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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Scoring points with detainees Add to ...

When good countries fight bad wars, the unintended consequences are usually messy. And when politicians use serious issues to score cheap points, they deserve to be called on it.

That's what Peter Milliken, the Speaker of the House, did the other day. In a statement everyone should welcome, he affirmed that Parliament has a right to uncensored documents about Afghan detainees, so long as it can figure out a way to protect legitimate national security concerns. Then he scolded both the government and the opposition for playing politics with the issue. Time to grow up, folks.

If the feuding parties can't figure out how to co-operate with one another, we could be facing a widely unwanted election. Do you want to go there? Me neither. I also want the vicious partisanship to simmer down.

The first point I would like to make is that it's awfully hard to fight a war in a place like Afghanistan without hurting innocent people, violating your enemy's human rights from time to time, or avoiding any action that could possibly be construed as a war crime. Not impossible. But hard.

The second point is that our planning for Afghanistan was incomplete. It simply failed to cover all the bases - including the important issue of how to handle prisoners. "There was never a sense that this was a decade-long commitment for which we had to make appropriate arrangements," says Janice Stein, the director of the new Munk School for Global Affairs and co-author of The Unexpected War.

The government has argued that handing over Afghan prisoners was, in principle at least, the right thing to do. It showed respect for Afghan sovereignty and was an opportunity to build Afghan capacity. Prof. Stein is not persuaded. It was no secret that our allies didn't run their jails by Western standards. Canada, the Netherlands and Britain should have strongly pressured NATO to divert some of its scarce resources to build NATO-supervised detention camps. It didn't happen. In her view, responsibility for that planning failure is widely shared.

It's legitimate to argue that the detainee scandal has been blown out of proportion. Even so, it's a giant headache for the government, if only because it makes it hard to argue that your troops are fighting for democracy and the rule of law. Britain has a detainee scandal that looks just like ours. The Obama administration is fighting to contain various ongoing torture investigations, and is fighting Congress over confidential information related to the massacre at Fort Hood. In all these cases, the government insists it is withholding documents because they contain important national secrets. The opposition hopes they contain a lot of stuff that will embarrass the government.

Despite the high-minded outrage filling the air, there has been a shocking lack of moral seriousness in this debate. In Ottawa, it's all about scoring points. You'd be right to suspect that hardly any of our politicians give a rat's derrière about a few wretched Afghans. And even as this quarrel eats up all the air time, there is no substantive debate at all about our role in Afghanistan - past, present or future.

"We need discussion in Canada about where Afghanistan is going, how important it is that Canada supports us and how important it is that the support continues in some shape or form," laments Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada. "That discussion is not happening because this story has totally dominated discussion in Parliament."

Will those guys in Ottawa grow up? I'm moderately hopeful, especially when they figure out that Canadians want an election on this issue about as badly as we want a series of root canals. As for whether we will ever learn much more of substance about the Afghan detainee mess, I wouldn't hold my breath. The other day, the Military Police Complaints Commission, which is also investigating, was told that the files it had requested had all been thrown into a sea container. According to one military officer, sorting them out may take years.

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