Canadian colonel in Somalia affair gets prestigious military role

Col. Serge Labbe, who was implicated in the 1993 Somalia scandal, has been asked to lead one of military's most prestigious missions in Afghanistan, CBC News has learned.

A Canadian colonel who was implicated in the 1993 Somalia scandal has been asked to lead one of the military's most prestigious missions in Afghanistan, CBC News has learned.

Col. Serge Labbe will take over command of Canada's Strategic Advisory Team in Kabul. The unit of 15 officers works closely with the government of Afghanistan to help with national planning.

Labbe will take over his new role later this year.

Col. Mike Capstick, a former leader of the team, said Labbe will be well suited to the role.

"He's very, very bright, very experienced," Capstick told CBC News. "He has a very good understanding of the strategic level in Afghanistan."

Labbe's career has been marked by his ties to the Somalia affair.

Labbe was the commander in charge in Somalia when Canadian peacekeepers tortured and beat to death Shidane Arone, a 16-year-old Somali boy they had taken prisoner. The military was criticized for trying to cover up the death.

A public inquiry into the affair cleared Labbe of any personal involvement in the killing, but concluded he failed to clearly enforce the rules of engagement. The inquiry, which ran from 1994 to 1997, called Labbe's failure both lamentable and inexcusable.

Since then, the Defence Department has twice denied Labbe's promotion to general.

Labbe served with Hillier

But Labbe has moved his career forward, earning great praise.

Three years ago, he served as deputy chief of staff to Gen. Rick Hillier when Hillier was commanding NATO troops in Kabul. At the time, Labbe worked closely with Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai.

In April 2006, Labbe was awarded with a Meritorious Service Cross, a prestigious medal that honours military deeds performed in an outstanding professional manner. Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean presentedLabbe with the award in a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.

Labbe's critics say there is no denying he is a good soldier. Peter Desbarats, who was on the Somalia commission that investigated Labbe and criticized him for not enforcing the rules, said Labbe is skilled.

"Inmany respects apart from the one I've mentioned, the rules of engagement issue, he did a pretty good job in Somalia," Desbarats said. "And he certainly was, I think, admired by his soldiers. And there was no doubt about his intelligence.

"So in some ways … I think he would regard this as an opportunity to prove himself."

CBC senior correspondent Brian Stewartsaid Labbe's latest appointment in Afghanistan is significant for the Canadian military.

"I think the long shadow of Somalia is now over,"said Stewart. "The years of apologies are over. It's time to move on."