The Department of Foreign Affairs was pushed to the sidelines when Canada struck its detainee-transfer deal in Afghanistan, two senior government sources have told The Globe and Mail.
"We were not consulted," said one, adding that Foreign Affairs was shunted aside by the Department of National Defence and Canada's top soldier, Rick Hillier, when he signed the accord in 2005. The deal has become mired in controversy because it includes no follow-up role for Canada on the fate of detainees in Afghanistan's notoriously brutal prison system.
Another senior foreign-service officer gave a longer explanation: "Hillier went to Kabul thinking of them [the detainees]as 'scumbags' and made the deal. Hillier wanted to sign it; he insisted on signing it," he said. "Defence took the file and messed it up."
The comment played off a remark General Hillier, Chief of the Defence Staff, made in July, 2005, when he set off a national debate by referring to the Taliban as "detestable murderers and scumbags."
Some of the backlash from Foreign Affair officials is a response to a harsh condemnation of them by a defence official last week, who said they were too busy eating canapés to rally to embattled Defence Minster Gordon O'Connor under fire for the detainee-transfer agreement.
"The bureaucrats at Foreign Affairs resisted getting stuck with this issue," a defence source said. "They don't want this hornet's nest. They are happy going to their cocktail parties and eating little shrimps."
One angry diplomat said the Defence Department seemed to have forgotten Glyn Berry, the diplomat killed in a Taliban suicide attack soon after Canadian Forces moved into Kandahar.
Now the interdepartmental spitting match has spread to include the matter of whether Gen. Hillier included, or should have included, Foreign Affairs in his original deal-making.
The Foreign Affairs source said the department did have concerns about the Hillier deal, particularly with respect to the level of monitoring of detainees that Canada would be allowed.
"Check the comparative assurances that the Dutch, for example, had compared to what we had. They had a higher level of oversight," he said.
The Dutch agreement, negotiated within weeks of the Canadian deal, allows for both Dutch diplomats and Dutch military officers to make unlimited follow-up visits of transferred prisoners to ensure they aren't tortured or abused or made to disappear; all of which occur in Afghan prisons.
The Defence officials who helped draft the Canadian agreement included then-judge-advocate-general Jerry Pitzul, a major-general, and a colonel on his staff, both of whom had experience in the laws of war and international humanitarian law, said a source involved with the discussions. Although the agreement did not include the right of Canadians to directly monitor detainees transferred to Afghan control, the military argued that it was not practical for the Canadian Forces to monitor detainees on the ground, because they did not have the capacity to carry out the task.
Just as important, according to an insider, the military officials argued that Dutch and British officials would not be able to effectively monitor detainees in practice, and that the Canadian agreement was better because it contained an explicit legal commitment that the detainees would be covered by the Geneva Conventions.
Defence officials and outsiders sympathetic to Mr. O'Connor sketched a picture of Gen. Hillier as a blunt, pragmatic leader, the sort of "take-charge, tell-it-like-it-is" kind of guy that you want running a war halfway around the world.
"It's easy to armchair quarterback from Canada," said one military analyst who defended Gen. Hillier. However, he acknowledged that Gen. Hillier may not have focused on the nuances of follow-up inspections for detainees. And now, he said, "O'Connor, like the good team player that he is, is taking all the heat."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered his support to Mr. O'Connor during Question Period yesterday in the face of continued opposition calls for his resignation.
"All ministers serve the government with distinction," Mr. Harper said. "The Minister of National Defence has served his country with distinction for virtually his entire adult life, including in a uniform in the Canadian Forces."
Mr. Harper also dismissed recent media reports quoting Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day as admitting that Canadian officials in Afghanistan have heard allegations of torture directly from prisoners in local jails.
Mr. Harper said it was old news, given that Mr. Day had already said so last week in the House. However, Mr. Day had simply referred at the time to prisoners speaking about their "treatment" in Afghanistan, without making any specific reference to allegations of torture.
Gen. Hillier has said he has "no regrets" about the December, 2005, detainee-transfer agreement that he negotiated.
His critics paint a stark portrait of a Chief of Defence Staff rough-shouldering everyone else aside. "He has the ear of the Prime Minister and he just stomps anyone who gets in his way," said one.
Both his supporters and his detractors agree that Gen. Hillier looms far larger than any other Ottawa power player in Canada's supposedly three-pronged "defence, development and democracy" strategy for war-fighting and peace-building in Afghanistan.
On 90 per cent of the Afghan file, Defence runs the show and tramples on anyone who gets in their way, said another Foreign Affairs official.
Some of that may simply reflect the realities on the ground. With a hot war raging in the south and more than 2,000 Canadian troops on the ground in Kandahar, Gen. Hillier and the Canadian Forces dominate. But it is not just competing departments that are at issue, lamented a CIDA official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's all run by the PMO, and Gen. Hillier has the access," the official said.
In an innovative and sometimes resented program, Gen. Hillier has also placed highly skilled military advisers in key Afghan ministries, giving him unmatched access to the Afghan government; certainly far greater than the handful of diplomats in the Canadian embassy in Kabul.
The general, a blunt-speaking Newfoundlander who developed a deep-seated affection for Afghanistan and its people during the year he spent commanding NATO troops in Kabul in 2004, also has his own personal communications channels with President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan ministers.
That knowledge and access make Gen. Hillier a formidable force, especially back in Ottawa where no one in Foreign Affairs or the Defence Department can match his range of experience in Afghanistan or his personal contacts.