An unknown number of Taliban insurgents captured by Canadians and turned over to Afghanistan's secret police are unaccounted for - a serious violation of the Harper government's "improved" detainee-transfer agreement and one that may endanger Canadian soldiers.
The latest detainee-transfer problem to emerge also threatens to undermine Prime Minister Stephen Harper's assertion that "two, three, four years ago" his government fixed the problems that put Canada at risk of violating the Geneva Conventions by transferring detainees into torture.
"This issue has long since been dealt with," Mr. Harper said last week.
But a few days earlier, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon had quietly acknowledged that an unspecified number of transferred detainees can't be accounted for because Afghan security forces have failed to keep Canada informed of their fates.
"The May, 2007, arrangement states that the government of Canada will be notified prior to the release of a Canadian-transferred detainee by Afghan authorities. However, notification has been a challenge," Mr. Cannon conceded in a written and little-noticed answer delivered to Parliament's order paper last week, weeks after ministers had first faced and deflected questions on the subject at committee hearings.
"There's this black hole here," said Paul Dewar, the NDP's Foreign Affairs critic, who had posed some of the questions. He said a Canadian soldier, back from Afghanistan, telephoned him and asked him to seek answers from the government about the breakdowns in accounting for transferred detainees.
"It's possible Canadians are being killed because transferred detainees are being freed; right now we don't even know if they are going back to laying IEDs [improvised explosives devices]or going back to combat."
Mr. Dewar acknowledges that it is impossible to point to specific casualties or attacks by released detainees. But military sources have admitted that at least some detainees have been captured multiple times.
The impact on morale of capturing Taliban fighters, transferring them to Afghan custody and then facing them again in combat is severe, according to Canada's top diplomat in Kabul. The "release of detainees is having a profound and demoralizing affect on our soldiers," Ambassador William Crosbie wrote in a Sept. 19 memo.
While Mr. Cannon admits notification has been "a challenge," one military source says that unless a transferred detainee is in the prison where he was first placed, Canadian follow-up inspections have almost no chance of ascertaining his fate.
Under the current detainee-transfer agreement - hurriedly upgraded in May, 2007, after The Globe and Mail published harrowing accounts of abused and tortured detainees - Afghanistan is bound to notify Canada before it releases, transfers or commits to trial a transferred detainee. Canadian diplomats and correctional officers are also supposed to be able to make follow-up inspections and conduct interviews with all transferred prisoners.
The long-simmering transfer-to-torture issue surrounding detainees exploded this fall when Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin told MPs that top generals and senior Foreign Affairs officials had ignored his warnings in 2006 and 2007. The government, while never admitting there was a problem, now says its transfer system is the "gold standard" and dismisses criticisms as outdated.
But these releases and disappearances are happening now, not three years ago, and the system is still broken "no matter how often the government tries to put a fig leaf over things," Mr. Dewar said.