Thursday, December 31, 2009

"The news managers here in Canada have trouble understanding the Afghan story. . ."

When I did this interview with Rex Murphy - it's about the bizarre disconnect between the here-and-now reality of Afghan detainee transfers in the real world, in Kandahar, and the "Afghan detainee" preoccupations of certain media personalities embedded in the Ottawa press gallery - it was late at night. I'd been up for hours. I'd just arrived at Camp Mirage after a flight from Kandahar Air Field in one those of those flying warehouses known as Globemasters and a fierce thirst was upon me. This is my excuse for being a bit impatient and stern about it all, although I reckon I did hold up my end fairly well anyway.

But you really need to listen to this interview with Matthew Fisher on the subject, towards the end of an conversation that provides a rare overview of Canada's engagements in Afghanistan in their proper context. I awaited Matthew's verdict on the "detainee issue" with some trepidation, because there is no Canadian reporter who knows these subjects better than Matthew does. As it turns out, Matthew was even more full-throated about it all than I was.

I happen to be convinced that Matthew holds certain views about Afghanistan's potential that are rather too pessimistic, a consequence of the amount of time he's spent in the damnedest and most dangerous parts of the country, and the sorts of savagery he's seen, up close. But nevermind all that. Here's what Matthew had to say about the Great Detainee Rumpus of 2009:

"It is preposterous," Mathew begins. I especially noticed this: "People trying to compare this to Somalia . . . the cavalier use of the term war crimes. . . we are not even within a million miles of reaching any of these points. It is a tremendous slur to ever invoke words like these. These are words that were used, and with reason, for the holocaust, for the genocide in Cambodia, for the horrible things that happened with tens of thousands of people being slaughtered in Rwanda. . ."

This caused me to be reminded of something that has gone completely unnoticed, perhaps because it would be inconvenient to notice just how much of an embarrassment it would cause to the We Are All War Criminals Now crowd and to the journalists who have done such a fine public service in bringing along the microphones and the megaphones to make it all so thrilling.

It's not just that William Schabas and Michael Byers started all this and got nothing for their 2007 war-crimes complaint to the International Criminal Court apart from a whack of uncritical press and a pat on the head from the ICC along with a fancy 'don't call us, we'll call you' letter. It's not just that Byers and Schabas teamed up with Stephen Staples and got another free pass recently by calling a press conference to announce that they were reviving the effort, only this time they'd appended to their pleadings a sheaf of newspaper clippings with Richard Colvin's name in the headlines.

It was Matthew's reference to the Cambodian genocide that reminded me that the William Schabas who loudly proclaims Canadian war crimes in Afghanistan is the same William Schabas who has loudly objected to the genocide findings against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Stalin's atrocities in the Ukraine? Not genocide, says Schabas. Rwanda? Yes, the crime of genocide, a war crime. Bosnia? Nope, not a righteous bust - it was just ethnic cleansing. Darfur? Why no, Your Honour, the International Criminal Court is legally wrong to prosecute Sudan for genocide, because while the Khartoum regime may well have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of non-Arabs, it didn't mean to. And the ICC was wrong about Srebrenica, too.

I confess to finding these claims just as arcane and weird as I find claims about Canadian "war crimes" in the Afghan detainee imbroglio, but back to Matthew:

"I do not understand at all why this is such a huge debate. It must only be because the government gave the appearance of trying to hide something, but to the best of my knowledge, there is nothing to hide. . . Canadians have not been at war for decades, and there were some problems with the rules at the beginning. The Liberal government - and it was a Liberal government, not a Conservative government - put in place rules that perhaps were not as a effective as they could have been, but Canada responded at a very early stage to this, and new rules were put in place.

"If the International Committee of the Red Cross had complaints, right within the Geneva Conventions it says they must act without delay to prosecute to move forward on these cases. These allegations concern things that happened in 2006 and early 2007. If there is any substance to any of these charges, something would have happened by now. 'Without delay' means a few weeks or a few months. It doesn't mean a few years.

"I've spoken at great length to the Red Cross - I believe I'm the only Canadian journalist who has - in Kabul, with someone who has had a lot to do with this file. He said the Red Cross has no issues with Canada, or any other country for that matter, at this time.

"This person was also highly critical of the whistleblower Richard Colvin, who has been lionized in Canada, because he violated every rule that every government has with the Red Cross, which is to allow it to do its work freely, and to protect prisoners. It never discusses its affairs publicly, period, and they are extremely distressed, and they believe that Colvin harmed the prisoners and put them at risk by going public with these things.

"They have mechanisms to deal with this. I was told quite clearly, 'We do not deal with junior diplomats,' and despite the fact that he's described here as a senior diplomat, Richard Colvin is a very junior diplomat. They deal with either the chiefs of armed forces, with prime ministers and ministers of justice. When there are serious allegations they go to the highest level of authority in any government they can. All of this has been lost in the minutiae of emails.

