Spartacist Canada No. 190
Afghan Torture Cells
The True Face of Canadian Imperialism
During the first five years of Stephen Harper’s Tory government, from 2006 to 2011, Canada provided most of the forces engaged in NATO’s counterinsurgency warfare in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan. This was the Canadian junior imperialists’ central contribution to the U.S./NATO invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, begun in 2001. From early on, there were allegations of grisly torture meted out to Afghans captured by Canadian troops and then turned over to Afghan government security forces. These victims are in addition to the tens of thousands of civilians slaughtered and injured as “collateral damage” in U.S./NATO bombing raids.
The Harper government steadfastly maintained that no credible evidence existed concerning torture of detainees. But by 2007, reports concerning such atrocities had been issued by the United Nations Secretary General, the U.S. State Department and Canada’s own Foreign Affairs department. The State Department’s 2005 report noted extrajudicial killings and torture including “pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, sexual humiliation and sodomy.” A follow-on 2009 report cited “beatings, use of a scorching bar, flogging by cable, battering by rod, electric shock, deprivation of sleep, food and water, abusive language, sexual humiliation and rape” (Omar Sabry, “Torture of Afghan Detainees,” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, September 2015).
Most recently, La Presse (15 June) printed a letter by some military police officers who wrote anonymously complaining that they were ordered by the Canadian military brass to take part in late night terror raids used to coerce terrified detainees to confess or give information. These police scum are no doubt worried that they, like the handful of low-level flunkeys who bore the punishment for the torture of prisoners at the infamous U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, will be nailed for the Canadian military’s crimes in Afghanistan. So now, to protect the “honour” of their blood-spattered uniforms, these anonymous military cops blow the whistle.
Nothing to See Here…
It is inconceivable that the Harper government never heard of the Kandahar crimes. Similar gruesome stories were detailed in confidential documents from Canadian diplomatic staff in Kandahar. One such diplomat, Richard Colvin, testified before parliament that “we detained, and handed over for severe torture, a lot of innocent people” (Globe and Mail, 19 November 2009). Colvin was immediately crucified by the Harper cabinet and Tory MPs. To forestall further parliamentary inquiries, Harper asked the governor-general to dismiss (prorogue) parliament on 30 December 2009, thereby terminating all extant legislative business.
During this period, the Liberal opposition made a great noise, demanding an inquiry into the Afghan tortures. Now, as direct administrators of the bourgeois state, they want the whole issue to disappear since any further investigation will embarrass the Canadian ruling class and not least the Liberals themselves. Liberal defense minister Harjit Sajjan flatly rejected a petition for such an investigation, claiming that Afghan prisoners were “treated humanely.” As reported by CBC News, Sajjan’s written reply stated: “The government of Canada does not believe an independent judicial commission of inquiry is necessary” (17 June).
The Afghan war began as the Liberals’ war: it was Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien who in 2001 first sent Canadian troops to Afghanistan; it was Paul Martin’s Liberal government that signed the 2005 agreement with Afghan security leaders concerning the turnover of prisoners captured by Canadian troops. Rather more important today is the fact that Sajjan himself was an officer in the Canadian forces and served three combat tours of duty in Afghanistan. In 2006, far from simply a grunt on the ground, Sajjan was a central player in Kandahar:
“Sajjan was tasked as the intelligence liaison with notorious governor Asadullah Khalid and Ahmed Wali Karzai, the controversial head of the provincial council.
“Khalid, who later became the head of Afghan intelligence, had a reputation for ruthlessness and was accused of assassinations, torture and drug-dealing. Karzai, the half-brother of the former president who was later murdered by a bodyguard, was accused of having a hand in the drug trade.”
—Canadian Press, 5 November 2015
As journalist Matthew Behrens wrote of Sajjan, “it seems implausible that he was not familiar with the torture rampant throughout the Afghan detention system” (Now, 11 November 2015). Canada had a legal responsibility for any detainee it held, no matter to what authority the prisoner was later transferred, so under international law, Sajjan, his superiors and members of the Harper government could be prosecuted for war crimes.
But this will never happen. Such atrocities as occurred in Afghanistan (and many far bloodier) are not aberrations but an integral part of the workings of the system of imperialism. A small number of highly developed capitalist powers (e.g., the U.S., Britain, Germany, Japan), together with a few lesser jackal powers (e.g., Canada, Australia), dominate the world market and subjugate the masses of Asia, Africa and Latin America, generally through pliant local rulers. These semicolonial countries must borrow from the IMF, World Bank and other loan sharks to pay for even food and basic necessities. Meanwhile their natural resources are pillaged and their economies bled, with the profits going back to the bloated imperialist financiers. The ultimate enforcers of this system are the armies, navies and air forces of the major imperialist powers. Agencies such as the United Nations—a den of imperialist thieves, their victims and their lackeys—are used to prettify the imperialists’ wars and occupations. Indeed, the UN gave its approval to the 2001 launch of the devastating U.S./NATO war in Afghanistan, a war that continues to this day.
