The issue that bedeviled the Harper government all last week wasn’t Canadian complicity in the abuse of Taliban detainees turned over to Afghan prisons, it was getting the story straight.
It’s a classic inside-Ottawa story, of who knew what and when. When the story keeps changing, as the government’s did last week, then it becomes a question of competence, and competence is the most important attribute in governance.
In the real world, down at Tim Hortons, Canadians must be asking why the media and the opposition parties appear more concerned about the Taliban than they are about our own troops. To all appearances, they are more worried about the guys trying to blow up our guys than they are about our guys. There’s a logical, and emotional, disconnect.
When Canadians take prisoners in a theatre of war, we assume they are well treated until they are turned over to the Afghans. We do this even though the Taliban are running a terrorist insurgency, blowing up our troops with roadside bombs, taking and executing hostages, and murdering schoolteachers.
But we’re better than that, right ? Right. So after we turn them over, we’re supposed to make sure they’re not mistreated or tortured in a country with a medieval jail system, and where settling scores is measured in centuries.
This is no Abu Ghraib prison story, with videotape of Canadian soldiers participating in the humiliation and torture of prisoners. But the previous government signed a handover agreement in December 2005, under which we’re supposed to monitor treatment of "our" detainees, as if they belonged to us.
But it’s not clear whether Canada has such access, or has received credible third-party assessments through something called the Human Rights Commission of Afghanistan, which would have been an oxymoron under the Taliban regime and must be something of a curiosity in the Karzai administration.
The alternative to handing over detainees to the Afghans would be building our own prison, presumably inside the wire in Kandahar (raising issues of Afghan sovereignty on their own soil, as well as the prospect of hostage-takings in return for Canadian-held prisoners). Or, as Stephane Dion suggested last week before thinking better of it, importing prisoners to Canada (taking Charter rights cases to an entirely new level).
Otherwise, we have to count on the ethics of Afghan captors in not abusing prisoners, and their good faith in giving us access to them.
And the problem for the Conservatives last week was that the lead spokesperson, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor, either kept changing his story, or couldn’t get it straight.
On Monday, O’Connor said the Afghan rights commission would report any abuses to Canada. On Tuesday, he said Canada would "enforce these arrangements," whatever that meant. On Wednesday, he said Canada had "an arrangement with local authorities in Kandahar province so that we can enter the detention facilities any time we want," which was news to a lot of people, including his cabinet colleagues.
And then O’Connor got trapped in an elevator with the cameras recording - the ultimate media drive-by shooting. O’Connor is a former brigadier, our equivalent of a one-star general (that a four-star, Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier, would be working for him, is a whole other story). O’Connor must have been an outstanding officer, or he wouldn’t have risen so high. But it’s clear he’s no communicator, and a change of civilian command might be in order. Because of the confusion around O’Connor, the larger purpose of the mission in Afghanistan has been obscured for an entire week.
Two other events last week cast a shadow over the government’s competence. In the first, Environment Minister John Baird’s office faxed a speech to the wrong number - the opposition lobby instead of the government’s, creating the impression that Ottawa’s new green plan had been leaked to the Liberals. Then Baird’s office demanded it back, while placing something like it as an opinion piece in the next day’s Ottawa Citizen. A minor comedy of errors.
Then Baird joined Energy Minister Gary Lunn for the announcement banning incandescent lightbulbs by 2012. It’s a good idea, rather like blue-boxing, allowing people to make a difference in their own lives even as they keep driving their SUVs.
But someone allowed the announcement to become an endorsement by the ministers of the Home Depot’s replacement lighting program, turning the event into a cheesy commercial. It was the height of incompetence, and part of a really bad week at the office.