Saturday, April 28, 2007

A dark glimpse in the Afghan mirror

Is that really me?

Canada caught a sinister glimpse of itself this week in the mirror of Afghanistan. Distorted only in part by the realities of that violent third world country, the Canadian “War on Terror” in Afghanistan reflects back at us a projection of our own fears and anxieties, wishful thinking, short-sightedness, deceitfulness, sloppy reasoning, delusional self-righteousness and ignorance.

Some of us recoiled. Some have turned away.

Last year I wrote a series of posts on Afghanistan:
A rude awakening
A reasonable criterion for military engagement
Who exactly are the enemies of freedom part I
Who exactly are the enemies of freedom part II
Who exactly are the enemies of freedom part III
What Canada learned in Rwanda

The storyline has become more complicated since then --not because of a change in the Afghan situation but because of us and how the mission has become a partisan fight. Two issues, though, press to the front: the new government’s continued failure to articulate a clear and reasonable set of objectives in Afghanistan and the manipulation of information that Canadians need to judge the success (and appropriateness) of the objectives. I will ask about the objectives of the Afghan mission in a later post, titled: No blank cheques.

With regard to manipulation of information, The Globe and Mail reported this week that detainees handed over by Canadian soldiers to the Afghan authorities had been tortured. When the Harper government denied knowledge of torture, the Globe further published an internal report from the department of foreign affairs that described torture and executions of detainees in Afghan jails. Either the government was negligent by not reading the report or they had read the report and were lying when they said they had no knowledge about prisoner abuse. The foreign affairs document released to the Globe and Mail under the Access to Information Act had been heavily edited, although the Globe had access by another source to the unedited document. The edited version of the report had removed all mention of torture which suggests that the government was actively trying to cover up its mistake of either not reading the report or lying about it. The government further muddied the water by arguing that the detainees were obviously Taliban trying to embarrass Canada by inventing accounts of torture. Yet if these detainees were Taliban, then the government must also explain why these individuals had been released from prison by the time the Globe and Mail had interviewed them. Either the detainees were Taliban, and the prison system had failed by releasing them, or the detainees were innocent and telling the truth. There were also chilling intimations by many of the Harper government’s supporters, that torture was not necessarily a bad outcome. Several contradictory accounts were given by different government ministers of how prisoners are monitored. Some of those accounts must be false. And finally, Stephen Harper wrapped himself in the flag and argued, preposterously, that those who were raising questions about prisoner abuse were disrespecting the Canadian troops and that only his party represented the military.

The government is not being honest with us about what is happening in Afghanistan. Emotional appeals to patriotism are not sufficient. Without accurate feedback on the effects of the military occupation, Canadians cannot judge whether to proceed or withdraw. Insulated from the facts, the mission is nothing more than a reflection of our worst failings.


candu said...

Torture is always wrong and should never ever be a policy for a civilized country. All torture victims say whatever you want to stop the pain and consequently all information thus obtained is useless. On top of that everyone tortured will have a visceral hatred of their torturers and thus every Canadian soldier is a target. When captured they will receive the same treatment. If that is what you want, go ahead and condone Harper and Bush's ignoring of the Geneva Convention. We have become barbarians too and we have no right to go into another country and say "we are better than you; you should follow our example." All you will get is acute contempt and an increased effort to get rid of all Canadians on Afghani soil.chci

Aaron said...


I suspect you are right about the effectiveness of torture and, independent of whether it is effective, I also feel that abusing prisoners is immoral.

It surprised me a great deal a couple years ago to hear the Vice-President of the United States of America militate openly for the use of certain methods of torture. (Ever since the success of the Swift-Boat attack ads against the decorated war veteran John Kerry, I have to admit that in an important sense I don't get American politics). This changed my image of the U.S. Naively perhaps, I thought that as disturbing as Cheney sounded, he would not survive in Canadian politics. But now Stephen Harper, our prime minister and thus not a marginal figure, is providing political cover for the abuse of detainees handed over by Canadian soldiers.

The presence of a reactionary movement in Canada (strikingly similar to Bush/Cheney) that would go so far as to suggest turning a blind eye to torture also surprised me. It is a side of Canadian politics I had thought was not significant.

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