Some Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan are angry that allegations about abuse of detainees are deflecting attention away from their mission, Canada's chief of defence staff said Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters in the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar, Gen. Rick Hillier said he had been talking to soldiers in the previous few hours who were upset that the allegations have taken the focus — especially back in Canada — away from all the positive things that they feel they're accomplishing.
"And let me just come out and say very frankly here, I met a variety of soldiers who are pissed off," Hillier said.
"They're angry that these allegations have detracted from the overall mission here … on the enormous amount of good that's being done, on the incredible things that are happening here in Kandahar province and around the rest of Afghanistan, and the additional security and the stability and the hope for a future that we are bringing to millions of Afghans," he said.
Asked whether he felt the same way, Hillier replied: "I never get pissed off. We have business to do. You heard what my focus is. That's looking after Canada's sons and daughters as they do the job here, and that's what I remain focused on."
For weeks, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his government have been weathering a controversy over allegations that detainees faced abuses and torture after being transferred from the Canadian military's custody to Afghan security forces.
International agencies and media reports have reported cases of Afghan detainees who said they were beaten, starved, frozen and choked after they were handed over, in particular, to Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, an intelligence police force.
Kandahar governor also frustrated, Hillier says
On Wednesday, Hillier said he had also spoken with the governor of Kandahar, who expressed his frustration that the allegations about his country and his government were being accepted as straight facts in Canada.
The governor also felt the allegations were taking the focus off the good being done by national and international troops in the NATO-led mission, Hillier said.
"Our soldiers, we believe, handle the detainees with the utmost professionalism according to the rules that we give them. They're trained in those rules of engagement," Hillier said.
"The rules … on how you handle detainees are reviewed constantly through the chain of command. We think they're very well prepared to handle them."
Hillier said Harper's government has responded to the allegations and is dealing with the Afghan government, which has promised to investigate the allegations.
Allegations raised again in question period
During question period in Ottawa on Wednesday, opposition MPs again accused the Harper government of misleading Canadians over the detainee affair and reiterated earlier demands for Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor's resignation.
But Helena Guergis, the secretary of state for foreign affairs and international trade, countered by saying the opposition parties were "siding with Taliban accusations" instead of supporting Canadian troops.
Opposition MPs have been on the attack over an agreement covering the transfer of detainees from Canadian to Afghan forcesthat Hillier signed in 2005. The agreement didn'toutline any followup role for Canada once the prisoners are handed over.
There have been allegations that the Department of Foreign Affairs was pushed to the sidelines by National Defence during the process of signing the agreement.
NDP Leader Jack Layton asked the prime minister Wednesday if Hillier still had "carte blanche" to sign such agreements on behalf of Canada.
"It is my understanding that Gen. Hillier would have required the approval of the Liberal cabinet ministers of the day," Harper responded.
Probe of soldier's death almost completed
Hillier also told reporters that the year-long inquiry into the death of Pte. Robert Costall was nearing a conclusion, withresults expected to be madepublic within a month.
Costall died during a firefight at a coalition outpost outside Kandahar on March 29, 2006. Eight Afghan soldiers and one U.S. soldier were also killed and three Canadians were wounded.
Investigators have been trying to determine whether Costall's death stemmed fromfriendly fire, negligence or an accident.
Hillier said he was a bit frustrated that the inquiry had taken a year, "but more importantly we want to get it right and I think we in the very near future will do exactly that."
"I would say the period of time that it took us to do that, it reflects the huge complexity of that night, having American forces, Canadian forces, Afghan forces, Afghan police in addition to Afghan army, and the Taliban all engaged during hours of darkness in a very complex and complicated piece of ground," he said.
Hillier said the military wanted to move very carefully, in collaboration with the U.S. army, to ensure that they learned from one another and shared all the facts in an effort toassemble a clear picture of what happened.
Hillier arrived at the Kandahar base on Wednesday morning on a plane that also carried 19 former NHL players and the Stanley Cup, in a visit that coincided withthe NHL playoffs and was aimed at showing support for the Canadian troops.