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Diplomat Richard Colvin. (Sean Kilpatrick)
Diplomat Richard Colvin. (Sean Kilpatrick)

'The buck stopped nowhere' at Foreign Affairs <br/>on Colvin's warnings Add to ...

As Richard Colvin fired off warnings about the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan in 2006, the diplomat's missives bounced into the computers of Foreign Affairs without ever really landing.

Inside the Department of Foreign Affairs, the biggest Canadian overseas commitment since the Korean War was organized like any other file. Diplomats in Kabul and Kandahar had different supervisors. In separate corners of the department's Sussex Drive headquarters in the Pearson building, the peacekeeping desk would handle one memo, the human rights desk another, defence relations a third.

Mr. Colvin sparked a firestorm at the highest levels in Ottawa when he told a parliamentary committee that he warned for a full year that detainees Canadian troops handed over to Afghan forces faced torture before the government began to monitor them.

But behind that furor is another story: outside the combat-focused military, no one was in charge in the early part of the Afghan mission.

A scattered batch of mid-level officials, lacking the incontrovertible proof that Canadians had no means to find, didn't have the overall responsibility or weight to push for big change.

"The buck stopped nowhere," said one official involved in the Afghan mission.

In early 2007, the Conservative government charged senior official David Mulroney with bringing together generals, diplomats and aid workers to create a broad Afghanistan strategy.

But the new crew clashed with the old: frustrated Afghanistan hands felt they'd gone from being leaderless to having their views dismissed.

In November, Mr. Colvin told the parliamentary committee that everyone knew, or should have known, Afghan detainees were being tortured. For that he was excoriated by cabinet ministers and generals.

Both sides spoke with the indignant tone of people who were convinced they were telling the truth. Some hinted at dysfunction, but what they didn't fully admit was this: that Mr. Colvin was a voice in the wilderness when no one was in charge, and an irritant once someone was.

From the first plans for the deployment to troubled Kandahar province in 2005, how to deal with detainees was a vexing question.

U.S. allies were tainted by the treatment of detainees in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison; Canadian generals said the Forces were too stretched to operate their own jail.

So prisoners were transferred to Afghan authorities, quickly, even as the military insisted soldiers were not trained to monitor what happened to them. No one really thought the half-dozen diplomats in Afghanistan could do it. The death of diplomat Glyn Berry in January, 2006, made Foreign Affairs reluctant to send more.

The military treated the few civilians there with disdain. When ambassador David Sproule visited the Kandahar base, he was assigned a corporal's quarters, not a major's. "He was the ambassador for all of Afghanistan except Kandahar," said one official.

Back in Ottawa, Afghanistan diplomats had no chain of command. The Kabul embassy reported to an Afghanistan desk officer, but the Canadian diplomat in Kandahar reported to a peacekeeping branch; mid-level officials scattered through Foreign Affairs headquarters had charge of issues related to human rights, justice, detainees, or defence relations in Afghanistan and several other countries.

Mr. Colvin's warnings about possible abuses worried some - they knew Afghan justice had a bad reputation - but mid-level officials didn't have the weight to make it a priority with top officials or the military, and responded by tinkering. Several officials insisted in testimony at the committee that Mr. Colvin's warnings, until mid-2007, were never the alarm that would have triggered action: specific, verified evidence that a Canadian-transferred detainee was tortured.

"If they'd seen that, somebody would have reacted," one official with knowledge of the mission said. But he admitted that since no one monitored detainees, Mr. Colvin couldn't provide it: "It was a chicken and egg thing."

Not until January, 2007, more than a year after the mission began, was a civilian, Mr. Mulroney, given the power to pull Afghanistan's strands together, and to demand action.

But Mr. Harper's new point man would alienate old Afghanistan hands, and the man who had been acting like a Cassandra for so many months. To Mr. Mulroney, the old school were endlessly harping freelancers who needed discipline and direction; to the veterans, Mr. Mulroney was there to issue orders to put the Harper stamp on Afghanistan strategy, not discuss their views about problems.

"The few people … in Foreign Affairs that had been working on the file up until that point were basically told, there's a new regime in town, and it's going to be top-down. We're not looking so much for advice," said one person close to the events.

Mr. Mulroney recruited a big new task force, many with no Afghanistan experience, replacing the scattered experts, and had to bring officials from other warring departments together. Mr. Mulroney told the parliamentary committee that officials struggled in March and April of 2007 to plan a monitoring system amid many complex issues. One official insisted Mr. Mulroney listened to Mr. Colvin's warnings, but didn't want "the same memo over and over."

Mr. Mulroney needed the co-operation of generals, who hated having a diplomat vet their plans. The military had long viewed Mr. Colvin as a nuisance because he persistently pushed different views on issues such as limiting civilian casualties and removing Kandahar's governor, and interrupted during officers' briefings.

"It became easy to discount Richard because he's a pain in the ass," recalled an official. "David could go to senior military people and say, 'I understand. People like Colvin, they're part of the old mentality, and I'm going to rein them in.' It threw them an olive branch."

But at the end of April, 2007, Mr. Harper's government was under fire in Parliament over the treatment of detainees after The Globe and Mail published prisoners' accounts of torture.

Mr. Mulroney issued orders for diplomatic pressure. Mr. Colvin replied that Canada needed a new transfer arrangement with Afghanistan - and Mr. Mulroney curtly told him to follow his orders.

Despite the clash, a new transfer agreement was drafted within days and signed immediately by Afghanistan's government.

But the breach between Mr. Colvin and Mr. Mulroney, between old hand and new regime, was entrenched, although hidden from public view. It would take almost three years before that breach was revealed, still raw, before the Parliamentary committee.

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