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Public interest in the capture of insurgents by Canadian soldiers began in January, 2002, with the front-page story in this newspaper of restrained Taliban fighters being unloaded from the back of a U.S. Hercules by soldiers from our elite JTF2 unit. Confusion reigned at the time when prime minister Jean Chrétien assured the House of Commons that Canadians were not taking prisoners in Afghanistan. A few days later, it was acknowledged that we were. It was not surprising that the PM didn't know because in the interest of plausible deniability he probably wasn't told. What followed was politically driven, self-serving outrage over the fact we were turning detainees over to "Bush's army." The policy was changed and a new agreement was made to hand over prisoners to the Afghan authorities.

Every subsequent agreement regarding detainees has addressed the issue of monitoring their condition while in Afghan custody. This might sound good but, in reality, it's of little consequence as it would not stop the mistreatment of prisoners.

In 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 the Canadian government - more specifically the Department of Foreign Affairs - received in-country reports on Afghanistan stating that prisoner abuse was prevalent throughout the myriad of Afghanistan's detention facilities. Further agreements were drafted and finalized by Foreign Affairs in close consultation with National Defence.

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Much has been made regarding the last formal agreement signed in December, 2005. That agreement, too, resulted from extensive collaboration over several months between DFAIT and DND, involving several divisions in both departments. Bill Graham, then the Liberal minister of defence, and senior staff at the Privy Council Office signed and approved the document. Parliamentary records confirm that the agreement was signed in Afghanistan by General Rick Hillier, the Chief of the Defence Staff, on behalf of the Canadian government, and by the Afghan Minister of Defence on behalf of the Afghan government. It is important to note that the 2005 agreement specifically cited the Third Geneva Convention in dealing with the treatment of detainees and highlighted the role of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in this regard.

(Indeed, in the first three months of this year, the ICRC visited 34 detention locations in Afghanistan holding 6,955 detainees, following up on some 800 persons arrested in relation to the conflict. It is not clear, however, where those detained by Canada are being held.)

The current flap emerged when Minister of Defence Gordon O'Connor indicated in the House that the ICRC was keeping Canada apprised of the conditions in the Afghan prisons and their knowledge of any mistreatment of prisoners. In fact, a modest amount of such co-operation had taken place; however, it is not normally revealed in public lest the ICRC's effectiveness on the ground be compromised. The Minister's mistake was to share information with the House that is considered highly sensitive.

If we're serious about improving the situation for detainees and protecting our own reputation, we need to face some facts.

To start with, certainly, there is torture going on in some of the Afghan detention facilities. You don't change the interrogation techniques of the region in a decade, let alone overnight. Once you accept that, there are few practical options.

Currently there is a deafening call for enhanced visitation rights and monitoring of the Afghan facilities by coalition countries' representatives. Such a move would have little effect. It's too easy to hide torture from civilian agencies and live-in monitors could easily be duped. As well, the entire system would likely grind to a halt as it became jammed by every prisoner protesting his treatment. Many would beat each other in order to have the bruises and breaks to "qualify" for intervention by the monitors.

Then too, what happens if enhanced monitoring does confirm that torture is taking place. Do we admonish the senior officials in the institution? Do we try to convince Afghan President Hamid Karzai to remove them in spite of assurances from his own officials that there has been no torture? Do we cut off aid? Do we try to reclaim from the general prison population the detainees we turned over while other coalition partners leave the ones they captured there?

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None of the above would be effective. The fact is that if enhanced monitoring fails to ward off torture, and it probably will fail, Canada does not have a problem - NATO does! Canada cannot and should not operate unilaterally. The alliance, which to date has avoided the problem, needs to mobilize its diplomatic component and stop leaving the problem with its militaries. There are any number of NATO members who are not even close to pulling their weight in Afghanistan who could work together and take over an existing Afghan detention facility and operate it as a model and example to the emerging Afghan police/correctional service. Not an ideal solution, but one that might just be necessary in the interests of letting political leaders, diplomats and military commanders return to the task of rebuilding Afghanistan.

LEWIS MacKENZIE, Retired major-general, first commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo

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