"I believe it's because the news managers here in Canada have trouble understanding the Afghan story. We don't have a history of war correspondence, or covering wars, and somehow, if the war is political at home, it's manageable. . . most of the coverage for the past few months has been devoted to covering emails at a time when there are several thousand Canadian soldiers out walking point every day, and at extreme risk, in Afghanistan."

Bow To No Man. Crawl For No One. Walk Tall.

John Mann, British Labour MP, recipient of this year's Jan Skarski award. Others flinch and sneer. Not John:

I have the honour of representing a coal mining area in Northern England. Decimated by the economics of the 1980s, until when every generation dug and hewed the coal that fired the British economy. And in the heat of underground mining those miners took their canaries in cages to warn against the dangers of toxic gases and impeding catastrophe.

The analogy of the canary in the cage is not original, nor is it mine. But I represent those elderly retired miners, with their dust filled dying lungs and their battered and broken knees where they crawled to work and cut coal in shafts half the size of a man.

And I tell you my credence: I bow to no man. I crawl for no one. I do not intend any member of my family will ever be forced to crawl on their knees. No constituent of mine will ever again be forced to kneel to work. And what is good enough for me, and my family and my constituents is good enough for you, for your families for your friends. For all families. For all friends.

And what I observe is that when the Jewish people walk tall some people don’t like it. . .

Noticed by Gene as "An Antidote to Galloway's Poison."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Michelle Lang Has Been Killed In Kandahar.

Michelle arrived at KAF earlier this month, a few days after I left. She died with four Canadian soldiers, whose names have not yet been released. "Michelle was an incredible person, and an outstanding journalist. She was kind-hearted, warm and always willing to give her all."

Story here. Another fine young journalist, Patrick White, remembers Michelle here.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Andrew Nuttall's Last Letter.

On one side the people are frightened, impoverished, and seek nothing but safety and prosperity for their families. On the other side is a very small subset of a combination of extreme Salafist muslims (aka seeking to impose an extremist version of islam on the entire world), anti-western mercenaries, and misguided brainwashed (generally) youths that utilize cowardice hit-and-run and ied tactics in order to sway the civilian population of afghanistan and north america to pull their troops out. Then there is us in the middle, an array of nations trying to combine our traditionally conventional forces and conduct combined operations with the young but capable ANA (and young but immature Afghan National Police, ANP), in a barren country with many more needs than just militaristic. Complicated, yes, confusing, only a bit, frustrating, unfortunately too much. . .

- from his blog. His family's statement is here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Child Is This?

Our dear friend Ehsanullah Ehsan, school principal, director of the Afghan-Canadian Community Centre in Kandahar City and a brave leader in the Afghan struggle for the emancipation of women, for literacy and for freedom, sent along this letter. Ehsanullah, a Muslim, intended it mainly as a Christmas message to Canadians, Canadian soldiers, and their families. We asked if he would allow us to circulate it, and he agreed.

Let me wish you all Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and would like to take the opportunity to thank you very much for your very noble services, sacrifices, bringing us, the Afghans and the world peace, security and development.

I know 2009 was not an easy year for some of us, the families who lost their love ones in fight against terrorism, extremism, warlordism, druglordism, backwardness and human rights violations.

(Lieutenant Andrew Nuttall, originally from Victoria, was killed yesterday, in the Panjwaii district, not far from Kandahar City. "Andrew came to Afghanistan because he honestly believed that he could make a difference to the people of Afghanistan and he demonstrated that every time he went on patrol.")

We also understand that challenges in Afghanistan have caused some of you to celebrate this great occasion of Christmas and New Year away from your homes and love ones. We thank you and wish you all a joyous and peaceful Christmas commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, may peace be upon him.

God is with us and we will soon be receiving his blesses of peace, enlightenment, prosperity, solace, dignity and unity.

Through this massage I would like to reiterate that your tireless and brave efforts and countless generosities are noticed and appreciated by the hundreds of men and women teachers and students of the Afghan-Canadian Community Center (ACCC).

You should be proud of what you're doing. Your families must be proud of you. You may not know, but we all appreciate what you have been doing. Your mission is holy and a success, no doubt about it.

We do know you are working in a very complex and uncomfortable situation. You are dealing with warlords, drug lords, tribal lords/rivals, extremists, corruption and interference by prejudice and selfish networks around Afghanistan. We do know how wisely and professionally you are handling all of this mess to save Afghanistan and the world. We thank you for your dedicated services and we are praying for your successes in your very holy mission of bringing us peace, security and development.

Let us wish you all a very joyful Christmas and New Year and pray that the New Year may bring healing and peace to our suffering Afghanistan and the world as a whole.

- Ehsanullah Ehsan, Director of the Afghan-Canadian Community Center, Kandahar, Afghanistan.

