Afghanistan: Who Are the Heroes Here?

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The Globe & Mail/Canada

Afghanistan: Who Are the Heroes Here?

I mean we can sort of quasi-invade it but we can't walk into one of their prisons. I mean, give me a break." (Former Canadian embassy in Kabul official Eileen Olexiuk, on being told by superiors that she couldn't investigate prisoner transfers despite serious concerns over torture.)

Tipping points are a matter of opinion. In mine, the Canadian mission in Afghanistan has now tipped over and landed in Somalia in 1993. This was not supposed to happen. The mission of the Rick Hillier generation in the Canadian Forces was to redress the failure and shame of the Somalia mission. Canada went there to back up a U.S. invasion, designed to show American ability to impose its control anywhere, as the world's "sole superpower," after the Soviet Union imploded. But it led to the abuse and murder of a Somali teenager, Shidane Arone, by Canadians, a suddenly disbanded royal commission, the dissolution of an elite unit, and a will to rebuild.

Now look at Afghanistan. We went in to back a U.S. invasion. Yesterday in Ottawa, a senior military cop said the plan was to avoid another Somalia by handing prisoners to Afghans, where our "responsibility ended" unless "there was a clear allegation" of torture - and it turns out there were many! This is worse than Somalia. It is gutless, widespread and systemic. Wednesday, a former Afghan translator for our troops testified to the most grisly details yet. He's now in Ottawa with his family, after threats of Taliban retaliation.

No ground was won back by the military with this mission. What are families of the dead soldiers to make of it? The elaborate built-up structure of myth is under stress: the highway of heroes, Luke's Troops, standing O's at public events, Hockey Night in Canada tributes. Even the fact that our troops were in Kandahar gets ignored as the U.S. prepares to move in there.

I certainly don't think our soldiers have been villains, but they have been victims and to some degree dupes. Their military and political leaders let them down by sending them in. Once there, you have to deal with death, torture, the whole calamitous package. A better idea is to stay out of pointless mires. Use your military to defend your country, not invade and occupy others.

There are villains: The generals who swanned before the parliamentary hearings last fall, scoffing at all charges, and now at least sounding chastened. Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper. Barking MPs like Conservative Laurie Hawn and his caucus mates. The media who gullibly swallowed the Rick Hillier shtick as if he was the second (one was enough) coming of Don Cherry.

And there's at least a footpath of heroic whistleblowers and truth-tellers, like the commonsensical Eileen Olexiuk ("Give me a break"). Richard Colvin, who's still in the diplomatic service, but broke ranks and took his lumps in and out of Question Period. Ahmadshah Malgarai, the Afghan-Canadian translator who testified this week. The Globe's Graeme Smith, who unleashed the detainee story in 2006. None needed the courage of a soldier in the field, but they spoke more in the interests of those soldiers than the generals and politicians, who pretty much betrayed them.

What can we expect from this government? "From what I know and have seen, I have no interest in seeing this exhibition personally," said cabinet minister James Moore this week. He was talking about a show at the National Gallery, but it could have been the Afghan torture disclosures. These guys just don't want to know. Their prorogation gimmick in December kept the story quiet till now. The only reason we get to hear it at all is due to the powers of the opposition in what the Brits charmingly call a hung parliament.

Pray for another, I say, at least until we have solid guarantees of public information about what matters.

 

Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright, journalist, and critic and has been writing for more than forty years. Until October 1, 2010, he wrote a regular column in the Globe and Mail; on February 11, 2011, he began a weekly column in the Toronto Star.

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