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A suspected Taliban prisoner has his hands strapped by a Canadian soldier after a raid on a compound in northern Kandahar in May 2006. (JOHN D MCHUGH/John D McHugh/AFP/Getty Images)
A suspected Taliban prisoner has his hands strapped by a Canadian soldier after a raid on a compound in northern Kandahar in May 2006. (JOHN D MCHUGH/John D McHugh/AFP/Getty Images)

Globe editorial

The gap between warning and action Add to ...

Answers on Afghans detainees are still hard to come by. Testimony by the former Afghanistan task-force head David Mulroney and retired generals Rick Hillier and Michel Gauthier focused on the challenges Canada faced in ramping up its mission in Afghanistan. But key questions around the government's failure to respond to repeated warnings and evidence of torture in 2006 and early 2007 remain, while the Conservatives' politicization of the issue devalues the gravity of the charges.

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Mr. Mulroney's testimony was most detailed in covering the period starting in February, 2007, when he became the task force's head with the rank of deputy minister. By May, 2007, a new transfer agreement with more safeguards was in place. That reflects good work.

But why did it take so long? Mr. Colvin issued six reports that dealt with detainees between May, 2006 and February, 2007. Among them was an e-mail on which the office of Peter MacKay, who was then the minister of foreign affairs, was copied, when Mr. Mulroney was the foreign affairs adviser to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It quoted a Red Cross official saying that "when things get difficult, some authorities in Afghanistan get tougher and tougher," and that "all kinds of things are going on." These warnings from the usually discreet Red Cross ought to have sounded alarms. Clearly, they didn't.

To judge from their testimony on Wednesday, Canada's top generals were not prepared to be alarmed. The spirited defence by Mr. Hillier, the former chief of the defence staff, of the commendable work of Canadian soldiers in 2006 was merited; his dismissal of Mr. Colvin's statement that all detainees were tortured as "ludicrous," without engaging the evidence, was not. Mr. Gauthier said the first warning about torture he received was in April, 2007, thanks to The Globe's reporting. Mr. Gauthier had an obligation to know, given the widespread knowledge in 2006 (confirmed by Mr. Mulroney) that things were amiss in Afghan prisons. He, too, was copied on Mr. Colvin's reports.

The Conservatives' preference for attacking the whistleblowers and deferring to military heroism rather than dealing with the actual charges is deplorable but not surprising. Ever since Gordon O'Connor, the former minister of defence, wrongly stated in the spring of 2006 that the Red Cross was overseeing detainee treatment, Canada's political leadership has focused too much on posturing and too little on fact.

Beyond what was known, and sat on, in 2006 and 2007, the core question remains: Were people detained by Canadians subsequently tortured by Afghan authorities? Canadians need to know.

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