Wednesday, March 10, 2010


They're springing leaks fast and furious now. An anonymous government official outlines three scenarios the Liberal feared in 2005 regarding Afghanistan detainees.

He said the Liberal government looked at three options as it considered moving Canadian troops to the embattled Kandahar province from the relative stability of Kabul:
  • A "take and keep," which the official said raised fears of problems such as those the U.S. encountered with its control of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or its detention of terrorism suspects at its naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
  • Handing off detainees to U.S. forces for transfer to U.S. facilities like Guantanamo, which had already led to trouble for a previous Liberal defence minister, Art Eggleton.
  • Working with Afghans and the local system in place at the time.
"Take and keep" refers to Canadian administration of our own prisoners. The problem with this measure, as Somalia, Vietnam (French and US wars), the ongoing Iraq occupation, Rhodesia, Belgians and French in various parts of Africa, and others testify, is that Western armed forces, their political masters, and much of their voting public, are culturally an cognitively ill-equipped to humanely cope with easily 'othered' populations. During the Somalia affair, Maj. Antony Seward summed it up in reference to Canadian soldiers' less than grateful reception by the indigenous Somalis.
"It was hard for anybody from that battlegroup, from the lieutenant-colonel down to the trooper, to accept the fact that we were here...we were there on a voluntary basis to do a difficult mission and then be treated that way. But I think that the individual soldier, he was dealing with for what for him was a significant opposition of values." (quoted in S. Razack, "Dark threats and White Knights", p. 92)
It becomes axiomatic that the dichotomy between western soldier and indigenous person, especially during an insurgency, will eventually lead to gross abuses. This does not mean armies are malicious, or the relative altrusism guiding the advocates of the mission is untrustworthy, it simply means that given enough time and lack of structure, foul things will happen which will undermine the mission and it's supporters. This is almost unavoidable. Even for Canadians (contrary to our untested national mythology).

Structure is important. In the first Gulf war, Canadians ran PoW camps for the British. This was a highly structured war, of very short duration, where the enemy was visible, involving what were essentially NATO armies fresh out of the Cold War facing a similarly organised though inferior array of forces. PoWs were eventually released and sent home when the war was over. Conditions were such that it was quite easy to apply the Geneva Conventions regarding PoWs because the war fit the Conventions hand in glove.

There is no structure in Afghanistan. After overthrowing the Taliban government for the Northern Alliance, the insurgency started. It became nearly impossible to tell neutral (I would think true friends there are few) from foe, and captured insurgents did not easily fit the Western imagination of what a PoW should look like. Nor was and is the governance of the occupation and fighting able to clearly determine what the captives are legally speaking, and thus how to treat them. For whatever reason, the organisers of the war seem have decided that the only ruleset we had could be ignored and replaced with...nothing. Without clear guidance and the structure of formal conflict or the imposition of such on the informal nature of Afghanistan, the issue of what we were doing with prisoners easily became muddled. We we're asking for scandal.

Given that, the Liberal's fear of establishing our own prison facilities may well have been born out. Abu Ghraib probably gave a good many policymakers shivering reminders of Somalia regarding Afghan prisoners. I can't say I blame them for wanting to avoid a repeat. Keep the prisoners away from the troops, don't send them to the Bush Americans if we can help it (bad bad), give them to the locals, so if anything goes wrong, it's not our problem.

How Pontius of them.

None of this has nothing to do with not/supporting the troops, left-right party politics, or whatever liberal interventionist do-gooding philosophy, global strategic interests, or bloody-minded warporning that rests behind certain peoples' enthusiasm for the mission. It has everything to do with examining the situation objectively, and being able to acknowledge that any state, government, or armed forces that has found itself in a similar war have very similar experiences, none of them good. And that we are no different. We are not culturally equipped to complete the task, full stop. Admit that, and leaving becomes easy.

It's the fucking aftermath that sucks.

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