To the Canadian soldiers who worked with them on a daily basis, the members of Brigade 888 were trusted allies, protecting not only the governor of Kandahar but a Canadian outpost located in his palace.
They and the man they served, Asadullah Khalid, have been gone for almost two years, but the city has yet to forget them. Kandahar is a tough place, but Mr. Khalid and his bodyguards are remembered as particularly brutal. The Canadians who knew them say they witnessed no abuses by the guards, but Brigade 888 was notorious among the locals.
People still speak in hushed tones about its torture chambers - the sleep deprivation and electric shocks.
A former palace official says he witnessed a prisoner hanging from the ceiling of a guardroom "trussed like a chicken." A man who was among those detained says he endured weeks of beatings supervised by the governor himself.
Troubling questions have emerged about the real nature of Canada's relationship with the guards - and with an Afghan regime so tarnished by corruption that President Hamid Karzai has responded to growing demands that he clean house by threatening to join the very insurgents trying to bring him down.
This week in Ottawa, the Military Police Complaints Commission, a civilian watchdog, launched public hearings into why Canada kept handing over prisoners to Afghan officials despite repeated complaints that suspects were being physically abused.
Now, a Globe and Mail investigation of Brigade 888 has found evidence that Canadians lived beside, and helped to train, Afghans who routinely committed torture. Stationed in the governor's front garden, a few minutes' walk from the guards, some soldiers knew that the governor's men were holding detainees - they were asked to supply plastic ties for the captives' wrists.
During Mr. Khalid's controversial tenure in Kandahar from 2005 to 2008, the palace became a microcosm of Canada's moral dilemmas in southern Afghanistan. Canadian soldiers posted there urgently needed help from local forces, but struggled with how the Afghans behaved.
"Did I think that was a little strange?" one Canadian officer said, describing the governor's private jail. "Yeah, I did. But there was a lot of strange stuff in Kandahar."
The so-called brigade amounted to roughly 60 men who typically wore U.S. military uniforms or civilian clothes and were led by a pair of battle-hardened commanders from Ghazni, the home province of Mr. Khalid.
Besides protecting the palace and the governor, Brigade 888 performed intelligence work. A source described the guard offices as a "nerve centre" for information, with several telephones for taking anonymous tips from the public and relaying useful details to Mr. Khalid, who was well known for sharing such intelligence with his Canadian and U.S. partners.
Speaking on condition they not be identified, Canadian soldiers who worked in the palace compound said they appreciated Brigade 888 for maintaining security even as the Taliban attempted to kill the governor. Soldiers patrolled alongside the guards and gave them weapons training.
Officials deny allegations that Canada also paid the guards, but local Afghans were left with the impression the Canadians supported them. Soldiers at the outpost were tasked with easing communications among the Afghan and foreign security forces, so they cultivated friendships with Mr. Khalid and his men, playing Xbox video games with the governor and providing high-fibre breakfast cereals to help his constitution.
Some of the Canadian liaison officers had similar contacts with the Kandahar chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the feared Afghan intelligence service. Close relationships were essential to obtain information that saved Canadian lives on the battlefield, Canadian officers say, and they avoided asking questions about how the Afghans obtained their intelligence.
A Canadian officer shrugged off a question about whether, in retrospect, Canadians should have monitored the interrogations to make sure prisoners weren't tortured.
"From the Afghan point of view, that would be like your mom sitting down with you on the couch while you're trying to make out with your girlfriend," the officer said. "It would have been awkward."
Areas were off-limits
Even if the Canadians had wanted to investigate the governor's private jails, some officers say, it would have been a difficult subject to broach. Certain doors in the palace seemed permanently closed, the officers said, and the Afghans frowned upon Canadians who explored certain "off-limits" zones in the compound.
The Canadians had other tools for monitoring the governor, however.
Mr. Khalid conducted much of his daily business on cellphones, and Canada was clandestinely recording, transcribing and translating the conversations, according to a source with first-hand knowledge of the operation. English-language transcripts of his phone calls were processed through the Canadian military's All Source Intelligence Centre (ASIC), the source said, and ASIC passed intelligence to Canada's top commander at Kandahar Air Field.
"The generals knew exactly what was going on," the source said.
Canadian diplomats also were aware of allegations that Mr. Khalid was personally involved in torture and human-rights abuses. Government censors have blacked out paragraphs related to the governor's interrogations before releasing documents to the Military Police Complaints Commission, but The Globe and Mail has learned that diplomat Richard Colvin reported in detail about the governor to his superiors in Ottawa.
As early as June, 2006, documents show, the Canadian government was aware of the governor's record of human-rights violations and his history of holding Afghan businessmen as a means of extortion.
Rather than distancing themselves, top Canadian officials defended Mr. Khalid.
With the insurgency on the rise in Kandahar, Mr. Karzai raised concerns about Mr. Khalid's leadership at a meeting with Canadian officials in July, 2006. According to the report, "Canada defended the governor, thereby ensuring his continued tenure."
