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Once the pride of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, the ramshackle Sarpoza prison in Kandahar casts doubt on its legacy

Taliban soldiers stand guard as inmates (background) jailed for drug use wait to be released from Sarpoza prison in Kandahar on September 22, 2022.JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images

Once the pride of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, Kandahar’s Sarpoza prison has a long history of good intentions followed by bad results, the most recent having resulted in its deterioration into a dilapidated and squalid facility that exposes prisoners to dangerous health risks. health.

The reconstruction of the prison, used to hold Taliban insurgents until the collapse of the Afghan government last August, has been seen as a model example of Canadian efforts to revamp law enforcement in the war-torn country. . Canada’s mission in Afghanistan ran from 2001 to 2014.

After reports that suspected militants captured by Canadian troops were tortured by Afghans in the prison between 2006 and 2008, the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team mission in Kandahar stepped in to manage the prison and modernize the establishment. Dozens of Correctional Service Canada employees provided training and supervision.

Ottawa invested $5 million to improve security and management at the notorious prison after Taliban insurgents orchestrated an attack that led to the escape of 1,200 prisoners in June 2008. New septic tanks and lighting solar-powered units have also been installed to improve the living conditions of prisoners.

Today, raw sewage is pouring into drinking water, afflicting prisoners with diarrhea and vomiting, one of the prison doctors, Gulam Sawak, told The Globe and Mail.

Infestations of fleas, parasitic mites and mosquitoes are causing an epidemic of skin diseases, he added. “Prisoners also have AIDS, syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, scabies, tuberculosis and mental health issues that we cannot treat.”

Currently, the Taliban are using Sarpoza mainly to house Afghans arrested in their crackdown on opium growers, as well as drug addicts like Fahima – a 30-year-old mother who has been locked up with her five children, all under the age of 10. .

Arrested because she bought opium to feed her addiction, Fahima appeared fragile as she spoke to The Globe and Mail about her family’s life there.

“I fear for my children in this place,” she said via WhatsApp.

Fahima suffered from withdrawal symptoms when he arrived in May 2022, according to Dr Sawak. He says the prison hospital is not equipped to treat Fahima and the many drug addicts like her who are imprisoned.

The prison director, Movlavi Hussaini, told the Globe that he did not have enough electricity, sanitation, staff and medicine. “Every day I have meetings trying to get medicine and supplies for the hospital,” he said. But it still falls short of what it needs to protect prisoners’ health.

The Canadian Armed Forces repaired and fortified Sarpoza after two separate insurgent attacks in 2011 that killed dozens of prison guards and freed nearly 2,000 prisoners. Ottawa handed over the Sarpoza operation to US forces after it ended its combat mission in Afghanistan in 2011 and focused on training Afghan security forces in Kabul until 2014.

“The Canadians were very supportive,” said Tooryalai Wesa, governor of Kandahar province from 2008 to 2014. “It’s a shame they didn’t stay longer.

Afghan-Canadian Tooryalai Wesa, 58, adjusts his ceremonial turban as he is sworn in as governor of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province December 20, 2008, during a ceremony in Kandahar City.Steven Rennie/The Canadian Press

A former Sarpoza prison official, who had been trained by Canadians, said Canada’s work at the penitentiary was highly valued and blamed US and Afghan leaders for its decline.

He said Canada has trained many people and helped local government stand up. The Globe is not identifying the official’s name because he fears persecution for speaking to the media.

In 2018, the former official said, corruption was rampant in Sarpoza. Half of the prison’s funding was embezzled, and the facility was crowded with 3,400 prisoners, although it was only built for 1,900.

Then, after the Afghan government collapsed in August 2021, the Taliban attacked the prison. Thirty-five police officers guarding the facility were killed and over 1,000 prisoners were released.

Many Canadians risked their lives to secure and modernize the prison, said Ben Rowswell, who was Canada’s provincial reconstruction team’s most senior official for Kandahar from 2008 to 2010. His state today is “so sad to hear “.

Sarpoza prison was one of the most functional parts of the Canadian mission in Kandahar, he said.

Prisoners watch from their cells in the maximum security wing of Sarposa prison in 2010. Canada helped fund and oversee renovations to the prison.Bill Graveland/The Canadian Press

Military analysts say the prison’s decline offers lessons for Canada about where it should focus its investments to help rebuild Ukraine.

But there is little agreement on the best approach for Canadian military investments going forward..

Christian Leuprecht, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, said Sarpoza prison “is an important laboratory to ask us hard questions” about the kinds of investments Canada should be making to help rebuild Ukraine. .

“Canadians have totally unrealistic expectations,” said Dr. Leuprecht. “We didn’t go to Afghanistan to build better prisons.

He said experience suggests that Canada should consider international missions that are limited in scope and more closely aligned with the country’s security interests, rather than “utopian pipe dreams” that we can create “thriving democracies of the 21st century” around the world.

But others say supporting prisons is part of strengthening state institutions and necessary to build lasting peace after war. When wars end or fail, the legitimacy of the state depends on well-run services such as the police, Mr Rowswell said.

Canada’s training of Ukrainian security forces has already contributed to some of the Ukrainian military’s successes, said retired Major General Denis Thompson, who was NATO’s military commander in Kandahar in 2008 and 2009. .

Operation Unifier was launched in 2015 after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea a year earlier and went on until mid-February, shortly before Moscow launched a full-scale invasion. The Canadian operation trained 30,000 junior leaders who then helped lead Ukraine’s unexpected achievements in the war on the ground.

“They changed the military culture from a top-down culture, like the Russians, to one rooted in initiative,” he said.

Thompson said Canada faces a tougher cultural change challenge in Kandahar than in Ukraine.

“We learned these lessons,” he said, “that we have to achieve institutional leadership.”

Former Conservative cabinet minister Stockwell Day, who visited Sarpoza twice when he was public safety minister from 2006 to 2008, agrees that Canadian security training has a much better chance of succeeding in Ukraine.

“In Afghanistan, they were fierce fighters,” he said. But the training “started much further than in Ukraine”.

Even before NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan in 2021, Sarpoza was falling apart. And for Fahima and her children, the suffering is endless.

“Life is hard in this prison,” Fahima said.

“I hope you can help.”

Rodney N.

The author Rodney N.