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Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin arrives at a Commons special committee on Afghanistan on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, November 18, 2009.
Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin arrives at a Commons special committee on Afghanistan on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, November 18, 2009.

Bruce Anderson

Ugly stalemate on Afghan torture Add to ...

Richard Colvin's stunning testimony, if an accurate portrayal of the facts in the Afghan detainee story, should logically carry a significant political price for the Harper government. Whether it will is less clear.

Let's assume for the moment that everything Mr. Colvin reported was true. That Canada knowingly delivered both militants and innocents to certain torture. That, when our authorities were advised that this was happening, they hesitated to act, and tried to supppress the truth.

It may not be that Mr. Colvin's is the only fair way to interpret events, but it seems clear that this is what he perceived from his vantage point. We should all be glad that our civil service is staffed with people who, upon seeing the things that Mr. Colvin perceived, will raise alarms, even at considerable personal risk. We also owe it to the officials to whom he reported to hear their side of the story before closing our minds.

For this issue to shift a lot of votes, in my estimation there would need to be both more corroborating evidence and a process that fuels momentum and appears fair.

Without both, Canadians may shake their heads in dismay, or scratch their heads in uncertainty, but ultimately move on to other concerns.

One reason for this is that Afghanistan is increasingly an awkward subject, an elephant in the room. People feel dismayed at the prospect that our effort there will ultimately be abandoned without shutting down the Taliban, routing al-Qaeda, capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, creating a sturdy democratic system, or securing human rights. Our soldiers have sacrificed much, and because it's painful to think of this war as a possible failure, many of us push it to the back of our minds.

Because of this, the standard for evidence shocking enough to trigger a political realignment seems higher than it might be otherwise. This evidence may exist and become apparent in the coming days. Without more, an ungainly stalemate may persist. Canada's reputation under a cloud, government and military leadership outraged at the allegations, but with no way to find a more certain truth and bring closure.

It will be up to opposition politicians and the news media to use the process tools at their disposal to provoke a deeper investigation. Question Period heat doesn't always shed light, but the Liberals are better organized this month than before, and their efforts in the House, led by Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh, have been sharp. Also, the Parliamentary committee exploring the issue is planning a list of witnesses that can't help but bring more information into the open.

Ultimately, whether this war in Afghanistan is a popular or pleasant subject should not decide the course of events regarding Mr. Colvin's allegations.

He was right that Canadian values and torture don't mix. And, lest we forget, the Geneva Conventions are meant to protect our troops from the treatment it is alleged we condoned. Let's hope that in this case, our adversarial political system works well and that we quickly find more conclusive evidence of deliberate malfeasance and obstruction or sufficient proof that there was none.

(Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

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