I visited with Ehsanullah in Kandahar around this time last year. I wrote then, and I should reiterate here and now, that I don't think I've ever met a more courageous person, anywhere, in my entire life (you can learn how to help him in his work at the Afghan school project website). He'd just received another "night letter," a death threat from the Taliban. A few days before, on his own doorstep, a neighbour had been shot and killed by the Taliban for the crime of working for a government electricity agency. A few days after we met, six girls had acid sprayed in their faces as they walked to school.

The Afghan-Canadian Community Centre is situated in a rambling old house behind high whitewashed walls down a dusty Kandahar City backstreet, a place Ehsan has transformed into a sanctuary of civility, learning and literature for Kandahari women. It’s roughly equal parts college, vocational school, computer lab, library, and free internet cafe. It’s called the Afghan-Canadian Community Centre owing to Ehsan’s many Canadian friends and patrons, not least Ryan Aldred, a Canadian Forces reservist and devoted philanthropist who has made Ehsan’s vision his own.

Ehsan is 38, the father of five young children, and one of 13 brothers and sisters from the village of Shagoy, in Zabul province, where his family had built a successful dried fruit business from its apricot trees and grape vineyards. It was all there for Ehsan’s taking, but he walked away from it to devote his life to what he calls the cause of civilization. “Enlightenment, you know? All that beauty. . ."

I don't think many book-believing Christians stop by here. But for any who do, and especially for those of you who have friends and family in Afghanistan, please accept my warmest and most affectionate regards and my hopes that you and yours have a peaceful and contented and happy Christmas.

Truth is an arrow, and the gate is narrow that it passes through:

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

About Free Speech, Or 'Responsible Communication On Matters Of Public Interest.'

The mere whiff of a curtailment of free speech by the state or by the courts should be sufficient to cause a reasonable person to notice that his trigger finger is suddenly itchy, so I expect that many reasonable people will welcome today's news about the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling on libel law. The Ottawa Citizen and the Toronto Star should certainly be pleased, anyway.

But is it good news?

I'll put it this way. Say a newly-hired editor summons everyone to gather around the newsdesk for what you've been given to believe will be a harangue about his firm expectations and high standards in the matter of pursuing stories that may cast black clouds upon the standing of certain citizens in the community.

Instead, the editor says this: "Free, willing debate on matters of public interest is to be encouraged and must not be thwarted by overly solicitous regard for personal reputation." As he goes on with his soliloquy, the young and impressionable journalists taking it in scribble these words into their notebooks: Judge the story as a whole; consider whether it is in the public interest; if you report libelous and inaccurate allegations about somebody, it's okay, as long as you can say you exercised "due diligence" in trying to confirm the allegations.

The editor concludes with another fuzzy reference to "responsible communication on matters of public interest" and orders everyone back to work.

See? I haven't read the Court's entire decision yet, and wouldn't ask that you trust my forensic analysis of it anyway, because I'm not a lawyer. But what I know for certain is that I would not leave a newsroom meeting of that kind with the impression that the new editor had just uttered a stern admonition to his staff that he expected each and every one of them to cleave bravely to the highest principles of accuracy and fairness, no matter what they personally thought about the villains who happened to end up the subject of what the newspaper's editors had deemed to be "of public interest." I might rather shamble away muttering something to myself along the lines of, this new editor is going to drag this old newspaper into the gutter, just you watch.

The thing to remember about libel law is that contrary to popular assumption, it does not operate in some high-ideal forum governed solely by some grey woman wearing a kind of toga with a blindfold on, holding scales. In the operation of libel law, the constitutional principle that all of us are equal before the law does not hold much sway. Justice is not blind in libel cases. The first thing it demands to see are the contents your wallet. What happens after that largely depends on how much money there is in it.

The size of the purse doesn't just determine who wins or loses libel cases, but rather who gets to file libel complaints against the news media in the first place. Such circumstances tend to turn anything into a bit of a racket, with justice largely depending on whether one is rich or poor. If you think the reason that it's always well-heeled public figures who end up suing news organizations for libel is because, well, that's the kind of people journalists go after, because journalists, like, you know, it's their job to speak truth to power, man, then you're dreaming.

The first question a newspaper's libel lawyer asks when he's tasked to review the content of a story that a publisher would love to see emblazoned in 60-point headlines across the top of the front page is usually not, 'Is the story true?' It's more often, 'Can this guy afford to sue us?'

It would seem that with the Supreme Court's latest ruling, there are now a few more questions to which newspapers and television news shows and radio broadcasters might resort before asking themselves whether a story they want to print or broadcast is actually true or not. Among them: Aren't we being just a tiny bit "overly solicitous" about this guy's reputation? Judging "the story as a whole," do we quote the guy somewhere in the story denying the first few paragraphs that go on about him being a devil-cult child molester? Nevermind whether the facts are accurate - what can we say if a judge asks us to show that we exercised "due diligence" trying to check out these allegations?


