Torturing Afghan Prisoners: Blind and Dangerous

As most (Canadian) readers are probably aware by now (American readers will probably still be interested), yesterday, a senior Canadian diplomat, Richard Colvin, testified to Members of Parliament that Canadian soldiers regularly detained innocent Afghan citizens and then handed them over to Afghan authorities who they knew would torture them. In short, the Canadian government has become knowingly complicit in torturing and violating the human rights of Afghan citizens.

These allegations are serious. They present numerous problems, but I’d like to highlight two: first, that our government has evolved to become willfully blind to torture; and second, that as a result, we jeopardize the Afghan mission and increase the risks to the lives of our own soldiers.

Willfully Blind:

Only slightly less distressing than learning (again) that the Canadian military was allegedly handing civilians over to local authorities who then tortured them is how the Conservatives – once so proud of the public service whistle blower legislation they helped pass – now seem intent on ignoring the issue and tarring the whistle-blower.

It is eerie to read Tory MP Jim Abbott get quoted in the Globe as saying “Out of 5,000 Canadians who have travelled through there, at least in that period of time, you were the one single person who is coming forward with this information. So you will forgive me if I am skeptical.” Of course, the fact that Richard Colvin testified that senior public servants were instructing him and others to not share or record this information is perhaps one of the reason why Mr. Abbott never heard of the problem. But then, Mr. Colvin has not been alone in raising this issue; the Red Cross and Amnesty International both tried to inform the government about this problem, to no avail.

Indeed as Paul Wells has aptly written, the Conservative machine has now embraced what he terms “the bucket defence” and is doing everything it can to sow confusion and claim this is not an issue. (Rather than trying to figure out how it is that Canadians were handing Afghan citizens over to Afghan authorities with full knowledge that they would get tortured). This is not only irresponsible, it demonstrates a lack of respect for the rule of law and human rights, and accountable government. It is also downright dangerous.

Dangerous to the mission and our soldiers:

The Globe article also included this still more frightening quote from Conservative MP Cheryl Gallant. She worries: “The fanning of the fames of outrage over allegations [of torture], however unproven, are really having the desired effect on the Canadian people of wanting our troops to return even quicker.” Note here, the truth is irrelevant, it matters not whether we are complicit in the torture of Afghans, what matters are polling numbers and support for the mission.

It was a very similar response to these allegations by the Prime Minister back in March of 2007 that prompted me to write this blog post on why torturing one’s enemies increases the dangers to your own soldiers. The post was subsequently republished as a opinion piece in the Toronto Star, and since, sadly, it still relevant today, two years later, I’ve reposted it below:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments regarding the Liberal’s “passion” for the Taliban was more than just a new low point in Canadian political debate – it also reveals the government’s disturbingly shallow grasp of the strategy and tactics necessary to win in Afghanistan.

For the sake of both our military and the mission, the Prime Minister would be wise to read lieutenant David Grossman’s landmark book, On Killing. In the book, Grossman, a U.S. Army lieutenant-colonel and professor at West Point, describes the psychological implications of killing, both legally and illegally, in battle.

Of specific interest to the Prime Minister would be the psychological argument and historical evidence that explain why adhering to the Geneva Conventions and treating PoWs humanely is of supreme strategic and tactical importance to any organized army. In short, enemy forces are much more willing to surrender when secure in the knowledge that in doing so they will be treated fairly and humanely. Enemies that believe otherwise are likely to fight to the death and inflict greater casualities even in a losing effort.

During World War II, the Allies’ adherence to the Geneva Convention resulted in German soldiers surrendering to U.S. forces in large numbers. This was in sharp contrast to the experience of the Soviets, who cared little for PoWs.

But one need not go back 60 years for evidence. Lieutenant Paul Rieckhoff, who fought in Iraq and then founded and became executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, makes a similar argument regarding today’s conflicts.

Prior to the Abu Ghraib debacle, he noted how “(O)n the streets of Baghdad, I saw countless insurgents surrender when faced with the prospect of a hot meal, a pack of cigarettes and air-conditioning. America’s moral integrity was the single most important weapon my platoon had on the streets. It saved innumerable lives …”

When MPs and ordinary Canadians ask questions about the treatment of Afghan prisoners they don’t do so out of contempt, but out of a deep respect and concern for Canadian soldiers. Canadians know we can ill afford to treat enemy combatants inhumanely. They know this because it is in opposition to our values and our very purpose in Afghanistan.

However, they also know there is a compelling military reason: It would rob our soldiers of possibly their single most important tactical and strategic tool – moral integrity. Without this, who knows how many Canadian lives will be needlessly lost in battles where an insurgent, believing that surrender is tantamount to execution, instead opts to fight to the death.

The Prime Minister may believe that talking like a cowboy about the Taliban and human rights make the government appear tough. But in reality, it only makes it dangerous, both to the mission, and our soldier’s lives.

12 thoughts on “Torturing Afghan Prisoners: Blind and Dangerous

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  4. Rob Cottingham

    Thanks for this post, David. I can't tell you just how much the events of the past 24 hours have shaken me. As strongly as I oppose the Harper Conservatives' policies, ideology and worldview, I actually didn't think them capable of this level of ethical disgrace.

    Reply
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  10. jeremyvernon

    It's obvious that many in Ottawa were totally blind-sided by this (note the comments by Abbot) and resorted to the traditional Tory tactic of cramming their heads in the sand. I think ethical outrage implies a overmuch competence and deliberation in the reactions of the politicians – far more likely, I think, they are panicking and saying stupid things to the media.As for torture, the amoral rational calculus argument against torture (over and above the ethical) is almost as old as von Neumann. The cost of torturing grows exponentially while the decays exponentially, if it has any benefit at all (e.g. life-saving intel) .I am immensely curious to know the circumstances under which a Canadian soldier would knowingly hand-over detainees for torture – is it another Abu-Ghraib prison situation (cf. Philip Zimbardo)? were there perverse incentives? or is it some sort abhorrent out-sourcing?

    Reply
  11. jeremyvernon

    It's obvious that many in Ottawa were totally blind-sided by this (note the comments by Abbot) and resorted to the traditional Tory tactic of cramming their heads in the sand. I think ethical outrage implies overmuch competence and deliberation of and by the politicians – far more likely, I think, they are panicking and saying stupid things to the media.As for torture, the amoral rational calculus argument against torture (over and above the ethical) is almost as old as von Neumann. The cost of torturing grows exponentially while the benefit decays exponentially, if it has any benefit at all (e.g. life-saving intel) .I am immensely curious to know the circumstances under which a Canadian soldier would knowingly hand-over detainees for torture – is it another Abu-Ghraib prison situation (cf. Philip Zimbardo)? were there perverse incentives? or is it some sort abhorrent out-sourcing?

    Reply

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