By Stephen Gowans
There are two questions about the justice of any war. Are the reasons for fighting it just? Is it fought in a just way? When it comes to Canada’s involvement in the war on Afghanistan, it looks like the country fails on both counts.
Let me defer to the end the question of whether Canada’s participation in the US-led war on Afghanistan is just, noting only at this point that an April public opinion poll by the Canadian pollster Angus Reid shows that only 39 percent of Canadians support their country’s military mission in Afghanistan.  Take away an enormous propaganda effort to rally Canadians to support the war and these numbers would be smaller still. The propaganda effort has included a “wear red on Friday” campaign to “support our troops”, bumper stickers warning that anyone who doesn’t stand behind the troops shouldn’t dare stand in front of them, and the first intermission of the popular Hockey Night in Canada TV broadcast being transformed into an ongoing PR campaign for the Canadian Forces’ role in Afghanistan.
Hockey Night in Canada’s first intermission revolves around former National Hockey League coach Don Cherry, a pugnacious, inarticulate and bigoted blowhard, whose jingoist leitmotif is that Canada distinguishes itself on the world stage in two ways: by producing the world’s best hockey players and the world’s best soldiers. He has, ever since Canadian soldiers shipped out to Afghanistan, turned his Coach’s Corner segment into a platform for promoting unquestioning support of the Canadian military.
The more immediate question is whether Canadian troops have conducted themselves justly in the war, and specifically, whether they’ve been complicit in the torture of the Afghan militants they’ve captured. We do know that Afghan authorities have tortured prisoners. The question is: Did Canadian troops know that the captives they transferred to Afghan authorities would be abused? While we can’t at this point say for sure that that they did, what we do know fails to support Ottawa’s denials that they did.
Canadian troops have detained Afghans for years. They haven’t held the detainees in a Canadian detention facility, because no Canadian detention facility exists. No facility exists because Canada refuses to build one. Several countries and branches of the Afghan government have urged Ottawa to build its own prison in Afghanistan to get the notorious Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) out of the business of holding detainees. 
Numerous concerns have been raised about the NDS, and it is hardly a secret that the organization has a reputation for torturing prisoners.
In “September, 2006, near the beginning of the Canadian and British military operations in the south…a memo from [British] military lawyers describe[d] efforts to have a NATO-monitored prison facility opened and run in order to get the NDS out of the detainee-handling chain. The memo [said] that a desirable option would be to build a facility in an unused building in Kandahar, but… that the ‘proposal is meeting resistance from the Canadians and the Dutch.’” 
Documentation drawn from British military files alleged that “in six known cases in which Afghan captives [were] handed by British forces to the [NDS] prisons, including one in Canada’s military jurisdiction in Kandahar,” detainees had been “tortured using electric shocks, beatings with wires, whips and metal rods, sleep deprivation and cuts, between early 2007 and late 2008.” 
In 2007, both an Amnesty International report and investigation by the Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail warned that the NDS was torturing captives turned over to them by Western forces. 
Richard Colvin, a Canadian diplomat who was posted to Afghanistan for 17 months, testified before a complaints commission that he had warned Ottawa that “the NDS tortures people. That’s what they do, so if we don’t want detainees tortured we shouldn’t give them to the NDS.”  The commission, known as the Military Police Complaints Commission, was established after the Canadian military tried to cover up the torture of Somali captives by Canadian troops. Canada sent a military mission to Somalia in 1993.
Earlier, Colvin had told the Canadian parliament that he had informed Ottawa as early as May 2006 that the NDS was torturing prisoners. “According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure.” 
But neither Colvin’s bosses nor the Canadian military were interested. It took a whole year before Ottawa changed its prisoner-transfer policy to allow “for follow-up visits to ensure detainees weren’t tortured.”  “But on February 11, 2009, Canada signed a letter along with the United Kingdom and the Netherlands” offering “to provide (NDS) intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh advance warning of monitoring trips to detention facilities.”  The advance warning would give the NDS time to cover up evidence of torture, allowing Ottawa to claim it had no evidence the NDS was abusing the captives Canadian troops were transferring to NDS custody. And when “the Red Cross tried to raise concerns about detainees with the Canadian army, the ‘Canadian Forces in Kandahar wouldn’t even take their phone calls.’”  As further evidence that Ottawa was deliberately turning a blind eye, Colvin said “the Canadian government responded to his frequent warnings by telling him to stop writing these concerns into reports.” 
Earlier this month, Ahmadshah Malgarai, a Canadian citizen born in Afghanistan who worked as an interpreter for the Canadian army in Afghanistan, testified that “the (Canadian) military used the NDS as subcontractors for abuse and torture.” 
He said that Canadian soldiers transferred prisoners to Afghan officials knowing they would be tortured. “I saw Canadian military intelligence sending detainees to the NDS when the detainees did not tell them what they expected to hear.” He added that “If the [Canadian] interrogator thought a detainee was lying, the military sent him to NDS for more questions, Afghan style. Translation: abuse and torture.” 
The response of the Canadian government to these allegations has been to stonewall requests for pubic access to documents that would show whether the Canadian military did indeed turn over prisoners to the NDS knowing they would be tortured.