Another thing to remember is that justice isn't particularly myopic about who gets to plead and argue about the way the law should intrude in these matters. You will notice that it was not some disinterested, publicly-spirited citizen but rather two major daily newspapers that managed to have their say in front of the Supreme Court judges in this case.

Good for the Citizen and the Star, by the way. But let's all straight away disabuse ourselves of the idea that the Supreme Court ruling will efficiently and certainly and directly serve the purposes of "responsible communication on matters of public interest" in this country.

I suspect it's just as likely that the ruling will lead us in the opposite direction.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"Torturegate" Hysteria: More Context.

Andrew Coyne:

"None of this is evidence of a deliberate policy of transferring prisoners for torture, or even negligent disregard of their probable fate—the stuff of war crimes charges. Neither can we say for a fact that senior officials knew prisoners were being mistreated. The facts, at least so far, remain consistent with a story of officials’ evolving awareness of the seriousness of the problem, and of the inadequacies of their initial responses.

"It was, after all, at Canada’s insistence that an agreement was first struck with the Afghan government in December 2005, requiring that any prisoners be treated humanely according to the Geneva Conventions, and ensuring access to Red Cross inspectors at any time. As the weakness of that agreement became apparent, a new arrangement was struck in February 2007 providing for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission to make inspections as well. Corrections Canada officers were flown over to make recommendations for improving Afghan prisons. And when even that proved deficient (the AIHRC complained it was being denied access), after the publication in April 2007 of prisoners’ allegations of mistreatment the protocol was changed yet again, to provide for inspections by Canadian officials."

Barely conscious from all the hyperventilation over who may or may not have acted with sufficient sedulousness about what they may or may not have known about what may or may not have been alleged about events that may or may not have even occurred, three years ago, Ottawa's politicians appear to have produced something approaching a real Constitutional crisis, Coyne observes.

Parliament will fight and Parliament will be right, Coyne says, and he makes a rock-solid case. But why has it got to this point? Why is the Parliamentary Committee on Afghanistan so preoccupied with revisiting alarums that were raised and addressed and inquired into and settled nearly three years ago, instead of getting down to the urgent business before it?

The Committee's far more serious order of business has been, for some long while, the pressing question of what Canada's role in Afghanistan will be, post-2011. The one thing that Harper's Conservatives have been crystal clear about is that Canada's post-2011 role will be up to Parliament, and the Parliamentary Committee has been invited more than once to turn its attentions to the matter. Instead, the Committee provides circuses and distractions, but otherwise, silence. It's still not even on the Committee's radar.

Meanwhile, more context: As for what's actually happening, now, in the real world, there's no evidence of abuse, and no reports of mistreatment.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Canada's Plummeting International Reputation

"After walking for about 10 minutes, I started to relax a little. Kids come up to you constantly to say hello in hopes that maybe you have something to give them. Two boys asked me if I had money, chocolate or candy. I shook my head and held out my hand to show them I didn't have any, but they still grabbed it and went through each one of my fingers to make sure.

"I and the other Canadian on the patrol seemed to get the majority of the attention, possibly because we were dressed differently, but many of the Afghans driving by would yell "Canada!" out their car windows and wave or give us the thumbs-up. One kid ran by the police officer and the American in front of me to shake my hand."

Elsewhere: "The U.S. has transferred a dozen Guantanamo detainees to Afghanistan, Yemen and the Somaliland region as the Obama administration continues to move captives out of the Cuban facility in preparation for its closure."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A closer look at Richard Colvin's claims about the lies of his lying bosses and their lies

As I noted here, Richard Colvin has quite clearly insinuated that his one-time boss, Arif Lalani, Canada's former ambassador to Afghanistan, is both a coward and a liar. Turns out there is rather more going on here (or less, if you like) than that, and I suspect it betrays a lot about this preposterous affair that will, sadly, take a lot of the fun out of it too.

In his most recent instalment, Colvin claimed that Lalani had been instructed by Ottawa to withhold information, "however accurate, that conflicted with the government's public messaging," and consequently Lalani reversed the intent of an embassy report in order to give its opposite meaning: the report initially referred to a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, but Lalani changed the report to read that "security was improving."

Colvin cites this alleged incident to refute Ottawa's claim that it "encouraged accurate, rigorous, fact-based reporting" from Kabul and wasn't interested in "opinion" or "non-fact based information." This is "not correct," Colvin states, and then he goes on to reiterate the claim that the security situation in Afghanistan was actually getting worse, which was what the Afghan Minister of Defence thought, and which was also "a view shared by our allies, and corroborated by violence trends and other metrics." Colvin adds that in September, 2007, a Canadian embassy staffer was "severely rebuked" in writing for merely stating what Colvin presents as the overwhelming, evidence-based consensus that things were getting worse, not better.

It looks terrible, doesn't it?

A closer look shows that in fact, the state of the security situation in Afghanistan at the time was rather less a matter of fact and very much a matter of contested opinion - and Colvin's account, which we might now pause to describe as his own "public messaging," however accurate, relies almost wholly on opinion even now, and seems to play rather loosely with the facts besides.

