PMO issued instructions on denying abuse in '07

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Former NATO official says response to reports was 'scripted' in Ottawa

November 22, 2009

WASHINGTON–Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office used a "6,000-mile screwdriver" to oversee the denial of reports of Afghan detainee abuse when the scandal first erupted in 2007, according to a former senior NATO public affairs official who was then based in Kabul.

The former official, speaking on condition his name not be used, told the Toronto Star that Harper's office in Ottawa "scripted and fed" the precise wording NATO officials in Kabul used to repudiate allegations of abuse "at a time when it was privately and generally acknowledged in our office that the chances of good treatment at the hands of Afghan security forces were almost zero."

"It was highly unusual. I was told this was the titanic issue for Prime Minister Harper and that every single statement that went out needed to be cleared by him personally," said the former official, who is not Canadian.

"The lines were, 'We have no evidence' of coercive treatment being used against detainees handed over to the Afghans. There were very clear instructions for a blanket denial. The pressure to hold to that line was channelled via Canadian military and diplomatic personnel in Kabul. But it was made clear to us that this was coming from the Prime Minister's Office, which was running the public affairs aspect of Canadian engagement in Afghanistan with a 6,000-mile screwdriver."

The official described the tensions over the fate of detainees as "uniquely Canadian" – despite the fact that doubts over the treatment of Afghan detainees were ubiquitous among all NATO partners with military footprints in Afghanistan.

"It was not an issue for anyone else, though other nations ought to have been as concerned as the Canadians. The Americans in particular were not remotely squeamish on this. To them, everyone was an enemy combatant."

Dutch soldiers deployed in Uruzgan province north of the Canadian positions in Kandahar forestalled such concerns by "operating in a fairly Dutch way by being very, very risk-averse.''

"The Dutch were extremely nervous about the level of intensity of their military engagement in a way that the Canadians were not."

Australian soldiers, by contrast, operated almost exclusively under joint Special Forces command exercised by the U.S. military – activity that remains shielded by a total news blackout. "We just weren't encouraged to ask about Special Forces. They operate on a need-to-know basis and there was no need for us to know," the former official said.

The former official, speaking in a telephone interview Saturday, said that throughout the ISAF Headquarters in Kabul "everyone knew that if a detainee got handed to the NDS (the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence service), they were not going to be in any way looked after the way they should have been.

"The NDS operated under almost impenetrable secrecy. The closest relationship the NDS had with any foreign forces was with the Americans. But that ran completely outside of ISAF channels because of the exclusively American parallel operation in Afghanistan."

The dynamic was especially disturbing to Canadian military officers based at ISAF in Kabul, the former official said. "One delightful Canadian officer, a colonel, who worked just down the hall, spoke privately to me about his general unease about the fact that detainees were being handed over (and) the procedures were not as robust as they should be."

Many NATO officials in Kabul were also aware how seriously Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin was following the issue, he said.

"Richard Colvin behaved as a straight-up-and-down person, completely honest and doing his job to the best of his abilities," the former official said.

"He had to be terribly careful. He couldn't speak to us about this. But it was clear that the tone at the Canadian Embassy had changed. It became far more politicized – and it was clear that Richard Colvin was struggling enormously to do his work on the question of detainees."

Colvin, whose searing testimony in Ottawa last week ignited the furor anew, may ultimately be remembered as the man who ended Canada's war in Afghanistan. With the countdown already underway toward an end to combat operations in 2011, a new round of national hand-wringing over Canada's role in the faltering effort makes renewal of the commitment far less likely.

Amid the swirl of accusations – who knew what, when did they know it – foreign aid workers who have logged years in Afghanistan wonder at the naiveté that informed good Canadian intentions from the beginning.

"What did they think was going to happen when they handed over detainees?" asked one Kabul-based foreign national, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal against his organization's Afghan staff. Torture allegations have swirled around every Afghan government since the Soviet-backed regime of the 1980s.

Afghan warlords who seized the country in the chaotic wake of the Soviet withdrawal used torture, as did the Taliban who replaced them.

And just as the Taliban continues to use torture today – British Coldstream Guards last year uncovered a Taliban torture chamber in Helmand province – aid workers on the ground say the NDS does the same, operating with impunity under the enfeebled regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"Torture in Afghanistan is routine. It is matter-of-fact. In Canada, you might have to blow a Breathalyzer if you are stopped by the police. Well, in Kandahar when you piss somebody off the NDS will come and get you and hook you up to their machines," a senior humanitarian aid official told the Star, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"It is medieval, horrific. It is what they do to exercise power and control. And we are terrified to speak about it openly because it leaves our Afghan staff completely exposed and vulnerable to reprisals. To pretend otherwise is a fantasy narrative.

"What disturbs me most – this story is all about Canada and Canada's moral authority on the international stage and about which minister will have to resign. And sooner or later Canada will leave and it's over.

"I would just remind people that for Afghans it is not over. And for the Afghans who have worked closely with the Canadians up to this point, what do you think is going to happen to them when you're gone?"

Original article on Toronto Star website