of training? There’s training that’s essentially indistinguishable from combat. Canadians require precise answers to precise questions…We can’t sit here playing around in the dark.

When the discussion moved to his personal views on probability of the mission’s success, Ignatieff shared his concerns about the government of Afghanistan.

“I have expressed my skepticism about the core issue, which is the Karzai government. Who are we fighting for here? Are these people capable of cleaning up their act and giving Afghanistan the honest government that it so desperately needs?

We can’t sustain in Afghanistan unless we’ve got a partner we can trust, and Canadians can trust. I can’t as a responsible political leader, even in opposition, ask my fellow citizens to support further action in Afghanistan unless I can say ‘we’ve got some people out there you can stand with; that you can trust, that will deliver’, so the question you asked earlier about training; Training with whom? For what purpose? Is the Afghan Army the kind of instrument, serving the kind of government that Canadians can support? These are the kind of fundamental questions we have answers to, because this is about Canadian lives, this is not just an interesting political debate. If we get the wrong people might die in vain, and I as a responsible political leader don’t want that to happen

The questions put forth by Ignatieff precisely address the current frustrations affecting NATO forces; The credibility of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Back in 2006, reports began to surface that Afghans were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the Karzai government; They openly criticized him for “being too docile in his dealings with corrupt governors and police chiefs and for maintaining ties for the country’s former warlords.” Reports also discussed growing suspicions about Ahmed Wali Karzai, younger brother of president Karzai, and his role as the “head of a group involved in opium and heroin trafficking that smuggles drugs to the West.”

But it’s not Karzai’s past that has created a renewed tension between himself and the West, it’s his recent accusations that cast serious doubt on the true commitment of the Afghan government.

On April 1, Karzai lashed out at the the United States and United Nations, accusing them of perpetrating fraud in the 2009 Afghan presidential election.

There is no doubt that the fraud was very widespread, but this fraud was not committed by Afghans, it was committed by foreigners,” Karzai asserted. “This fraud was committed by (deputy United Nations special representative) Galbraith; This fraud was committed by (chief election observer for the European Union) Morillon and this fraud was committed by (international) embassies.

The New York Times notes that Karzai also accused the NATO coalition currently fighting against the Taliban “of being on the verge of becoming invaders – a term usually used by (Taliban) insurgents to refer to American, British and other NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan.”

Two days later, during a Parliamentary meeting on April 3, Karzai stepped up his anti-West rhetoric, warning those in attendance, “if you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs spoke to the media following Karzai’s remarks, saying that such accusations are a “cause for real and genuine concern.”

After eight years of war and 141 Canadian soldiers lost on the battlefield, Karzai’s inflammatory remarks are not just a ’cause for concern;’ They are a cause for NATO to rethink its commitment to the Afghan government. Success in Afghanistan cannot be realized without honesty, co-operation and integrity from all parties involved. The West cannot create a democracy in a Country who’s government has no interest in adopting such a system. No amount of time and effort spent working with the Afghan military will completely curtail the rampant corruption within the ranks.

The United States may feel Karzai’s statements are a ’cause for concern,’ but for the Canadian forces, it just may be the cause for a total withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

But isn’t that already the plan? Upon closer examination, the answer seems to be no.

The 2011 withdrawal from Afghanistan, as it currently stands, will not be a complete withdrawal. Prime minister Stephen Harper has been artfully disingenuous when commenting about the details and scope of the 2011 pullout date. Harper’s doublespeak was evident following his remarks that his government is “very much planning to have the ‘military mission’ end in 2011.” This carefully worded sound byte was later undercut by Ben Rowswell, Canada’s representative in Kandahar. Rowswell revealed that the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team, which includes hundreds of soldiers, will in fact remain in Afghanistan beyond the 2011 deadline.

Canadians are being mislead by Harper in regards to our post 2011 role in Afghanistan, which is precisely why Parliament needs to have a frank discussion on the matter. Has the Harper government already assigned troops to ‘non-combat’ roles post 2011, as detailed by Rowswell and recently requested by Clinton? If so, why hasn’t Harper been honest about it with Canadians? If no commitments have been made, is Harper planning on opening the door to a new role for Canadian soldiers after the 2011 withdrawal date?

If Harper is committed to a ‘complete’ troop withdrawal, he needs to publicly, and definitively say so. Our soldiers deserve better than to have their future secretly decided by a Conservative government with an aversion to accountability, and Canadians deserve to know the details pertaining to the upcoming troop withdrawal. After eight long years in Afghanistan, and facing allegations of complicity in torture, the Harper government owes Canadians an honest explanation.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca

UPDATE April 8: A new poll released by the CBC shows Canadians are overwhelmingly opposed to extending the Afghan mission.