Canada’s Parliament has demanded that the government make public thousands of pages of heavily censored documents. But the government refuses.
While it says it can’t publically disclose the documents for national security reasons, there are other reasons Ottawa might be reluctant to comply with Parliament’s order. Twenty-three years ago, Canada wrote the United Nations Convention against Torture into its criminal code. The convention prohibits the transfer of a prisoner to a state “where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” 
Given that there are substantial grounds for believing the NDS is torturing prisoners, and that Ottawa has received ample (though apparently unwelcome) warning that prisoners transferred by Canadian soldiers to the NDS were being abused, public disclosure of the documents could open senior members of the Canadian government and top military brass to war crimes charges.
As Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom points out, “Technically, there seem to be grounds for charging Prime Minister Stephen Harper, former defence minister Gordon O’Connor, current Defence Minister Peter MacKay, former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier and various others under both Section 269.1 of the Criminal Code and Canada’s Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act.” 
On top of complicating efforts to determine whether the Canadian government and military have committed war crimes, the Harper government’s refusal to comply with Parliament’s directive tramples “centuries of precedent [which] dictate[s] that Parliament is supreme in holding the government to account.” If Canada’s parliamentary speaker rules that the government is in contempt of Parliament, and the government continues to refuse to disclose documents in its possession, Canada’s whole system of government will have been undermined, according to University of Ottawa law professor, Errol Mendes. “The executive would no longer be accountable to the House of Commons.” 
Here, then, is what we know. Canadian troops are in the business of detaining and interrogating Afghan militants. They don’t hold the militants in Canadian-run detention facilities. There are none. Canada has been asked by several countries and Afghan government departments to build its own detention facilities in order to protect detainees from torture at the hands of the NDS. Canada refuses. Instead, the Canadian military transfers captives to the NDS, despite the organization’s notorious reputation for abusing prisoners. “If we don’t want detainees tortured we shouldn’t give them to the NDS,” warns diplomat Richard Colvin. An Afghan who worked as a Canadian army interpreter testifies that Canadian interrogators transferred detainees they suspected of lying to the NDS, knowing the NDS would use torture. The Canadian government stonewalls demands for public disclosure of documents that could show whether the government and military were complicit in torture. The stonewalling places the government in contempt of Parliament. The fundamental principle of parliamentary democracy — that the executive is answerable to parliament — has been undermined. Does it seem likely, given this, that Ottawa and the Canadian military are innocent of all charges?
The justification for Canada’s involvement in the war on Afghanistan has never been strong. The US attack on Afghanistan in 2001 was carried out in violation of international law. The claim that Afghanistan must be made safe against the return of al Qaeda holds no water. Al Qaeda’s operations can be planned practically anywhere, and have been. Crushing the Taliban, if that’s even possible, won’t stop al Qaeda. On the contrary, Western wars of aggression on Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, on top of military and diplomatic support for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist forces, simply enrage more southwest Asians and north Africans, making it more likely they will be galvanized into action against Western aggression under the banner of Islamic fundamentalism or, in Afghanistan and Iran, under the banner of liberation from foreign occupation. For example, “There is no doubt among (US) intelligence officials that the barrage of attacks by CIA drones over the past year have made Pakistan’s Taliban…increasingly determined to seek revenge by finding any way possible to strike at the United States.”  The failed attempt of Faisal Shahzad to carry out a car bomb attack in Times Square is now seen as a possible revenge attack.
Canada’s Afghan mission represents complicity with the United States in predatory wars which do nothing to prevent the aggrieved of southwest Asia from striking out against the West and everything to increase the number of aggrieved.
And while Canadians have looked askance at the US-led war on Iraq, the minority that continues to support Canada’s Afghan mission should recognize that the mission they support – and the troops they support who carry out the mission — have assisted the United States by freeing up US troops to serve in Iraq. Canada, then, has made its own (indirect) contribution to an Iraq war which is unjustifiable on moral and legal grounds and, far from promoting or defending the interests of ordinary people in the United States, does the opposite. It is ordinary Americans who carry the burdens of fighting the wars and paying for them through their taxes and who bear the burdens of the retaliation the wars inevitably provoke.
Finally, while Canada’s Afghan mission is sometimes justified as necessary to defend the Karzai regime, who wants to defend a regime that beats prisoners with wires, whips and metal rods and hooks their genitals up to car batteries? Apparently the Canadian government does, and worse, appears to count on the Karzai regime’s torturers to act as an outsourced shop for torturing prisoners who don’t bend under the interrogation of the Canadian military.
If we consider that it’s not the Karzai government that exercises real power in Afghanistan — it’s the US-led occupation force that calls the shots — a critical question arises. Could the NDS’s regular use of torture continue without the occupation’s implicit support? The answer is obvious. No. That the NDS continues to use torture suggests that the practice is tolerated because it serves a purpose: it offers an outsourced means of torturing recalcitrant prisoners, allowing Western militaries to preserve a carefully cultivated but undeserved pristine image for conducting themselves justly in war. “We would never stoop to the brutality of torturing prisoners,” the Canadian military seems to say, (ignoring the 1993 torture of Somalis by Canadian troops) “but we’re perfectly willing to outsource torture to the NDS” (and provide advance notice of our monitoring visits to allow evidence of torture to be covered up.) 
