Every day that Gordon O'Connor remains Defence Minister undermines Canadian confidence in this country's important mission in Afghanistan. As that confidence suffers, so, too, does confidence in the Conservative government. Why then does Prime Minister Stephen Harper leave him in the job?
The answer is not flattering to Mr. Harper. Like U.S. President George W. Bush, he hates to be seen to waver. He will not or cannot admit mistakes. Having left Mr. O'Connor in place in a major cabinet shuffle in January, the Prime Minister is in the same position as the Woody Allen character who falls out of the balcony on opening night: He must return the next night and fall out again, lest anyone think he did so by mistake the first time.
The result is that Mr. O'Connor's job is safe, even as he stumbles into an international human-rights mess in Afghanistan. Wednesday, he did an about-face and admitted that yes, torture is bad and Canada may not be doing all it should to prevent the abuse of detainees turned over by this country's military to Afghan authorities. Better late than never, we suppose; but the deal he announced (still not written down, apparently, except perhaps on the back of a napkin) falls short in a couple of key ways.
The deal is an improvement on the current one, in which an understaffed Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (one person with two assistants, and the responsibility of covering all prisons, military and otherwise, in the south) acts as this country's eyes and ears. Instead, Canada, like the British and the Dutch, will be able to monitor the detainees itself. But the new deal, while apparently applying to a Kandahar prison run by the secret police, may not allow Canada access to other prisons overseen by that same police force.
More fundamentally, why should Canada, the Dutch and the British bear this responsibility separately? Don't the coalition forces together have more leverage than any country acting on its own? Shouldn't the North Atlantic Treaty Organization coalition lean on the Afghan government to clean up its act? Perhaps the worry is that, if NATO monitors the treatment of prisoners in detention, any torture that occurs would be a blemish on the entire force, rather than just a single country. But as things stand now, torture is not likely to abate, and the stain will likely soon spread over NATO anyway. NATO needs to hold President Hamid Karzai government's feet to the fire - in the metaphorical sense only - to clean up its act.
Canada's soldiers have behaved honourably and courageously. No evidence has emerged that they have tortured anyone. But while Canadian leaders cite the soldiers' accomplishments ("the change in the life of Afghan moms and dads and sons and daughters is absolutely incredible because of our great work," General Rick Hillier, chief of the Defence Staff, said on Canada AM yesterday), Mr. O'Connor's presence as the public face of the mission means support will continue to bleed away. That's a terrible shame. Mr. Harper should admit his mistake and ask Mr. O'Connor to step aside.