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War Crimes: Canada’s Afghanistan “Mission” Cripples Democracy at Home: Torture Cover-up Also Shields World’s Biggest Narco-state

By Asad Ismi

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government shut down Parliament until March, mainly to avoid answering politically embarrassing questions about the torture of Canadian military detainees in Afghanistan. Especially disturbing are the allegations–and mounting evidence — that our military was complicit in this torture of captives by Afghan government “interrogators.”

The scandal broke in November just as former Afghan Member of Parliament Malalai Joya made a speech in Toronto demanding that Canada withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Joya was expelled from the Afghan Parliament in 2007 for denouncing the presence of warlords and drug lords in that assembly. Now it appears that Joya has been joined in parliamentary exile (at least temporarily) by all 413 Canadian MPs as the Afghanistan “mission” undermines democratic processes at home.

On November 18, 2009, Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin told a special House of Commons committee that Afghan prisoners transferred by Canadian Forces to local authorities in Kandahar were “likely all tortured.” Colvin was the second highest-ranking Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan in 2006-2007 and is now an intelligence officer with the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C.

“According to our information,” he said, “the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured… For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure.”

The torture included the use of electricity, extreme temperatures, knives, open flames, and sexual abuse. “Our detainee practices (were) un-Canadian, counterproductive, and probably illegal,” Colvin declared.

Colvin added that his repeated attempts to raise concerns about this torture of Afghan prisoners with senior military and government officials in Ottawa were first ignored and then suppressed by them. He said that retired chief of defence staff General Rick Hillier; David Mulroney, former deputy minister of the Afghanistan Task Force in the Privy Council Office; and Margaret Bloodworth, Prime Minister Harper’s national security advisor, were all told about the prisoner treatment and did nothing.

“In practice,” said Colvin, “the information was being concealed from the Canadian public.”

Senior Canadian forces and government officials were told about the torture as early as May 2006. They ignored these warnings for a year until newspaper reports exposed the torture allegations. After that, according to Colvin, diplomats were told by their superiors in Ottawa not to keep written records of any discussions of torture.

Colvin said that Canada took far more prisoners than other NATO forces in Afghanistan, “many of them innocent people,” and he charged that “the policy had taught Kandaharis to fear the foreign troops and had set back the Canadian effort in the region.”

On December 9, 2009, General Walter Natynczyk, the head of the Canadian military, admitted that he was aware of at least one detainee who was tortured after being transferred into Afghan custody. With this statement, Natynczyk reversed himself on earlier testimony, now saying that in June 2006 a suspected Taliban combatant was handed over to Afghan police, who severely beat him. Opposition parties demanded that Defence Minister Peter McKay resign over the affair.

Canada has ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which forbids that prisoners be handed over to a regime that would be likely to torture them. Violating this convention is tantamount to a war crime.

Ujjal Dosanjh, the Liberal Party’s defence critic, said knowledge of prisoner abuse went all the way up to Stephen Harper’s office. “Torture is a war crime,” he emphasized. “The fact is that this government has engaged in a massive cover-up [by] the highest officials. The Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister’s own national security advisor knew of the allegations of torture, knew of the cover-up.”

Lawyers representing human rights groups that have challenged Canadian detainee policies are considering registering complaints against Canada before the U.N. Committee Against Torture, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, and the U.N. Rapporteur on Torture.

Colvin’s testimony clearly exposes conspiracy at the highest levels of the Harper government and the Canadian military to cover up complicity in war crimes in Afghanistan.

Canada’s participation in war crimes in Afghanistan goes far beyond handing over detainees for torture: the entire Afghan military operation, which includes the armed forces of 46 Western countries, is a war crime, Malalai Joya charged in a speech she gave in Toronto last November. Legal scholars such as Marjorie Cohn, Michael Mandel, and Alex Conte have all called the Afghan invasion and occupation illegal.

Joya, 31, is the youngest female member of Afghanistan’s parliament and has been elected twice from the western province of Farah (see my interview with her in the December 2007 Monitor). She is a popular women’s rights activist and an outspoken critic of the government of Hamid Karzai and the Northern Alliance, which is now being defended by U.S., Canadian, and other Western troops occupying Afghanistan.

In May 2007, Joya was expelled from the Afghan parliament for denouncing the presence of warlords and drug lords in that body and in the Karzai government. She has survived four assassination attempts. Joya runs Hamoon Clinic in Farah province–the only health care centre in the area that offers free services to its patients, who are mainly women and children.

