Canada and its allies have repeatedly promised - and failed - to build a new prison in Afghanistan where transferred detainees could be interned without risk of abuse, torture or ill-treatment and where Afghan guards could be mentored and trained in treating battlefield captives within the bounds of international law, according to Afghan secret police documents.
In an apologetic letter to Amrullah Saleh, head of Afghanistan's National Security Directorate, Canadian, British and Dutch officials pledged "to assure you of our commitment to help build a new NDS detention facility in Kabul."
The letter, signed by senior diplomats in Kabul representing Canada, Britain and the Netherlands - the three NATO countries doing most of the fighting and transferring most of the detainees to overcrowded and notorious Afghan prison - was hand-delivered to NDS headquarters on Feb 12, 2009. "We expect construction to start this summer," the letter added, referring to last summer.
Whatever private assurances the government of Stephen Harper has given the Afghan regime, ministers have never publicly announced any interest in prison-building in Afghanistan, although billions have been earmarked for other infrastructure. And, since last February, no work on a new NDS prison has been started.
The placatory letter followed an angry confrontation in which Mr. Saleh upbraided allied diplomats for failing to make good on promises to build a prison, to train and mentor Afghan guards and for imposing random repeated inspections aimed at ferreting out allegations of torture and abuse. He also railed against Western intelligence agents interrogating detainees in Afghan jails and said he had been ordered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to block further inspections unless the Western allies complied with a set of demands.
"We are told for a number of years now that a new detention facility will be build for us," Mr. Saleh wrote in a follow-up letter, accusing the allies of dangling a modern, humane, secure facility that met international standards but failing to deliver. "There is no sign of real progress, it is still largely talk only," Mr. Saleh wrote. The NDS letter is among a new tranche of previously undisclosed documents now in the possession of The Globe and Mail.
The NDS chief also complained bitterly to Canada, Britain and the Netherlands that their follow-up inspections aimed at making sure prisoners weren't being transferred to torture - an international war crime - were creating problems in the prisons. Unexpected and multiple inspection visits were unwelcome, he wrote, and infringed on Afghan sovereignty.
Mr. Saleh threatened to cut-off inspections and - apparently seeking to appease the NDS chief - the three countries agreed to only conduct joint visits with plenty of advance notice and limit them to once a month at most.
"We hope this will minimize any disruption caused by our access to your facilities and allow access arrangements to resume," Canada, Britain and the Netherlands said in their written response to Mr. Saleh.
"As the three main nations who transfer detainees over to NDS custody, we have discussed how best to respond to your concerns," the letter says.
Mollifying Mr. Saleh and the NDS was vital to continuing combat operations as long as Canada, Britain and the Netherlands rejected U.S. advice and mounting political pressure at home over the fate of transferred detainees. None of them wanted to house and care for battlefield captives and all were seeking to hand them over to Afghan security forces, preferably the NDS, within 96 hours.
The three countries' own internal reports matched the findings of the United Nations in saying that torture was rife in Afghan prison and the NDS - which serves as both an intelligence agency and Afghanistan's secret police - was especially notorious for brutal interrogation methods. Nonetheless, the three countries were determined to keep handing over prisoners rather than hold them as the United States does.
"The NDS tortures people - that's what they do - and if we don't want our detainees tortured, we shouldn't give them to the NDS," Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin had warned in early 2007.
Apparently not much has changed. Earlier this month, the annual U.S. government survey of human rights concluded "torture was commonplace among the majority of law enforcement institutions, especially the police" in Afghanistan.
NDS prisons in Kandahar and Kabul are the two primary transfer prisons for Afghans captured by Canadian combat and special forces.
Although Britain and the Netherlands considered building a prison - to be operated jointly with Afghan security forces - as far back as 2006, Canada has long objected to the concept.
"While creating a Canadian or joint detention facility in Afghanistan may appear to be an attractive solution, doing so would be problematic," Gordon O'Connor said when he was Canada's defence minister and when the transfer-to-torture issue first erupted in the spring of 2007. "It would risk undermining Canada's objective of supporting Afghan authorities … including their capacity to promote and protect human rights."
NATO had proposed a prison to be jointly run with the Afghans as the alliance was preparing to take over leadership of some combat operations from the United States, but sources familiar with that idea say Ottawa balked. "No one wanted to risk getting Canadian hands dirty," one source said, adding it was discussed at the highest levels.
Colonel Steven Noonan, the battle group commander when Canadian troops first deployed in early 2006 to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, was later to testify about the potential problems with a Canadian or joint prison for battlefield captives. "The other concern that we do have is that without the proper training, without experience in it, the execution of that may go wrong as has been evidenced in my understanding of, for example, the Abu Ghraib situation.''
Abu Ghraib, the U.S.-run prison in Iraq where U.S. soldiers were photographed humiliating and abusing prisons was very fresh at the time Ottawa opted to turn detainees over as quickly as possible to Afghan security forces. Unlike Britain and the Netherlands, Canada didn't seek follow-up inspections at that time.