In February, 2007, a memorandum from the British Defence Ministry reckoned that the security situation across Afghanistan was actually "broadly stable," though "fragile" in places. "Insurgent groups are able to launch small scale local attacks, particularly in the South and East, but at present they do not pose a strategic threat to the long term stability of Afghanistan."

In August, a United Nations security assessment noted that while most analysts assessed security to be deteriorating in Afghanistan through the first eight months of that year, "the nature of the incidents has, however, changed." The UN report cites a noticeable shift from "large-scale armed clashes in the field" to "asymmetric or terror-style" attacks. "The former do still take place and as air support is often used, casualty figures are still high. On average however these clashes are fewer and smaller than in 2006. Possible reasons include the high numbers of Taliban fighters killed during summer 2007 including many mid-level and senior commanders. Another reason must be the realization that these types of attacks are futile against a modern conventionally equipped military force supported by a wide range of air assets. The Afghan National Army (ANA) has also been improving throughout 2007."

Make of this what you will, but it would seem rather less than accurate and fact-based to report simply that the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating. A proper assessment would avail itself of some elaboration, and nuance, and perhaps the resort to some French words to get the point across, even. Which is what I thought diplomats were for.

What Colvin has also strangely expunged from his own account is the fact that the debate about whether the security situation in Afghanistan was improving or not was a rousing and highly amusing political "controversy" that was playing out in the pages of Canada's newspapers at the time. This has also been oddly forgotten by those very same newspapers, which are at the moment making such a great lark out of it all (don't reporters even check their article morgues anymore?)

Colvin's boss, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier, was in Afghanistan around the time of the alleged rumpus to which Colvin alludes, publicly insisting that security was getting better, not worse. This was laying it on a bit thick, given the nuances and all, but Bernier was making some political hay of it. Which is what I thought politicians were for.

That's the most necessary context you'll need to have at hand in order to make sense of what's really going on here. Sadly, because it conflicts with Colvin's recent "public messaging," it tends to drain some of the high drama out of the whole story. Then, as now, Colvin wanted his opinion to stand unchallenged, and unedited, even if it stood in direct contradiction to his boss's opinion and made his boss look like a piker, besides. Which is not what I thought diplomats were for.

And at the end of the day, just whose opinion proved the soundest? Not that it matters to political affairs in Ottawa, but who was right, and who was wrong?

Around this time last year, I'd been in Kabul for a only couple of days when a huge headline in the UK Telegraph proclaimed: 'Kabul Now More Dangerous Than Baghdad At It Worst.' As I made my rounds of the city in the following weeks and found the place filled with some of the friendliest and most hospitable and welcoming people I've ever met in my life, I now and then amused myself by wondering just how lovely a place Baghdad must have been all this time.

Even now, the business about "violence trends and other metrics" in Afghanistan isn't something to which le mot juste readily presents itself. Still, it would be hardly a stretch to say something like: "The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated badly since 2007."

But these things are complicated.

If you ask Mohammad Halim Fidai, governor of the central Afghan province of Wardak, he will tell you that the security situation has vastly improved, and it's improving all the time, and the reason you don't know that is because of the newspapers you read.

"I think the question should be why the security situation is improving," he said. "Security is improving day by day, not deteriorating. Unfortunately due to the disinformation by the international media and also lack of capacity and resources of the Afghan government to provide information to the public, it has created an image of that security is deteriorating in the country."

Maybe yes. Maybe no. It's hard to say. Je m'excuse. But what should be completely clear by now to anyone who has been following any of this is that something rather more important is at stake than the reputations of certain diplomats or former foreign ministers. Behind all the "torturegate" histrionics is the fight for the way ordinary Canadians view our "combat role" in Afghanistan, which began in earnest with the history-changing, Canadian-led Operation Medusa, down in Kandahar, in 2006:

If Kandahar fell, and it was reasonably close run last year, it did not matter how well the Dutch did in Uruzgan or how well the British did in Helmand. Their two provinces would also, as night followed day, have failed because we would have lost the consent of the Pashtun people because of the totemic importance of Kandahar.

That praise comes from a 2007 report of a British parliamentary committee on defence, not a Canadian parliamentary committee. Kandahar did not fall, because Canadians held it. The report goes on: "Since the defeat of the Taliban by ISAF Forces in Operation Medusa, concern has grown that the Taliban insurgents might adopt more 'asymmetric' tactics against ISAF including increasing their use of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). According to Anthony Cordesman, Chairman of the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), there has been an increase in suicide attacks from 18 in 2005 to 116 in 2006 and an increase in attacks from IEDs from 530 to 1,297 in 2006. The devastating impact of such attacks was demonstrated over the weekend of 16 / 17 June 2007, when a suicide bomber exploded a device in the North Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, and the following day, a similar exploding device killed 35 people in Kabul. . ."

