|Heeding the Hard-Learned Lessons of Somalia|
At the time of writing this column there were very few details confirmed regarding the second-degree murder charges laid against Captain Robert Semrau. Around noon on New Year's Eve, the Canadian military issued a brief statement acknowledging the National Investigative Service (NIS) had been requested to investigate "improper conduct" in the death of a suspected insurgent.
The alleged incident occurred during a major NATO operation on Oct. 19 in Helmand province, and the Canadian suspect was part of a mentoring team attached to an Afghan Army unit.
Colonel Jamie Cade, the acting contingent commander in Kandahar, told reporters that he had only been advised of the allegations on Dec. 27, which would have been only hours after a VIP delegation that included Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk and Defence Minister Peter MacKay departed the airfield following their Christmas cheer visit.
The New Year's Eve release left the Canadian media scrambling to flesh out this story, and the dearth of facts available meant the majority of the commentary offered was speculation at best.
The unofficial buzz coming out of National Defence was that the NIS probe into "improper conduct" involved the failure to properly report the death of a suspected Taliban fighter. One could presume from that tidbit that this wasn't a news story at all, just a simple matter of routine military housekeeping and administration.
During television appearances, one of the questions I was asked by interviewers was when we might expect the NIS to release the findings of their probe. Based on their past performance, wherein accidental shooting deaths in the Kandahar camp remained unsolved for months, I did not expect anything new on this mysterious announcement in the foreseeable future.
However, in this case, the NIS proved they are indeed capable of moving at lightning speed. Within 24 hours of their investigation being announced, the NIS revealed that second-degree murder charges had been laid against Semrau.
As soon as this bit of news broke, the usual suspects began burning up the Internet howling about the injustice of charging a soldier with murder in a combat zone. The "Support the Troops" gang screamed "hypocrisy" and denounced a double standard of justice that allows the Taliban to throw acid in schoolgirls' faces without punishment while our brave soldiers face criminal charges for simply killing the enemy.
Some of the bloggers with longer memories invoked a comparison to the Somalia Scandal back in 1993, and predicted that this latest murder charge would result in another media feeding frenzy intent on destroying the Canadian military.
To restore a sense of balance to this topic, let's try to keep a few things in mind.
First of all, the media did not investigate and charge Semrau with murder, the military did. This would be the same NIS who have recently investigated the accidental shooting death of two young Afghan children—and subsequently cleared all of the Canadian soldiers involved. No, the children were not insurgents, but the NIS understood the extenuating circumstances and the Rules of Engagement employed by our battle group.
It was the military, not the media, that learned of the allegations against Semrau and they themselves decided that his actions warranted an NIS probe. The NIS now believe there is enough evidence to substantiate laying a charge. Semrau will soon have the opportunity to defend his actions at a court martial.
Unlike the Somalia incidents, the military did not try to pretend this never happened. While Canadians may have been shocked to learn that our soldiers were capable of torturing and murdering a young Somali looter, they were far more enraged by the fact that the Defence Department went to great lengths at the highest levels to cover the whole thing up.
By attempting to thwart the military justice system in Somalia, National Defence took an isolated incident and institutionalized it into a political scandal that cost the military the Airborne Regiment and the officer corps its reputation.
So far it would seem the current leadership has learned from that experience. Furthermore, after three years of continuous media coverage of our troops in Kandahar, Canadians will collectively realize that whatever the details of Semrau's case, this incident in no way reflects upon the overall disciplined professionalism of our battle group in Afghanistan.