Our starting point is proletarian class opposition to the capitalist rulers and to the imperialist system as a whole. We opposed the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S., Canadian and other troops and stood for its military defense against imperialist attack without giving a shred of political support to the reactionary Taliban cutthroats. Insofar as such forces aim their blows against the imperialist occupiers, we call for their military defense while according them no political support. From the outset, we have called for class struggle at home against the capitalist rulers.
We Said “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!”
The present period, wherein the imperialists, especially the U.S., are wreaking death and destruction around the globe, is the outcome of the demise of the Soviet Union, the world’s first workers state, in 1991-92. The Soviet Union provided a crucial counterweight to U.S. imperialism, often giving breathing room to countries of the neocolonial world.
As we wrote in “Torture and the ‘War on Terror’” (SC No. 153, Summer 2007):
“The disastrous plight of the masses of Afghanistan today, and particularly that of Afghan women, is a direct consequence of the Soviet Union’s military withdrawal from that country in 1989 and the subsequent triumph of fundamentalist religious cutthroats backed by U.S. imperialism. When the Soviet Red Army entered Afghanistan at the request of a modernizing nationalist regime a decade earlier, we declared ‘Hail Red Army! Extend social gains of the October Revolution to Afghan peoples!’
“Sending the army into Afghanistan to clean out a reactionary insurgency against the government’s progressive reforms—like providing education to girls and reducing the bride price to a nominal sum—opened a road to social liberation for the Afghan people. It underlined our Trotskyist understanding that the Soviet Union was a workers state, product of the October 1917 proletarian socialist revolution, despite its subsequent degeneration under a nationalist, Stalinist bureaucracy. We called for unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against imperialism and internal counterrevolution, and for a proletarian political revolution to oust these treacherous Stalinist bureaucrats.”
Today we uphold that same program with regard to Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea and China, which we Trotskyists understand are bureaucratically deformed workers states. Capitalist property relations were overthrown in these countries but they are ruled by nationalist bureaucracies patterned after the Stalinist regime which usurped political power in the Soviet Union beginning in 1923-24. These social revolutions were tremendous victories for the workers and peasants who were thereby able to throw off the yoke of the imperialist subjugators and their local puppets.
By far the largest of these countries is China, where the 1949 Revolution laid the basis for unheard-of advances in industry, living standards and health care and immense gains for women. The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Chinese workers state is the central target of the U.S. and other imperialists, including Canada. But defense of China’s revolutionary gains is decidedly not what you will hear from the so-called left in this country. These reformist groups (such as the International Socialists) dismiss China simply as a totalitarian dictatorship, against which “democracy”—that is, the class rule of capital under a parliamentary façade—must be defended. Obscenely, in the 1980s, the vast majority of the left in Canada and internationally howled with the imperialist wolves, siding with the woman-hating Islamic fundamentalists against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Liberal/NDP Apologias for Imperialist Barbarism
During the 1980s, the NDP was front and centre in the anti-Communist crusade against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Fast forward to 2001 and the New Democrats were again standing shoulder to shoulder with the imperialists. They backed the bloody U.S./NATO Afghan occupation until 2006 and voted for every one of the Liberals’ massive hikes to the military budget.
For three years of Tory rule, from 2008-2011, Michael Ignatieff was leader of the Liberal official opposition. An early supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ignatieff’s long academic pedigree includes a stint at Harvard’s Kennedy School, premier think tank for U.S. imperialism’s favorite dictators. His record should dispel any idea that the Liberals are more humane than the often gratuitously cruel Harper Tories.
On 28 April 2004, as the horrific Abu Ghraib torture images hit the news, Ignatieff waxed eloquent to PBS’s Charlie Rose about “The hot iron to someone’s flesh. You can’t get the truth from persistent, non-physical, non-coercive interrogation.” But, per Ignatieff, it’s all to be “under strict presidential control.” Later he penned treatises on the moral ethos of “democratic” governments using torture to prevent terrorism, adroitly arguing both sides of the question. In 2006 he concluded:
“It is in the nature of democracy itself that fellow citizens will define their identity in ways that privilege security over liberty and thus reluctantly endorse torture in their name. If we are against torture, we are committed to arguing with our fellow citizens, not treating those who defend torture as moral monsters.”
—“If Torture Works…,” Prospect, April 2006
In other words, let the thugs get out the thumbscrews—and we enlightened bourgeois thinkers can debate it over a drink at the Faculty Club!
Today the Liberals seek to refurbish Canadian imperialism’s “kinder, gentler” image. Justin Trudeau wants more Canadian “peacekeeping” (i.e., military adventures) and is vying for a two-year seat on the UN Security Council. To that end, defense minister Sajjan aims to inject Canadian military forces into Africa, complaining about “absolute atrocities” committed there. This shameless hypocrisy should outrage, above all, the people of Somalia, where fascist-infested Canadian Airborne troops were caught torturing a young Somali prisoner, Shidane Arone, in 1993. The bottom line is that wherever Canadian troops go, they serve not humanity’s poor and desperate, but the profit-gouging Canadian and U.S. ruling classes. The barbaric imperialist order must be swept away by proletarian socialist revolution, the only road for the liberation of humanity and indeed for its continued existence.