Canada's government was struggling with the chaos of a new war in Kandahar against an unexpectedly fierce insurgency and only gradually came to grips with concerns that it couldn't tell if detainees handed over to Afghan forces were tortured, Ottawa's former point man on Afghanistan says.
"It was a very chaotic year. It was a terrible year," David Mulroney told a parliamentary committee Thursday.
Mr. Mulroney, who flew in this week from Beijing, where he is Canada's ambassador, to defend his record as senior official co-ordinating efforts in Afghanistan, denied that he tried to shut down diplomat Richard Colvin's reports on the risk of torture.
Mr. Colvin dropped a bombshell last week when he testified that as a diplomat in Kandahar and Kabul in 2006 and 2007, he warned repeatedly that prisoners taken by Canadian soldiers faced abuse in Afghan jails, and that all were likely tortured.
Throughout 90 minutes of testimony, Mr. Mulroney stressed that the government did not ignore Mr. Colvin's reports, but had no specific evidence of torture - and addressed the concerns by changing the transfer arrangements in May, 2007, so Canadian officials could monitor what happened to the detainees in Afghan jails.
For a year before that, Mr. Colvin had been reporting warnings about the risks of abuse - but Mr. Mulroney, who became the co-ordinator for Afghanistan in January, 2007, testified that in the chaos of a new mission, it took time for the government to grapple with the problem.
Canadian troops began moving into Kandahar in December, 2005, with unarmoured vehicles and green uniforms, to face a much fiercer insurgency than expected, he said. Only a handful of Canadian diplomats were in Afghanistan, and co-ordination in Ottawa was poor. The government was aware of abuses in Afghan jails, but the military had to detain insurgents.
"There was very widespread and incredible understanding that there were lots of problems in the Afghan justice system, in Afghan prisons, with Afghan police, as there were throughout the Afghan system," Mr. Mulroney said.
"But the question is, how do we take that information and then relate it to the challenge we faced with the need to put people that we believed were serious threats to Afghans and Canadians into the justice system?"
The government had arranged in 2005 for the Red Cross to monitor detainees, but the agency did not report to Canadian officials - and Mr. Colvin reported in 2006 that it did not get enough information to locate prisoners.
Mr. Mulroney said that by the end of 2006, Ottawa realized it had to arrange for Canadian officials to monitor detainees in Afghan jails - as the British and Dutch did - but needed to set up a system staffed by Canadian civilians.
Mr. Mulroney insisted that before reports appeared in The Globe and Mail in April, 2007, Ottawa had no evidence that transferred detainees might have been tortured, but he conceded that Canadians did not monitor what happened to them until May, 2007.
He dodged the question when asked whether he is certain that none were transferred before then. And when asked about a prisoner at Kabul's Sederat prison that Mr. Colvin reported in June, 2007, had been whipped with cables and shocked months before, Mr. Mulroney admitted he did not know if the detainee was transferred by Canadian troops.
"I can't say whether he was or wasn't," Mr. Mulroney said.
Mr. Mulroney dismissed as speculation Mr. Colvin's claim in testimony last week that all detainees transferred by Canadian troops were likely tortured, adding that after he became co-ordinator for Afghanistan, he demanded that diplomats distinguish in their reports between hard fact and speculation or opinion.
But he insisted that he never tried to shut down Mr. Covin's reporting.
"The view that I muzzled him or any other official is wrong," he said.
He said that after long debate inside government, senior officials decided in April, 2007, on a "diplomatic contingency plan," and Mr. Colvin responded by reopening the debate, muddying the waters when officials needed to know it was time to act. And he said he asked Mr. Colvin to express his opinions over the phone before he put them in writing.
The clash, according to sources, came when Mr. Mulroney issued instructions for diplomats to register complaints with the Afghan government if evidence emerged that a transferred detainee was tortured. Mr. Colvin responded with a memo insisting that Canada had to monitor the detainees - and Mr. Mulroney copied a rebuke to a long list of recipients.
Mr. Mulroney, who was Prime Minister Stephen Harper's foreign policy adviser in 2006, said he did not recall briefing Mr. Harper on detainee issues in that period. But he said that after he moved to the Foreign Affairs department in early 2007, he briefed then-Foreign Affairs minister Peter MacKay - who is now Defence Minister - but he did not describe those briefings.