Hypocrisy and the Afghan detainee scandal

The Canadian government condemned the recent suicide attack on its embassy guards in Kabul as ‘cowardly’ while simultaneously backing away from an inquiry into the Afghan detainee scandal. Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?

By: /
July 27, 2016
A group of men detained for suspected Taliban activities are held for questioning at a schoolhouse in the village of Kuhak in Arghandab District, north of Kandahar July 9, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Since our military withdrawal in 2014, Canadian policy in Afghanistan is defined as: advancing security, democracy, rule-of-law and human rights; empowering Afghan women and girls though education, maternal, newborn and child health; and contributing to capacity development for the management of humanitarian assistance.

At the NATO Warsaw Summit earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and renewed Canada’s commitment of more than $150 million per year to help with aid projects and security in Afghanistan.

Is this an area of Canadian foreign policy where we will see a change in action, not just tone, by the Liberals? Just last month, two events occurred that may illustrate the case, and define further the practice of Canadian foreign policy as it applies to Afghanistan.

On the morning of June 20, 14 Nepalese private security guards were killed when their bus blew up as they were being transported to work at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul. The suicide bombing was roundly condemned by Trudeau as a “cowardly” attack.

Several days before in Ottawa, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan submitted a three-page message stating that the new Liberal government would not be moving ahead with a public inquiry to investigate the Afghan detainee scandal, first brought to light in 2007, despite an online petition with 750 names on it, spearheaded by former New Democrat MP Craig Scott.

The scandal involved Canadian soldiers handing over captured prisoners – mostly suspected Taliban and or their supporters or enablers – to local security forces for imprisonment and potentially torture. At the time of its first airing more than a decade ago, the Liberal Party position on the matter was clear: if Stephen Harper’s government had been aware of the potential for torture, and allowed the transfer of detainees to go ahead regardless, then that could be considered a war crime. 

The government's decision is however in direct contradiction with the Liberal’s outcry against Harper’s Conservative government at the height of the detainee scandal, demanding an investigation into who knew what and when.

The link between the two recent incidents, then, is to be found in the idiom 'the pot calling the kettle black.' Trudeau called the bomb attack “cowardly,” yet he and his colleagues are promoting the same attitude by canning the investigation and ignoring what they themselves once called a potential war crime.

Afghans and Canadians alike can legitimately question the senselessness of the Kabul attack, which was only one of a series of coordinated attacks that day announced by the Taliban. That said, we can also ask how the sacrifice of Afghan and Canadian lives has been served by the Canadian cover up into the Afghan detainee scandal (i.e. not at all), and how an investigation has been impeded by the hypocritical volte- face by the Canadian Liberal party now that it has a majority of deputies in the House of Commons. 

Let us reminisce about the reasons given for the original dispatch of Canadian forces to Afghanistan in the wake of September 11, 2011, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If it was to bolster Afghan democracy, secure civil peace and assist in emancipating women, then it is hard to imagine how this political decision has done anything to support and promote such brilliant and laudable principles.

Instead, the Liberals have opted for cynicism in the pursuit of Canada’s foreign affairs in Afghanistan. To be sure, Canada is not alone in the parade of Western powers having sent troops to ‘liberate’ the Afghans from themselves. However, the ‘happy ways’ promises have led us to expect a higher standard from the rejuvenated Liberal Party.

In stark contrast, the refusal to investigate possible crimes committed against the Afghan people can only intensify the feeling of drift in the conduct of Canadian foreign policy, so prevalent during the Harper years. The measure of this drift will be in the comparison made between the hollow ambition of the Harper government in regards to international affairs and the substance of any new Liberal vision to reposition former policies. How will Canada explain its inability to present a new, improved foreign policy vision when the campaign rolls around for the vacant Security Council seat at the UN? Are Afghan lives worth less than Canadian ones?

Changing the tone of Canadian foreign policy does not change its content. Principled stands of the past are now rebuked in a terse message by an obedient minister of defence, whose only claim to fame has been to repeat endlessly that he too has soldiered in Afghanistan. The question the dead and wounded Canadian soldiers should ask is: for what? Was the Minister–Soldier ever made aware of the detainee scandal during his several postings to Afghanistan where he is said to have “changed the face of intelligence gathering”? 

"Changing the tone of Canadian foreign policy does not change its content."

Instead of presenting scripted messages, Sajjan and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion should ensure that the Afghan detainee scandal gets a thorough airing. Both departments, Global Affairs and Defence, need to be investigated on this issue. We do not know the extent of the cover up and the Liberals’ latest political decision to can everything only raises more suspicions. The cathartic effect of an independent investigation would help restore Canadians’ faith in the ethical conduct of Canadian foreign policy, root out departmental pandering and influence-peddling and prove to the Afghan people that Canadians can be trusted to uphold habeas corpus and the rights of detainees, whether they are suspected Taliban or not.

If there is a free and independent public inquiry, then some of the current aimless chatter about a new more humanitarian foreign policy in Canada may abate, in favour of concrete steps towards a new, responsible way of conducting international affairs. Meanwhile, the Taliban profit from Canada’s political drift in Afghanistan, telling its people that this nation speaks with a forked tongue.

Also in the series


Stories from Kandahar, the Afghan province Canada left behind

Canada’s multibillion-dollar war effort in Afghanistan largely focused on peace-building and development in Kandahar, but 15 years after the war began, residents there are still wondering what it accomplished. 


The Afghan Mission: Canada’s military is willing to learn, but has it done so?

In the lead up to the Canadian government’s defence review, Steve Saideman lists three lessons learned in Afghanistan: honesty should trump optimism; sometimes we must admit when more resources are needed; and a war cannot be won with force alone.   


Canadians closed the book on Afghanistan long ago — and that’s a shame

Ghost schools. Unusable health facilities. Corruption and violence. The state of Afghanistan should concern all Canadians, but we moved on without a national reckoning over our impact there, argues Naheed Mustafa.  

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The war that never left Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been notoriously easy to seize but difficult to hold. John Duncan explains why the country’s lack of centralized government has kept effective and ongoing occupation out of reach for one great power after another.


Bill Graham on Canada’s 3D war: A mission to be proud of

In The Call of the World: A Political Memoir, former foreign and defence minister Bill Graham looks back at the challenges and successes that stretched across party lines during Canada’s time in Afghanistan.   


Not for nothing: The fight to improve human and women’s rights in Afghanistan

International human rights lawyer and activist Georgette Gagnon spent five years in Afghanistan and saw first-hand the contribution made by Canadians. Here she shares her takeaways from her time as director of human rights for the UN in Afghanistan.