Bernier's suggestion was to replace Governor Asadullah Khalid of Kandahar province, which immediately set off a diplomatic firestorm.
He would later retract his statement, while the Harper government went into damage control. Within a week, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda appeared at a public event in Kandahar with Khalid, for photo-ops, where the controversial governor was quoted as saying; "It was a misunderstanding, which I believe, and for me, relations between Afghans and Canadians, this is more important."
The problem of course was not that Bernier was wrong in his assessment, but that he should not have tried to interfere, at least not publicly; with the governing of a sovereign nation.
What was later revealed, was that Karzai had already planned to expel Khalid, but because he couldn't appear to be taking orders from a foreign government, he was forced to keep him around for another few months.
Canada's Relationship with Asadullah Khalid
During his first trip to Afghanistan in March, 2006, the Prime Minister was met at the Kandahar airfield briefly by Governor Asadullah Khalid and senior tribal elders. The Governor is the senior ranking government official in Kandahar and, as such, he would greet the Prime Minister upon his arrival in Kandahar. (Paul Koring, Globe and Mail, February 1, 2008)
By that time it was rumoured that Khalid was running several 'secret' prisons, and was actively engaged in the torture of his prisoners. He was both detested and feared by the Afghan people, and yet for almost two years, our government continued to befriend him.
In December of 2009, the Canadian Press revealed that in fact, the Harper government ignored warnings from Karzai himself, as stated by Richard Colvin.
"In the one meeting where the subject was discussed, in July 2006, it was the president who raised the issue; Canada defended the governor, thereby ensuring his continued tenure." The uncensored report sheds further light on Colvin's Nov. 18, 2009 testimony before a special House of Commons committee, where he stated the governor was considered a "bad actor" on human rights.
It also makes clear the division between the Canadian military, which supported Khalid, and skeptical diplomats, who became increasingly vocal about allegations of corruption, drug-running and prisoner abuse. The governor is a known human-rights abuser," censored parts of the memo say.
"He runs at least one private detention facility, at which he personally has tortured detainees. ... His record is well known in Kandahar, including among the Canadian press corps." In a blistering critique, Colvin wrote that "rather than tackle this governance failure, Canada has systematically avoided it ...
This brings us to recent allegations made by constitutional lawyer, Amir Attaran.
Federal government documents on Afghan detainees suggest that Canadian officials intended some prisoners to be tortured in order to gather intelligence, according to a legal expert. If the allegation is true, such actions would constitute a war crime, said University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran, who has been digging deep into the issue and told CBC News he has seen uncensored versions of government documents released last year.
"If these documents were released [in full], what they will show is that Canada partnered deliberately with the torturers in Afghanistan for the interrogation of detainees," he said. "There would be a question of rendition and a question of war crimes on the part of certain Canadian officials. That's what's in these documents, and that's why the government is covering up as hard as it can."
Their latest ploy, using a retired supreme court judge, who will only answer to Justice Minister Rob Nicholson; is not good enough, and they know it.
They've had two and half months to develop a strategy, and if this is all they've been able to come up with, they have clearly run out of options. Our Constitution is clear. Parliamentarians are allowed to see all documentation. When we vote for them, it means that we trust them with our secrets.
If the Harper government continues to play this game, they will find themselves in contempt of Parliament, and I don't think anyone wants to see that. However, it may be the only solution.
Why Should We Care?
I read many comments at the end of online news articles dealing with this situation, that claim it is only about Afghans torturing Afghans, so why should we care? However, it is about much more than that.
Tom Blackwell wrote in the National Post, discussing a thesis written by Major Manon Plante, a Canadian army officer:
In an exhaustive critique, the author concluded Canada's decision to hand over suspected insurgents to Afghan authorities with a history of abuse violated Canadian ethical values, could turn ordinary Afghans against foreign troops and likely increased the stress of this country's combatants. The policy might even have contributed to the alleged mercy killing of a Taliban fighter by a Canadian soldier, she wrote.
Do we really want to add unnecessary stress to our soldiers?
And as far back as 2007 we were warned that by condoning torture, we were also putting our soldiers at greater risk of being killed or tortured themselves, because the enemy may do what they have to do, to avoid being captured.
Rick Hillier had mentioned in his book that it was Harper himself who decided to place our troops in the most dangerous areas of the country.
At the time he had aligned himself with George Bush, and no doubt wanted to impress him. Though Canada only had a small force, he set out to prove that size doesn't matter.
In June of 2008, Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, Arif Lalani was interviewed by a morning show host, Renee Montagne, from Culver City, California. In Montagne's introduction:
Whenever you hear that a NATO soldier has been killed in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, it's probably a Canadian soldier. Canada only has 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, but they are fighting in one of the most dangerous regions of the country. So while Canadian troops make up only a small fraction of NATO forces, they've suffered the highest number of fatalities proportionately.
And this high death toll has led to a lot of protests in Canada about the mission in Afghanistan. Arif Lalani is Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan. He's in Washington this week and joins us in our studio ...
So if Stephen Harper wanted to show off our might, by subjecting Canadians soldiers to the heaviest fighting, should he not have done everything in his power to make sure that they were not put in even more danger?
And if it's true that he or someone in his government, or our military, actually choreographed the torture, from the safety of a secure office; this then is unconscionable.
Or worse still, did we work directly with Asadullah Khalid, a man hated and feared by the people we are suposed to fighting for?
We expect our men and women in uniform to act with dignity and honour, reflective of 'Canadian ethical values'. Should we not expect the same from our government?
This is why we should care.