By their own accounts, they were beaten with electric cables and punched so hard their teeth fell out. They were hung upside down by their ankles, threatened with suffocation, and jolted with electric shocks. Their trip through the blood-spattered interrogation cells of Afghanistan has reduced some of them to broken husks.
Shocking? I think not. Nothing could be less surprising than the revelation that the Afghan secret police practise routine torture - even on prisoners lucky enough to be captured by the kind, conscientious, Geneva Conventions-compliant Canadian Forces. Just where did we think we were sending them? Summer camp?
For the past year, many of our political and military leaders have been strenuously denying that any of "our" detainees in Afghanistan have been mistreated. No doubt they sincerely believed it. But now, they look both willfully misinformed and hopelessly naive. And with good reason. Anyone who thinks it's possible for Canadians to police Kandahar's dungeons has to be delusional.
The prisoners' dilemma, as you might call it, is an unavoidable moral consequence of this war. The trouble is that under the Geneva Conventions, we're not just responsible for prisoners when they're under our control. We're responsible for them forever. We round 'em up, we own 'em. So how are we supposed to ensure their well-being? Build our own Canadian-run jails? Set up special courts to sort out the bomb-makers from the innocent bystanders? Or turn them over to our ally, who, it turns out, forgot to read that chapter in the interrogation manual about how torture doesn't always work so well?
The only solution is to refuse to capture anyone. Now there's an idea. Let the Afghans capture them! No, wait. They can't. Isn't that why we're there in the first place?
And so we came up with another solution. We'd ask for lots of guarantees from very high-up people - and then we'd contract out the oversight. Yeah. That'll work. Only maybe not so much in a place where the police and judiciary are corrupt, where there's no chain of command and no accountability, where the local human-rights commission is a joke, and where the notion that prisoners have any rights at all is, perhaps, not widely shared.
The Geneva Conventions are a noble ideal. But they are seldom observed in dirty terror wars, even by progressive Western nations that pay them lip service. Ask the Americans. Better still, ask the French. Ask anyone whose national security is at stake, and has enemy fighters in custody who might know where the next bomb is planted.
I have deep sympathy for our military leaders, who genuinely want to do the right thing. But they're trapped in a lose-lose situation. They can fight a war. Or they can babysit "our" detainees to ensure that our allies don't abuse their human rights. I don't think they have the resources to do both. Maybe they can tattoo a maple leaf on the guys they round up so the secret police will know to torture someone else.
Canada's Afghan war will be won or lost here, at home, in the court of public opinion. So far, our efforts have been getting the benefit of the doubt. And I think most Canadians will draw a sharp moral distinction between the abuse of Afghan prisoners by Afghans (regrettable, but what else can you expect?) and the abuse of prisoners by us (unconscionable). Still, the tales of detainee torture are a PR disaster, because they suggest the brass are either covering up or don't know what's going on. Even worse, they highlight the two questions that are so hard to answer: Why are we there? And can we win?
Both Vietnam and Iraq turned into political losers for the United States because there were no good answers to those questions. Afghanistan, I think, will prove to be the same. The social-worker explanation (we're there to nation-build) is the one that Canadians find most resonant. But it will be increasingly hard to defend as evidence mounts that the goal is unattainable.
Here's another problem. When it comes to what we think of as human rights, many of the so-called good guys we're fighting for are not so very different from the bad guys we're fighting against. They tortured people long before we got there, and they'll probably torture people long after we're gone. The question is not whether we can help them build a fair and just society. The question is whether they want one. Meantime, our other allies - the ones in NATO - have no taste for this fight. Without them, our forces are too small to make a difference. And as time wears on, we'll feel as if all the blood and treasure we've spent is like so much water poured into the desert.
The prisoners' dilemma
The mistreatment of detainees is an unavoidable moral consequence of this war