That's the complexity involved. Win on the battlefield, and the next thing you know, suicide bombers are detonating themselves in the streets of Kabul. But if you lose on the battlefield, you lose all of Kandahar, and Uruzgan, and Helmand, and the patience of the fierce Pashtun people, too. Lose all that, and Afghanistan would be gone, and you'd have to ask yourself what would happen next in Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kabul, and in Pakistan, the Maghreb, the Levant, the Horn of Africa. . .

Canadians won on the battlefield. Afghanistan is still a sovereign republic. Things are looking up. So sorry.

Je m'excuse.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

At last, a scandal.

The Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin has staked his entire reputation on the outcome of the hysterically-named "torturegate" spectacle unfolding in Ottawa, so he should be expected to fight fierce and shrewd. And fair play to him. In the story so far, a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that the federal cabinet and the senior echelons of the Canadian Forces are riddled with war criminals, and that this Colvin guy is some kind of folk hero. He's winning.

The problem is that as the fight gets dirtier, and deeper into only-one-of-us-gets-outta-here-alive territory, it's becoming exceedingly difficult to discern what Colvin purports to reveal as fact from his characterizations and opinions of those purported facts. And it doesn't help that he tends to put spins on things in an increasingly too-transparent effort to make his own case appear more credible than it might otherwise be.

As in his account of a March, 2007 inter-agency meeting he attended in Ottawa, in which he offered to the "12 to 15 officials" around the table his opinion of the Afghan intelligence service, the NDS, thus: "The NDS tortures people, that's what they do, and if we don't want our detainees tortured, we shouldn't give them to the NDS." Colvin then claims: "The response from the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM) note-taker was to stop writing and put down her pen."

I take it that we are invited to infer from this that some stenographer had been intimidated into taking pains to ensure that no trace of such revelations ended up in the official record. But it seems to me just as likely that Colvin's persistently-uttered, strongly-held and widely-emailed opinions about the general wrongness of federal detainee-transfer policy were immaterial and irrelevant to the meeting's proceedings, and were maybe getting just the tiniest bit tiresome, besides.

But there is something that screams off the pages of his latest testimony, and it cannot be left to stand unexamined. Colvin quite clearly insinuates that his one-time boss, Arif Lalani, Canada's former ambassador to Afghanistan, is both a coward and a liar.

As in: "For example, Ambassador Lalani instructed that we not report that the security situation was deteriorating. This followed an embassy report to Ottawa in which we noted that the Afghan Minister of Defence judged security to be getting worse - a view shared by our allies, and corroborated by violence trends and other metrics. Nevertheless, Mr. Mulroney sent instructions via Ambassador Lalani that we should either not mention the security situation at all, or to assert that it was getting better. The ambassador accordingly sent a report in which he said security was improving."

This goes far beyond the substance of Colvin's complaints so far, which have been more or less along the lines of 'Everyone ignores me' or 'No one takes me seriously' or "No one listens to my advice.'

I'm finding myself increasingly on the side of the NDP's Paul Dewar, in this respect: Instead of trolling through allegations and spin-meistering and recriminations and grievances about who might have been less than assiduous about which complaints about what alleged incidents based upon which dubious or reliable evidence regarding things that may or may not have happened three years ago, maybe there should be a federal inquiry after all, but it should take a much closer look at what the hell is really going on, right now.

Update: Now the Swedes are embroiled in a scandal of their own. An internal military document has come to light, written by the Swedish army's Gender Field Adviser, Captain Krister Fahlstedt, revealing that Sweden's Afghanistan Force FS17 specifies that on-base massage services should be provided exclusively by men.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

"Torturegate": The Shocking Truth Revealed.

Explosive, incendiary, bombshell revelations in the Ottawa War Crimes trials:

"The first is that the hysteria of this week to the contrary, there is still no evidence that any prisoners taken by Canadian soldiers and handed over to Afghan authorities were tortured.

"What there is. . . is one case of an Afghan who was sort of and only briefly in Canadian custody, handed over to Afghan authorities, and then rescued by Canadian soldiers, though not from torture.

". . .Secondly, the MP didn't photograph the man purely to show he was in good condition when he got into the ANP truck. Canadians were routinely photographing every prisoner they detained, in part because most Afghans don't carry identification and sometimes have only one given name, but also so that international monitors, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, had solid evidence of who was who.

"Thirdly, it would be helpful if politicians on all sides of the House remembered to make the distinction between the conduct of Canadian soldiers - who by every account behaved exactly as Canadians would want them to behave - and the detainee issue."

Meanwhile, among dozens of worthy candidates, the winner of the best Onion-grade eruption of unintentional self-parody by a Canadian newspaper in l'affaire trop de garottes is the final sentence in this article: "Meanwhile, nothing new was learned or unearthed today in the daily Question Period regarding the Afghanistan affair."