Joya is author of a recently published book, A Woman Among Warlords. In praising this book, Noam Chomsky stated that Joya would have been a much better choice for the Nobel Peace Prize than U.S. President Barack Obama.

In her speech in Toronto, Joya described the horrendous consequences of the eight-year Western military occupation of Afghanistan for its people.

“Many war crimes have been committed by the U.S. and NATO forces against my people since 2001,” Joya said. “In these eight years, fewer than 2,000 Taliban fighters have been killed, compared to more than 8,000 innocent civilians, many of them women and children. On behalf of my people, I offer my condolences to the suffering Canadian mothers who have lost their daughters and sons in Afghanistan due to the ‘war on terror.’ They must change their sorrows and tears to strength and raise their voices as much as they can against the war crimes being committed in my country, and first of all against the wrong policies of their country’s government. Every day the Western troops are shedding the blood of my people. The blood of my people is not water. It is worth as much as the blood of Westerners.

“In May [2009], NATO forces carried out a bombing in Farah province that killed more than 150 civilians, most of them women and children. They used white phosphorus and cluster bombs. Eleven of the bodies could not be found by their families because they had been cut to pieces. In Kunduz province, last September, NATO forces carried out another bombing that killed or injured 200 civilians.

“They even bomb our wedding parties, as they did in Nangarhar province where they killed 47 people, including the bride and groom. Recently, in Kandahar province where Canada has troops, a groom and his marriage party and six more civilians were killed. Because of these and many other war crimes, my people want the occupation to end immediately.”

Many of the slain Afghan civilians were killed by Canadian troops. Matthieu Akins, a Canadian writer who travelled to Afghanistan to write an article about drug trafficking that was published in the December 2009 issue of Harper’s magazine, states in his account that, in the fall of 2006, the Canadian military launched “Operation Medusa” in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province. The operation was “a large-scale assault that killed hundreds of fighters and scores of civilians in weeks of close combat and withering bombardments.”

By supporting the Karzai government, Canada is propping up the world’s biggest heroin trafficking state. Says Joya: “To see how wrong the policy of the Canadian government is in Afghanistan (as part of NATO), only this example is enough: After eight years of occupation, the Western armies have made Afghanistan the centre of drug trafficking in the world. The Taliban, even though they were medieval-minded and ignorant, almost destroyed opium cultivation. Since 2001, however, opium cultivation has increased 4,000 times and Afghanistan now produces 93% of the world’s opium, according to the United Nations. The New York Times says that Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali is a famous drug trafficker and has received millions of dollars from the CIA. More than 80% of Afghanistan’s parliament seats are held by drug lords, warlords, and criminals.”

While enriching themselves, the Western-backed drug lords and warlords have consigned most Afghans to poverty. “To see the catastrophic situation in my country,” Says Joya, “this example is also enough: The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has reported that Afghanistan ranks 181st out of 182 countries on its Human Development Index (HDI). Millions of Afghans suffer from injustice, corruption, insecurity, joblessness and poverty. The Karzai government was lavished with $36 billion in Western aid in the last eight years but most of this money went into the pockets of drug lords, warlords, and government officials.

“Today Kabul [the capital of Afghanistan] has become a city of beggars and orphans. Eighteen million people in Afghanistan [out of 24 million] live on less than two dollars a day, and many desperate women are driven to sell their babies for only ten dollars. The Western occupiers are giving more taxpayer money to a corrupt Mafia system while also wasting the blood of their soldiers to support it.”

Malalai Joya’s speech makes clear that the Western military occupation of Afghanistan, of which Canada is a major part, is a massive war crime that is inflicting enormous suffering on her people. Canada is supporting a brutal and criminal regime of warlords and drug lords that is the world’s leading narco-state, while the Canadian military kills innocent Afghan civilians, abets their torture, and then tries to cover it up.

And when this war crime is exposed by a Canadian diplomat, the Harper government shuts down Parliament to suppress debate on the matter instead of launching an inquiry into it. To support a corrupt and undemocratic Western puppet state in Afghanistan, our government has stooped to undermining democracy at home. A more disgraceful policy is hard to imagine.

Harper’s dictatorial actions indicate that, for his government, Canada’s main role is to be a U.S.-dominated petro-state, on par with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Canada is the biggest oil supplier to Washington, and its troops are in Afghanistan to support U.S. control of Turkmenistan’s oil and ensure that an oil pipeline can be built across the country to Pakistan and India.

In petro-states, democracy tends to interfere with their key role of serving U.S. energy demands, and so is not generally practised at more than a token level.


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, February 2010.

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He has written extensively on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.