Saturday, December 12, 2009

Why James Travers Has The Detainee Issue All Wrong

When we first went into Afghanistan, it was soon after 9/11, and I supported the initiative. We were going after the guys who did this horrible thing, and like most people at the time, I really wanted to make someone pay.

However, the glow soon wore off for me, and I began to question our real purpose. By then the US had invaded Iraq, and knowing that was wrong, I quickly became opposed to the so-called "War on Terror".

I never voted for Jean Chretien, but applauded his decision to keep Canada out of it. Afghanistan continued but was put on the back burner.

However, soon after the 2006 election, Stephen Harper brought the war to the forefront again. He was going to make this his and was determined to put his signature on it. His first official visit was to Afghanistan, and even though he recited a watered down George Bush "cut and run" speech, he seemed to earn the respect of the troops. He was going to lead an army (figuratively). Afghanistan was his.

Almost immediately it was no longer a war, but a 'mission'. He would hear no protests, but demand that we 'support the troops'. That became the nation's battle cry, and despite increasing casualties he soldiered on.

But soon after the realities of being a 'war prime minister' took hold. Things he hadn't anticipated began to arise that threatened to put a damper on our renewed patriotism. Suggestions that Canada may be complicit in the torture of detainees.

However, fueled by George Bush's proclamations and borrowing from his rhetoric, he would not falter. They were all terrorists who got what they deserved. If you questioned his judgement you supported the Taliban. There was no grey area. You were with our troops or against them. End of.

So instead of dealing with the allegations, he swept them under the rug. Taking control of all press releases, Canadians were put on a need to know basis, and according to the Harper government, we didn't need to know much. Just wear our yellow ribbons and shut our mouths and they would handle the rest.

And when the Globe and Mail first broke the story in 2007, the PMO went into overdrive. Deny, bully, intimidate and accuse the opposition of demonizing our men and women in uniform. When Gordon O'Connor was forced to admit that he had erred in judgement, Harper demoted him and the whole thing went away. Not a dead issue, but barely breathing.

Then along came Richard Colvin, who blew the whole thing wide open. How this will end is any one's guess. Hopefully, the Harper government will do the right thing and allow a full public inquiry this time, but I'm not holding my breath.

In the video above, we can see our soldiers doing their best to engage the Afghan people. In their minds they are doing a noble thing, and regardless of how I feel about the war as a whole, I have the utmost respect for these people. They are handling themselves with dignity and honour. When they saw a prisoner being beaten they took him back. Fearing that others were being tortured they took pictures before handing them over.

They know about the Geneva Convention and would not compromise their integrity as soldiers. We need to do the right thing for them.

I think many in the media are starting to see this. I got a little angry with Craig Oliver on CTV news tonight, focusing on the political, rather than the criminal, and suggesting that Harper was still well ahead in the polls so it wouldn't hurt him. Of course he was wrong. The latest EKOS had him at 33% and he is losing the battle of public opinion.

I was also annoyed, after reading James Travers column on the subject. (Greg Weston spun the same nonsense) Most of it was factual and on the money, but I took exception with his statement that "Conservatives who inherited the detainee transfer problem from Liberals are now struggling to control the damage from the original miscalculations... "

You don't inherit the Geneva Convention. Every single soldier in the field knows what it is. Their honour depends on knowing what it is and living by it. You don't control the damage, you make sure that the damage does not occur. The military is responsible for this and while they know that a change in government can affect things for them, the war continues.

It is not a Liberal war or a Conservative war, it is a Canadian war.

The Canadian military originally signed a deal to hand over prisoners to the Americans in 2002. This seemed like the most logical thing to do, since they were running the show. However, when 15 US soldiers were charged under the criminal code for horrendous torture, including deaths, at Bagram in Afghanistan; Hillier needed a change of plans.

It was in the middle of an election campaign, and Paul Martin signed off on his deal to hand detainees over to the Afghan authorities. According to Amnesty International, General Hillier indicated that he didn't care what happened to them once he caught them, so long as he was privy to any information obtained. As such he made Canada the only NATO country that did not demand to know what happened to it's captures.

Not long after, the reports started to arrive and the rest is making history.

Mr. Travers does redeem himself, somewhat. However, we have to remember that this is not a partisan issue. Mr. Ignatieff wants all reports from day one, including those from when the Liberals were in government, though I suspect if there was anything damning there, Harper would have already 'leaked' them.

Travers concludes;

Soldiers did their duty when those shortcomings became obvious on the ground; Colvin did his job by reporting what he saw and learned, mostly from the Red Cross. After that, the trail disappears in documents that bureaucrats say privately are being blacked out more to protect political skins than national security and are now at the centre of the constitutional conflict between hide-all Conservatives and show-all opposition parties.

There's a certain symmetry in that confrontation – a year after Harper successfully saved his government by suspending Parliament, MPs are pushing back in an effort to re-establish the principle that elected representatives, not the executive, are supreme. Important, complex and perhaps headed for the Supreme Court, that struggle also marks the transition of a controversy about the treatment of prisoners into a much more politically fraught debate over the shattered Conservative election promise to be open, transparent and accountable.

What began as a military effort to manage an inconvenience is now a priority problem for Conservatives trying to control inconvenient truths.

More from our Canadian soldiers, who are doing an incredible job. I salute them.

But it is still a war. And we need to bring our soldiers home.

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