No kidding.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Afghan people are owed "the same rights we enjoy in our privileged and free societies."

From the Afghan human rights activist Wazhma Frogh, and Lauryn Oates, my co-founder at the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, a cri de guerre on the solemn duty we owe our Afghan comrades - and the way the rich world's "anti-war" activism abdicates from that duty:

"If western feminists who have staked out a "troops out" position remembered to ask Afghan women their views, they would find that rather than bristling at "masculine militarization," "cultural imperialism," or any other in-vogue sin found on the placards waved at rallies, many Afghan women are haunted by the memory of the Taliban's public stoning to death of women. They recall what life was like when you couldn't leave your home alone, when you could not speak aloud in the streets because your voice was deemed inhuman, subservient, inherently impure. It was not the West's interference that led to their collective misery, but the lack of it."

Read all of it.

From yesterday, Lauryn's essay in The Mark, commemorating International Human Rights Day and Canada's National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, elaborates on the theme. I noticed this: "During the discussion period of a dialogue event on Canada’s role in Afghanistan post-2011 recently held in Vancouver, I listened to a seemingly educated, mentally fit man say, in his support for the Taliban’s involvement in a new government in Afghanistan, 'Look, we can’t tell them how to treat their women, okay?' The only person (other than myself) in the room who seemed at all perplexed by this statement was the sole Afghan woman in attendance."

Closely related, from the perspectives of two fellow men, is Nick Cohen's Turning A Blind Eye To Misogyny in Standpoint Magazine, and Martin Amis, interviewed by my old colleague Stewart Bell, thus: "I want to get away from all that, this terrible sort of antsy discussion that we have, with everyone poised on the panic button and wanting to shout out 'racist.' We've been infantilized and stupefied by a generation of this kind of thought and I just want to readjust it as a feminist issue and nothing else."

Breaking: Here's an innovation from our brave Iranian comrades. The revolution will not be crushed.

Meanwhile, I'm home from Kandahar, safe and sound, so thanks to everyone who's been asking and wishing me safe and well. Still jetlagged (you can tell from this conversation I just had with Rob Breakenridge on CHQR's The World Tonight), but finally finishing up an expansive 3,500-word essay for Vancouver Review on the strange science-fiction aspects of the Kandahar experience, and soon turning to a handful of little journalese assignments I'm obliged to fulfill, which I'll link to from here when they're out. It was grand to have such full and intimate access to all the senior commanders at RC South, at the big, grinding sandbox machine known as KAF, but it was the rank-and-file soldiers who really made the trip worthwhile, and I'll try to get some of their stories circulated, too. Canucks rule.

Speaking of friends far and near, in far fewer than six degrees of separation, some welcome news about good things that happened to good people when I was away:

My dear chum Yasuko Than has won the Journey Prize this year, and the $10,000 that comes with it, which is to say I intend to collect a glawshseen of spirits at her expense, soonest. Subtract a degree: Her story also appeared in the Vancouver Review, and shortlisted for the same prize was my old pal Dave Margoshes.

Subtract another two degrees: The Globe story was written by my buddy Tom Hawthorn (and come to think of it I believe I owe him a drink), and Tom also wrote recently about the recovery and return of another old friend, John Mann, whose Spirit of the West (as in), one of the greatest bands to emerge in Canada over the past quarter century, had intended to perform for our soldiers in Kandahar, before things went so badly for him.

Hardly any degrees of separation remaining: In that same Hawthorn story, there is mention of the new musical Beyond Eden, written by Bruce Ruddell, which premieres January 16 at the Vancouver Playhouse. Just got a call from Bruce only a couple of hours ago, to let me know how things were going. Eerie.

Finally, my old buddy Jeff Hatcher, of the Blue Shadows (right up there with Spirit of the West) among other ventures, is getting some well-earned recognition. Vancouver's Wendy Bird has just released a CD devoted to covers of Jeff's songs, joined by the likes of Elvis Costello, Colin James and others. I will now boast of having sung some of Jeff's songs, with Jeff, back when we were Gulf Islanders and not the townies we are now.

It's Friday. Off to the pub. Here's Jeff with the Shadows, back in the 90s. They're on the back of a truck, on a street in Vancouver, and they still sound sublime. I Believe:

Monday, December 07, 2009

Clear, Hold, Build: The End Of The Beginning In Afghanistan.

We're not quite on the home stretch, but still. When you look back at where we've been, and you look at the distance we've managed to travel over these long and bloody years, the picture looks anything but grim. Every inch of progress is precarious. We win ground and we lose ground. But we're winning, and anyone who can't see that just hasn't been paying attention.

This is now true even in Kandahar. With the exception of Pakistan's Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, Afghanistan's Kandahar province contains what is arguably the nastiest stretch of lawless and bandit-infested territory between Tehran and New Delhi. It is in Kandahar that Canada has made its greatest efforts and sacrifices in the UN-mandated, 42-nation effort to bring some semblance of peace, order and good government to the Afghan republic. It really is the "pointy end of the stick." But even in Kandahar, we're finally starting to see what the end of the tunnel looks like.

