More Wisdom (Not Mine) on Detainees

I have to admit, I’ve posted next to nothing on this one because I’m like a wishbone.

On the one hand, I’m pulled by the fact that part of me agrees with those who say, “Meh, who cares about the detainees, anyway?  They were likely Taliban, and they’re Afghanistan’s problem, right?”

On the other  hand, I do believe we’re supposed to be BETTER than the Taliban in respecting rights, and making sure others do as well.

The tension between these two positions leaves me feeling like I did about the sexual abuse of kids in Afghanistan:  it’s something important to be dealt with, but it’s one of a zillion things that need sorting out, and everything that has to be done is not in our hands to do directly, so all we can do is the best we can given all else happening around us.

Like with the abuse issue, E.R. Campbell, a prolific participant over at the forums, sums it up quite well on detainees, too (thanks, E.R. for the material):

Sometime between 2001 and 2006 “we” (whoever “we” was, then – and there were several ‘thens’) decided that it would be best, maybe just least worst, to hand “detained” Afghans over to the Afghan authorities on the (sensible) grounds that it’s their war and we are there to help, only.

As I see it, there is a case, maybe not a very good one, that Afghan insurgents are not covered by the Geneva Conventions – but I doubt anyone will try to argue that.

Given that they are covered, as civilians, we had options:

1. ‘Catch and release’ – not militarily sound;

2. Detain them in a NATO managed “cage” – the best idea, except that none existed, none exists now and NATO appears disinterested in the subject;

3. Hand them over to the US, who have a “cage” at Bagrham (sp?) – but in 2005/06, in the wake of abu  Ghraib (sp?), our cabinet did not want to do that because of bad political optics and real concerns about whether or not the US was acting in accordance with the Geneva Conventions;

4. Build a Canadian POW cage/camp in Kandahar and maybe even a camp in Canada – that was (still is, I think) a practical impossibility; or

5. Hand them over to the Afghans – despite the fact that we must have understood that the Afghans had no capability, even if they had the inclination, to run a prison system to our standards.

So, I reiterate, we picked the least worst choice and now we have a problem.

And the even bigger picture?

This is a problem of 21st century warfare being conducted against a backdrop of 19th century morality. The mechanization or industrialization of war, seen especially harshly in the US Civil War and then in the Boer War, prompted men and women of ‘goodwill’ to demand that war return to a more ‘civilized’ mode – when uniformed soldiers fought well away from towns and civilians. The lessons of the Boer War were fresh and real: the Boers on commando, like the Mahdi’s Army (Khartoum, 1885), eschewed most of the trappings of conventional military operations but they were, clearly, an organized, military force conducting operations against conventional military forces. But unconventional operations were not the exclusive province of ‘others’ – consider T.E. Lawrence’s Arab forces and the SOE in Yugoslavia and France. (SAS and the like are not good examples: they were, and are, normally, uniformed and are, often, engaged against an identifiable enemy.) But modern armies, especially their special forces, countering insurgencies, often fight for the loyalty (hearts and minds) of the people – as Templer et al suggested. We take ‘war’ to the people; as Gen (ret’d) Sir Rupert Smith suggested (in The Utility of Force, London, 2005) we make “war amongst the people.” But: we (Canada) have agreed that all this must be done while adhering to the Geneva Conventions.

It’s called squaring the circle and, as in mathematics, it might be impossible because one is trying to do something rational with tools that are, essentially, transcendental – related to e.g. ‘virtue.’

And a warning:

If you think Afghanistan is bad, wait until we start to operate, and e.g. take prisoners detainees, in Africa. That will be a nightmare.

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