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The Land of Lousy Alternatives

As western militaries leave Afghanistan, what will happen to their prisoners? Steve Saideman considers the various (bad) options.

By: /
27 March, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

In the 21st century, western intervention in the Mideast has revealed this region to be the Land of Lousy Alternatives.™  While there are many grounds on which to criticize the Bush Administration’s Mideast policy, it is fair to say that the choices they faced in Iraq in 2003 were all lousy ones.  Of course, they picked the worst option and then executed it badly.  But it was not the first nor will it be the last time a country faces two or more bad policy choices and is forced to pick among them.  In the past week, the U.S. has grappled with a challenge that faced intervening countries in Afghanistan – what to do with prisoners

The American decision to leave Afghanistan in 2014 has resulted in more and more responsibility being transferred to the Afghans, and more attention being paid to the issue of what will happen to the remaining prisoners of American forces.  Now that Bagram Prison has been turned over to President Karzai and his government, this issue has been taken care of, right?  Woo hoo!?  Hardly. The two most obvious risks here are that the Afghan government will release “high-value” prisoners or its agents might abuse the prisoners. 

As Canadians understand only too well, this is not a new challenge.  All NATO members operating in Afghanistan faced the question of how to handle detainees.  The traditional solution for NATO missions, such as in Kosovo, was to turn over detained suspects to the Americans who tended to build large prison facilities. Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib changed that.  Moreover, the key goal of the interveners was to support the development of a self-sustaining Afghan government.  This meant some kind of respect for Afghanistan’s sovereignty. 

Canada, like Australia, the Dutch, and the others, faced several lousy alternatives: don’t capture anybody (impossible if one really wants to do counter-insurgency); turn the detainees over to the Americans (politically impossible after 2004 or so); turn them over to a potentially abusive and certainly limited Afghanistan government; or build one’s own detainment facility.  The policy ended up being a mix of many of these options. 

Canadian military police informed my group of touring academics in Kandahar in 2007 that the basic rule was: whoever touched the suspect would be responsible for them.  So, we joked about the possibility of a Canadian soldier “accidentally” bumping an Afghan army officer into the detainee so that the person would never have to be detained by Canada.  This is an exaggeration, perhaps, but there was definitely a desire to avoid the problem.  When Canadian troops picked up suspects, they were delivered to the temporary detainee facility.  The rules were that the Canadians were obligated to turn these detainees over to Afghan authorities within 96 hours.  However, we were told at the time that this transfer process was being held up because of concerns about Afghans abusing their prisoners. 

To be clear, these are my impressions from a trip five plus years ago, and there is much litigation going about this.  It seemed obvious to all at the time that Afghanistan was a country that had different (and Canadians would consider them inferior) norms for handling prisoners.  So, there were always concerns about what might happen to the prisoners.  But also, to be clear, this was not American-style rendition – the Canadians were not expecting the prisoners to be tortured so that they could use the information.

There has been much controversy in Canada about the treatment of these prisoners that flowed through Canadian hands and into Afghan custody.  Indeed, one could argue (and indeed I do) that Canadian politicians and media spent far more time on this issue than more fundamental concerns about the mission: was there intelligence failure in 2006? What did Operation Medusa accomplish? Were the Canadians properly equipped when sent into Kandahar (no helicopters!)?  How did NATO’s growing effort to coordinate the effort conflict with Canada’s plans for Kandahar?  Was the idea of big signature projects counter-productive?  Indeed, there were (and continue to be) many questions, but the central one in front of the Canadian public was the detainee issue.  This contrasts sharply with the Americans, as Abu Ghraib was just a bit more than a blip on the screen. 

The irony is that the Americans should have reacted to Gitmo and Abu Ghraib like the Canadians reacted to the detainee issue in Afghanistan, and the Canadians should have reacted as the Americans did.   In the aftermath of Somalia, it is obviously important to take the treatment of detainees seriously.  From my interviews with General Rick Hillier and other officers, and from my brief interactions with the personnel at Canada’s detainment facility in Kandahar in 2007 (the height of the controversy), it is clear that the issue was taken quite seriously despite the deceptive denials that there was no problem.

A key distinction between the Americans and Canadians on this issue has been the level of concern with actually keeping prisoners in prison.  The U.S. was reluctant to turn over Bagram to the Afghans since President Karzai has allowed several notable “bad guys” to be released, including the person who tried to kill the head of the Afghan intelligence agency.  The Canadians, on the other hand, were in Kandahar during two massive prison breaks.  There has been, as far as I can tell, no fallout in Canada for these two large-scale failures.  Yes, the prisons were run by Afghans, and the Canadian mentors focused on teaching the wardens to not abuse the prisoners.  But each prison break was a serious blow to Canadian and NATO efforts to demonstrate the competency of the Afghan government. The prison breaks were also victories for the Taliban, illustrating that they were far more competent than a handful of dead-enders.  Yet the extent to which these two disasters undermined Canada and NATO’s agenda  did not resonate at all back in Ottawa, at least not in public.

I am not saying that we should ignore how prisoners are treated after they leave Canadian hands, but that we might have paid a bit more attention to whether the detainees were held or released.  Operating in Afghanistan meant facing lousy alternatives, and perhaps it was the case that the Corrections people had to focus on treatment and not so much on detecting tunneling. 

Limited resources, limited personnel, and limited time meant that there were few good choices to be had – not just by Canada, but by all the rest of the countries that operated in Afghanistan. This is certainly the case now for the U.S. as it tries to extract itself from Afghanistan.  The big lesson to learn, and one that seems to have been learned as demonstrated by the reluctance to intervene in Syria, is that once you put boots on the ground in the Mideast, you are walking in the Land of Lousy Alternatives.

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