A couple of days back I had breakfast with Brigadier-General Daniel Menard, who recently assumed command of Canada's 2,800 soldiers in Afghanistan, along with another few hundred American soldiers from the 1st battalion of the U.S. Army's 12th Infantry.

Long before U.S. President Barack Obama's long-awaited troop surge announcement, American soldiers had been pouring into Kandahar, allowing Canada's soldiers to focus their efforts on securing an area of about 1,500 square kilometres around Kandahar City, which contains about 85 per cent of the province's population.

During our conversations, Menard was confident enough to say that to clear and hold Canada's area of operations, he didn't even need any more American soldiers.

"We need to marginalize the Taliban, to make it irrelevant. And I think that during our tenure, up to September of next year, we can do this. I certainly believe that by September of next year we can create an environment and identify a population that understands that there is another way of living. And it's not they don't want to. It's just that they'e been terrorized for so long."

After Obama's announcements, Menard found himself with another several hundred American soldiers at his command, this time from the 82nd Airborne Division, which will allow for an expansion of the Canadian area of operations into the upper reaches of the critical Arghandab Valley. This wasn't a big surprise.

But our "combat role," whatever that might mean, is supposed to come to an end by 2011, and it's still unclear just what Canada's military and civilian contribution in Kandahar is going to be after that. This is inexcusable. What Canada does next in Afghanistan should be the subject of an open, vigorous debate among Canadian parliamentarians, and especially among ordinary Canadians. Nothing of the kind is happening. Nobody knows what's going on.

Talking to Canada's senior military and civilian officials in Kandahar, as I've spent the past few days doing, what was clear is that they had a far more precise understanding of what to expect from Obama's long-awaited announcement, before Obama made it, than they have, even now, about the implications of the House of Commons resolution from way back in March, 2008. The resolution ordered the "redeployment of Canadian Forces troops out of Kandahar" by 2011, by which time Canadian soldiers are somehow supposed to be replaced by Afghan soldiers.

The Canadian-led Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team is likely to carry on after 2011. But training up the new Afghan National Army - a work in progress, to put it delicately - will require seasoned Canadian soldiers, and that's not within the PRT's purview. We've already established a track record building some basics of Afghan military capacity with the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams; do we want to just chuck that hard-earned expertise? There are about 1,100 Canadian soldiers in the battle group, and only about 170 in the OMLTs. Wouldn't it make sense to at least redeploy some battle-group troops to the OMLTs, or did the House of Commons resolution really anticipate that we'd just down tools and walk?

The long-overdue and welcome attention the United States is now paying to Afghanistan has changed everything about the context that prevailed in March, 2008, when the Liberal-Conservative consensus was forged. It's a new day. Canada's political leaders should be talking about this. They should be showing some leadership. That's what they're there for.

But they're not.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Spirit Of The West: Dragoons, Highlanders, Westies, Rangers, B.C. Regiment, Scottish . . .

KANDAHAR - With men and women in uniform from every corner of Canada, it's a rare thing to find a sub-unit platoon of soldiers who all hail from the same province, so while I was running between briefings I couldn't resist stopping to take a quick photo of these comrades: they come from different trades, corps and regiments, but they're all British Columbians. They're outriders, a force-protection crew with the National Security Element. They ride shotgun with convoys, making sure people and supplies get where they're supposed to go. I think I got all their names right, at least (if anyone notices a mistake, drop me a note and I'll fix it).

From left to right: Bombardier Stefan Conquist, Royal Canadian Artillery, Victoria; Dragoon Brett Hunt, Vernon; Master Cpl. John Scarisbrick, Canadian Scottish, Nanaimo; Cpl. Noel West, Canadian Scottish, Victoria; Cpl. Darcy Mackay, Royal Westminster, Delta; Cpl. Dax Berg, Royal Westminster, Maple Ridge; Cpl. Craig Day, Rocky Mountain Rangers, Kamloops; Cpl. Matt Hunt, Canadian Scottish, Nanaimo; Cpl. Terry Hague, B.C. Regiment, Vancouver; Sgt. Gordon Fisher, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Vancouver; Van McEwan, Seaforth Highlanders, Vancouver; Warrant Officer Bill Nicholson, B.C. Dragoons, Merritt; Cpl. Darren Berg, Royal Westminster Regiment, Vancouver.

I spoke by telephone with the CBC's Rex Murphy the other day about the vast gulf between the real world (which contains places like Afghanistan) and the surreal world Ottawa's politicians and press gallery typists appear to inhabit most of the time these days. Every time the word "Afghanistan" gets mumbled by someone up on the Hill, the distance between Ottawa and the real world seems to grow.

I've been filling my notebooks here. Much to report. Keep an eye on this place.