On top of becoming embroiled in a conflict with no justification, and one which depletes the public purse of funds that could otherwise be used for humane purposes, it appears that Ottawa and the Canadian military are complicit in the torture of Afghans. Considering that the occupation’s rational is indefensible and that Afghans therefore have every right to resist the foreign troops who exercise the occupation, Canada’s probable complicity in the abuse of Afghans puts the Canadian government even more decisively on the wrong side of justice, morality and history. The war is doubly unjust. There are no defensible grounds for it, and the actions of Canada’s military in it, appear on the basis of what we know, to be criminal.
1. “Support for Afghanistan Mission Falls Markedly in Canada,” http://www.visioncritical.com/2010/04/support-for-afghanistan-mission-falls-markedly-in-canada/
2. Doug Saunders, “British officers recorded claims of detainee torture, memos reveal”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 20, 2010.
3. Doug Saunders, “Detainee-torture allegations spread to Britain”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 19, 2010.
4. Saunders, April 20.
5. Saunders, April 19.
7. Steven Chase, “Canada complicit in torture of innocent Afghans, diplomat says,” The Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 18, 2009.
9. Steven Chase, “Afghan detainee monitoring not undermined by offer of advanced notice, Ottawa insists”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 22, 2010. Ottawa says the letter was a “slip-up” and that the offer was retracted.
10. Chase, November 18.
12. Steven Chase, “Soldiers did not unlawfully shoot unarmed Afghan: Natynczyk”, The Globe & Mail (Toronto), April 16, 2010.
14. Thomas Walkom, “Walkom: Only the losers need to fear war-crime laws,” The Toronto Star, November 21, 2009.
16. John Ibbitson, “Historic ruling to decide who holds real power in Ottawa”, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 20, 2010.
17. Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane, “Evidence mounts for Taliban role in car bomb plot”, The New York Times, May 5, 2010.
18. The US-led occupation is also the de facto authority in Iraq. How is that, as Steven Lee Myers reported in the April 21, 2010 edition of The New York Times that “Torture and other abuses of prisoners are pervasive in Iraq”? (“Secret Baghdad jail held Sunnis from the north”). Myers reports that “An Iraqi security force under Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s direct command held hundreds of detainees from northern Iraq in an undisclosed prison in Baghdad, torturing dozens of them” and that 505 cases of torture were recorded in 2009 alone. This raises questions about why the United States is supporting a government known to practice torture, and whether it tolerates the practice in order to use Iraqi security forces as an outsourced shop for the coercive extraction of information from captives through maltreatment.
The Guardian’s (UK) Mark Tran reported on April 28, 2010 (“Iraqis tortured at secret Baghdad prison, says watchdog”) that Human Rights Watch “had interviewed 42 men who were among about 300 detainees transferred from (a) secret facility” that “was under the jurisdiction of Maliki’s military office.”
According to the rights organization,
“The jailers suspended their captives handcuffed and blindfolded upside down by means of two bars, one placed behind their calves and the other against their shins. All had terrible scabs and bruising on their legs. The interrogators then kicked, whipped and beat the detainees. Interrogators also placed a dirty plastic bag over the detainee’s head to close off his air supply. Typically, when the detainee passed out from this ordeal, his interrogators awakened him with electric shocks to his genitals or other parts of his body.”
Wasn’t putting an end to ‘Saddam’s rape rooms and torture chambers’ one of the US pretexts for the invasion of Iraq? Perhaps an end has been put to Saddam’s torture chambers, but torture continues, now under the direction of a new local puppet. How is it that torture persists in the lands the US has ostensibly liberated in the name of human rights, if not through its complicity and (in Afghanistan) that of Canada and other errand-boys of US foreign policy?
Last updated May 6, 2010.
2 thoughts on “Dual injustice: Is Canada outsourcing torture in an unjust war?”
“On top of becoming embroiled in a conflict with no justification,…”
Reasons have been given for engaging in this conflict:
– Afghanistan was being used as a terrorist training center
– Afghanistan was being used as a staging ground for terrorist acts, including if you recall, the destruction of the World Trade Center in NYC
– Taliban oppression of the rights of Afghan citizens
– Taliban oppression of the rights of Afghan women in particular
Whether you deem these reasons as adequate justification for the conflict is entirely your opinion. An opinion that carries little weight when you’re sitting comfortably in front of your computer, a long ways from Afghanistan.
While the Current Afghan government leaves much to be desired, I think it can be argued that the average Afghan is significantly more optimistic about the future than under Taliban rule.
The O’Conner report October 2006 and the Iaccobucci Inquiry November 2008, official Canadaian gov’t inquiries, both concluded that Canada’s security agencies were knowingly involved in the torture of Canadian citizens overseas.
Does this government expect Canadians to believe that our security forces would be complicit in the torture of Canadian citizens, as proven by two gov’t inquires, but not be involved in the torture of Afghani citizens over the same time period?