Where does buck stop?

For too long, Prime Minister Stephen Harper clung to the mantra that there was “no evidence” that Canadian troops ever put detainees in harm’s way by handing them over to the Afghan security forces.

There was evidence, of course. And thanks to Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk, who ordered a probe into a case that caught him flat-footed late last year, we now have a glimpse of the risks.

On June 14, 2006, Canadian troops, who believed that Afghan forces often “beat the hell” out of captives, nonetheless turned a Taliban suspect over to an Afghan police unit that one of our men described as “wing nuts … garbage.” The Taliban had just mutilated members of that same unit. The Canadians were worried enough to photograph the man. And indeed the Afghans began “slapping him around” even as the Canadians drove off. Later that day, alerted to “indicators of ongoing assault,” our military police rescued him. By then he “had obviously been beaten.” Despite all this, the military inquiry, which reported last week, has an innocent explanation for everything.

Investigators didn’t fault our troops for giving Afghan “wing nuts” a prisoner. Nor for failing to report the case as a “detainee” affair, which it was. Apparently, our forces regarded the suspect merely as a “person under control.” By not reporting the case as a detainee matter, they insulated “commanders at all levels … from full, or in some cases any knowledge of the incident.” What happened in Kandahar stayed there.

The probe did express “significant concern” that war diary records, phone, radio and chat logs, situation reports and patrol reports for May 13 to June 17 “could not be located.” But no fault there, either.

The picture that emerges is not reassuring. Canadian troops expose a detainee to abuse, scramble to save his life, fail to alert the brass, and lose the paper trail. Then after it all comes to light, a military probe concludes the buck doesn’t stop anywhere.

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