America's armed forces are not alone in wrestling with the issue of torture and mistreatment of prisoners. US allies that have been drawn into Iraq and Afghanistan face the very same disturbing questions.
When Canada first sent token troops to Afghanistan in 2002, and then deployed combat units to the war zone in southern Afghanistan in 2006, this column warned that its soldiers would inevitably commit atrocities and become brutalized.
Having covered fourteen wars as a correspondent and serving in the US Army, I knew that all of what we delicately call "counter-insurgency wars" - or "campaigns of pacification" as they used to be called in less euphemistic times - eventually produce brutality and war crimes against prisoners and civilians.
Canada has long been admired around the globe as a nation of high ethics, human rights, and respect for law. Over the past 50 years, Canada has devoted itself to multilateralism and peacekeeping. That is, until intense pressure from Washington dragged Canada into contributing 2,500 combat troops to the war in Afghanistan.
Now, Canada's sterling reputation is being seriously degraded by the spreading scandal over its involvement in torture in the Afghan conflict. Canada's current conservative government, a close ally of the former Bush administration, ardently backs the war and is fanning nationalism.
A courageous Canadian diplomat, Richard Colvin, recently revealed his government had been routinely turning over Afghan prisoners to the Kabul government's notorious secret police for torture and execution.
Emulating the Bush administration, senior government officials and military officers in Ottawa closed ranks, stoutly denying any Afghans had been tortured.
They are either amazingly ignorant or deceiving their nation.
To understand the roots of this ugly business, we must go back to the 1980's.
During the ten-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989, the Soviet intelligence service, KGB, created the Afghan Communist secret police agency, known as KhAD. Its mission was to liquidate or terrorize all suspected or real anti-Communists and opponents of Soviet occupation. Most prisoners arrested by KhAD were subjected to frightful tortures, particularly at Kabul's dreaded Pul-e-Charki Prison.
Prisoners were burned alive with gasoline, or buried alive by bulldozers. Special refrigerated cells froze prisoners to death. Others were electrocuted, skinned alive, beaten to death, castrated and blinded, or slowly lowered into vats of acid.
Some 27,000-30,000 political prisoners were murdered at Pul-e-Charki by KhAD. Torture centers also existed in all other major cities. The Soviets (who withdrew in 1989) and Afghan Communists killed 2.5 million Afghans.
In notoriously cruel Afghanistan, atrocities were not confined to one side: the US-backed Afghan mujahidin also committed their share. But the KhAD's sadistic cruelty and huge number of victims horrified even violence-hardened Afghans.
After the Soviet withdrew in 1989, Afghanistan dissolved into civil war and chaos as the seven mujahidin factions battled for power. A special KGB unit fanned the flames of conflict between Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtun, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazara by staging false flag operations, assassinations, and provocations.
By 1995, the anti-Communist Pashtun religious movement, Taliban, backed by Pakistan and the Gulf Arabs, had seized power, imposed law and order and driven the Communists from 90% of Afghanistan. The Afghan Communists retreated to the far north, and became part of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
Ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, many of whom collaborated with the Soviet occupation in the 1980's, dominated the Alliance. Its leader was the Tajik warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud - who was mistakenly hailed an anti-Soviet "freedom fighter" in the West. In fact, he was an important Soviet asset.
The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, using Russian-armed Northern Alliance soldiers to overthrow Taliban, and install Hamid Karzai as figurehead president. Real power in Kabul was held by the Northern Alliance. In essence, the US and Russia established a very discreet condominium over war-torn Afghanistan, with Moscow calling shots in the north through its Tajik and Uzbek allies.
Two of its strongest Northern Alliance figures were pro-Soviet Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostam, and Tajik general Mohammed Fahim - KhAD's chief from 1992-2004. Both had close links to Russian intelligence.
After thirty years of civil war, the minority Tajiks and Uzbeks had became blood enemies of the Pashtun, Afghanistan's majority. Most Taliban are Pashtun. Though there were many Tajiks that fought the Soviet occupation (see my book, `War at the Top of the World'), most Pashtun accused Tajiks of being Soviet collaborators.
Fahim and the Tajik-Uzbek-Communist Northern Alliance took over the revived secret police, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and the prison system. In short order, the KhAD's old torturers were back in business. Pashtun prisoners captured by Canadian forces were routinely handed to the NDS-KhAD. Many were brutally tortured and executed.
Today, Fahim is officially Karzai's number two as vice president. But as commander of the Tajik-Uzbek militia and secret police, Fahim is the Afghan regime's most powerful figure and strongman. His supporters deny he was the KhAD chief and claim it was another person named Fahim.
Every child in Afghanistan knows torture of prisoners takes place. But somehow, Canada's see no evil/hear no evil generals and civilian officials actually claim they were sweetly unaware Afghan prisons were being run as torture centers by the revitalized Communists.
Amnesty International and the Red Cross warned Ottawa that prisoners Canada was handing to the Afghan government faced torture -and worse. The US State Department repeatedly warned of widespread torture in Afghan prisons, including `pulling out fingernails, burnings..beatings..sexual humiliations, sodomy' and rape of children. So did the UN and Dutch government.
Canada should have run its own prisoner camps under the proper rules of war. Yet Canada kept handing prisoners to the Afghan NDS, a clear violation of the Geneva Convention and human rights.
Ottawa tried to justify its action by claiming it had a memo from the secret police promising not to torture captives.
Now we see Canadian military men and high government officials trying to lie or bluff away their serious misdeeds - some of which may constitute war crimes, and slandering the messenger. A disgusting spectacle that deeply shames and sullies this good nation.