UPDATE April 11: Canada will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2011

UPDATE April 12: Afghan president Hamid Karzai threatens to block NATO offensive

UPDATE April 25: Afghan mission needs credible partner: Former envoy

It’s Time For An Open, Honest Debate On Afghanistan

As the date for withdrawal from Afghanistan by the Canadian forces approaches, pressure to remain in the battle mounts amid two high profile requests for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reconsider his decision to abandon the Afghan mission.

On March 29, in an interview with CTV’s Tom Clark, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the contribution of the Canadian forces, explaining why the Americans feel it’s important that we continue our NATO commitment:

We are very grateful for the Canadian Forces, the Canadian government, and most of all the Canadian people, with the support and solidarity they’ve shown with us in this mission in Afghanistan. We would obviously like to see some form of support to continue, because the Canadian forces have a great reputation. They work really well with the American troops and the other members of the coalition…There’s a really close working relationship, and I think our militaries have become even closer because of this deployment…We believe, in the United States, with the new strategy that president Obama has set forth, we’re making progress. It’s been a long slog, trying to learn how to take on these insurgents, to have great militaries like our Countries do, but to have to go back to basically guerilla warfare, asymmetric warfare to take on the enemy…we’ve made a lot of progress and we would very much look forward to having Canada involved in any way you think appropriate.

…The (Canadian) military could switch more into a training role, instead of a combat role; A logistics support role instead of the front line combat. Certainly the non military functions of working to encourage development, better governance, the rule of law, all the pieces of the strategy that have to be married with the military and Canada has a particular commitment to, and experience with, that kind of development work that would be very useful.

Just 24 hours after Clinton’s remarks, U.K foreign secretary David Millband appeared on CTV, expressing the British position regarding Canada’s proposed troop withdrawal:

Of course we want you to be there. We went in together and the best thing would be if we stay together, and only go out together. I’ve seen for myself the remarkable bravery of Canadian officers and troops in the south of Afghanistan. I’ve talked to your soldiers and your officers, they made a remarkable contribution, they’re making a real difference in that country, and they’re making a real difference to the coalition effort…From my point of view it’s absolutely clear; We’re a 43 nation coalition, and we’re strongly united.
Canadians are very, very good at diplomacy, at aid, at development, and also at the military effect, and so wherever in that spectrum you can make a contribution, it will be welcome. But your military contribution, both in a combat role and in a training role, mentoring role, is very very important indeed.

…we’ve all got a job to do, there’s a new commander, General McChrystal, is doing an outstanding job in developing a strategy that protects the Afghan population, he’s giving the space for the civilian effort to take effect.

Although Harper is holding firm to the 2011 pullout date, at least one senior Conservative caucus member has come forward in support of extending the mission. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal feels “we have lost too many people and we have made too much of a contribution and we’ve made some considerable progress that we do not, to quote the Prime Minister, ‘cut and run’.”

It does seem a little more than ironic that Harper, who in 2003 gave an impassioned speech* to the House of Commons imploring Canada to join George W. Bush in the United States’ invasion of Iraq, has completely lost interest in Afghanistan. His lack of commitment happens to come as the United States finally has a president who possesses both a strategy, and firm commitment to, the Afghan war.

The desire for Canada to continue its presence in Afghanistan is not limited to our NATO coalition partners; Family members of soldiers killed in Afghanistan are also questioning Harper’s arbitrary withdrawal date, fearing that not seeing the mission through to the end will mean their loved ones died in vain.

Myles Kennedy, the father of Pte. Kevin Kennedy who was killed in a roadside blast on Easter Sunday in 2007, believes “we came in to do a job, and our job will not be complete if (Harper) pulls out the whole group.” Kennedy’s faith in the success of the mission is strong, a CTV report noting “(Kennedy) was amazed at the scale of NATO’s buildup for this spring’s planned offensive in Kandahar, and for the first time since his son’s death…he’s optimistic that war can be turned around.”

Canadians need an open, honest debate about the possibility of remaining in Afghanistan post 2011, and Parliament should revisit the 2008 motion for troop withdrawal to discuss the merits and drawbacks of either extending, or ending, the Afghan mission. It’s clear that the expertise, tenacity, and effectiveness of the Canadian Forces has had a positive impact on our NATO allies; Their request for our continuance in Afghanistan demonstrates their belief in Canada’s importance to the ultimate success of the mission.

Canadian men and women who have volunteered for combat on behalf of an entire nation deserve to have their future roles in Afghanistan mapped out through careful consultation between Parliament and leaders of the Canadian military; Not by a Prime Minister who’d sooner ignore the entire situation than definitively answer the urgent requests being levelled at his government.

*It’s unclear as to whether Harper plagiarized the speech given by Australian Prime Minister John Howard two days prior to his own address to Parliament, or whether both men had received a pre-written argument straight from the Bush administration.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca

UPDATE April 8: Conservative Senator Hugh Segal in the Toronto Star - There’s so much more to be done in Afghanistan