The Canadian who spoke in favour of the governor was Major-General David Fraser, then serving as commander of the Canadian Forces in southern Afghanistan. His boss at the time, Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, maintained the same position when Canada was again asked for advice about Mr. Khalid the following December, according to a government source.
The following year, however, Canadian documents referred to the governor's reputation as that of a "sexual predator and drug user," and in April, 2007, a Canadian corrections official interviewed a prisoner who claimed that Mr. Khalid had personally beat him and administered electric shocks during an interrogation.
In an interview, a source who served on Canada's headquarters staff at Kandahar Air Field said he heard a story of torture from Mr. Khalid's own mouth. Afghan authorities were trying to decide whether to pay compensation to a man from Maywand district who claimed his brother was killed during interrogation by Mr. Khalid. The governor acknowledged causing the man's death, the source said, and the brother received a sum equivalent to roughly $2,000 (U.S.).
Even so, in April, 2008, then foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier sparked an uproar and official apologies when he suggested during a visit to Kandahar that Mr. Khalid be replaced.
By that time, Canadian concerns about torture had become public, and the governor's militias appear to have grown more discreet. At one point, an Afghan source said, the palace hired a labourer to apply fresh paint to an interrogation room every few weeks, as a way of concealing blood on the walls.
Sources identified at least three locations in the governor's palace that held prisoners, and indicated that Mr. Khalid probably had other informal jails elsewhere in the city. Nor was such activity confined to Brigade 888; the governor was also suspected of using several hundred men assigned to 05 Police Standby Battalion as a personal militia, which also held prisoners outside the Afghan justice system.
But the palace guards remain one of the more mysterious security forces in Kandahar's recent history. The name "Brigade 888" was not widely known, and it's difficult to confirm who paid them.
Budget records obtained from the Kandahar palace, dated July, 2006, to June, 2007, show monthly payments of $12,200 (U.S.) to the brigade's commanders, and indicate the money was from "JPCC," a reference to the Joint Provincial Co-ordination Centre, the outpost for the Canadian military liaison team at the palace.
Afghan sources also contend the brigade received payments from "the Canadians," although they say it's unclear that Canada realized how the Afghans were using the money.
However, Canadian soldiers who served at the JPCC said they were unaware of any payments to Brigade 888 and insisted that the amounts described would have been greater than the JPCC's modest budget.
"We never paid those guys," a Canadian officer said. "We had enough trouble getting money for phone cards."
One soldier suggested that the payment records may have reflected the fact that Canadians were handling payroll duties for the guards on behalf of the governor. Documents show that the JPCC had serious problems with corruption in the salary-payment system for the Afghan guards; as a result, the Canadian officer said, it began to supervise the monthly "pay parades," taking bundles of local currency from the governor's office to hand out.
This would have circumvented the regular pay system through the corrupt Interior Ministry, but the officer said he is not sure where the governor got the stacks of cash.
Another soldier suggested that the money may have been supplied by U.S. special forces, whose personnel visited Brigade 888's offices on a regular basis. But an Afghan source said he believed the money was Canadian development aid, redirected by the governor to his palace guard.
It's not easy to find anyone who served in Brigade 888. Every member of the bodyguard unit was replaced when Mr. Khalid was forced out of his job in the summer of 2008. Some remained in his retinue when he was promoted to the Karzai cabinet as border affairs minister, a post he lost in a recent shuffle.
Reached by telephone, two former guards declined to comment, and the former governor himself has always denied any role in torture.
Some Canadians who served in Kandahar say they're reluctant to discuss Brigade 888 for fear that Canadians will misunderstand the context of their actions, failing to see that such harsh methods were necessary in the bitter war.
One source who served at the palace in 2007 said he still struggles with the morality of what happened in those windowless rooms. "The interrogation methods were purely evil, there is no question about that, but in some cases produced valuable information to save some lives," he said. "The question here is about moral values. I mean, our values can only be our values if we don't break or bend them at a time when they are tested.
Graeme Smith was The Globe and Mail's lead correspondent in Afghanistan from 2005 until early last year. Last month, he received his third consecutive nomination for a National Newspaper Award.
CLARIFICATION AND CORRECTION
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
A Globe and Mail article published in the April 10 Focus section regarding Kandahar's palace guard was not intended to leave an impression, which would have been erroneous, that Canadian military officials knew of or agreed with allegations reported by a diplomat that the then-governor Asadullah Khalid was involved in torture. In that article, the quote, "The generals knew exactly what was going on," was not intended to suggest the generals knew of these torture allegations, but rather the fact that some military officials received general intelligence from the monitoring of the governor's communications. The article also reported comments from a soldier suggesting Canadian troops supervised pay to Afghan guards, including Brigade 888, a unit charged with the governor's security. However, that soldier said, subsequent to publication, that he was referring only to Afghan police guards. The Globe and Mail regrets not contacting Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Michel Gauthier, who was head of overseas deployment in 2006 and 2007, or Maj-Gen. David Fraser, the top Canadian commander in Kandahar for most of 2006, for comment.