Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

An inmate, shackled by the feet, arrives at Afghanistan's notorious Sarpoza prison. (Graeme Smith/Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)
An inmate, shackled by the feet, arrives at Afghanistan's notorious Sarpoza prison. (Graeme Smith/Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)

Brigade 888

House of pain: Canada's connection with Kandahar's ruthless palace guard Add to ...

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.

There was a lot of strange stuff in Kandahar. Canadian officer

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."

Asadullah Khalid, then governor of Kandahar, chats with Lt-Col. Dana Woodworth, the Canadian commander of the Provincial Reconstruction Team Base, at Sha Wali Kot, Afghanistan, on Feb. 11, 2008.

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

Report Typo/Error
Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @GlobePolitics

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular