Case of disgraced ex-general throws light on changes in Afghanistan

Scott Taylor

Scott Taylor

One story that crept into the news last week but garnered little lasting attention was that of disgraced former brigadier-general Dan Menard.

Most Canadians will recall that Menard was relieved of command in Kandahar in 2010 and subsequently court-martialled for having sex with a subordinate. While the liaison was a violation of regulations, the more serious charge Menard faced stemmed from the fact that he had tried to use the authority of his rank to cover up his indiscretion.

Before the sordid details could be brought out at trial, Menard did the honourable thing, resigned his commission and pleaded guilty. As a result, Menard was convicted, issued a $7,000 fine and a meaningless demotion to the rank of colonel.

While this particular story has long since collected a hefty layer of dust, what propelled the disgraced officer back into the headlines was the news that he had been held in an Afghan prison cell for over five weeks.

Following his early retirement, Menard took a private security job with the firm GardaWorld. Although he was based in the United Arab Emirates, Menard was the director of operations for GardaWorld in Afghanistan. It was during a visit to Kabul on or around Jan. 12 that Menard was first detained by Afghan officials.

Although the details remain sketchy, it appears that Menard failed to properly license the hundreds of assault rifles used by GardaWorld security personnel. The premise of this “administrative misunderstanding” resulted in Menard being held for 38 days in an Afghan prison. He was quietly released last Wednesday after GardaWorld presumably paid a sizable fine.

While this incident could be viewed with smug amusement because a disgraced officer continues to screw up in Afghanistan, the fact is Menard’s incarceration illustrates just how much the situation has evolved in Afghanistan. The truth is that, after years of us allowing the Afghans to think they were in charge while their western sponsors/donors/ mentors flagrantly violated Afghan laws, the worm has finally turned.

With NATO troops now almost invisible on Afghan roads and Afghan security forces assuming ever-greater responsibility, they have finally realized that they are, in fact, in charge.

When I made several unembedded trips into Afghanistan between 2007 and 2010, the place was like the wild west.

It was incredibly easy for security contractors and even construction contractors to obtain weapons permits, and even easier to obtain weapons. For as little as $5 a day, you could either hire an Afghan guard or simply pay the same amount to rent his Kalashnikov to carry yourself. Any amunition fired during the course of your rental would cost you an additional dollar per bullet.

On my most recent trip to Afghanistan last December with teammates David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen and Australian cameraman Sasha Uzunov, I discovered that things have changed dramatically. Gun-toting foreigners are no longer tolerated. And as Menard discovered, attempting to do so will result in a lengthy detention by Afghan police.

While one can easily understand the rationale in seizing unauthorized weapons, we soon realized that simply being a foreigner is grounds for Afghan police to demand a cash fine even if you are not carrying weaponry.

To mitigate this occurrence, we took the precaution of spending weeks before deployment growing our beards and hair. We also dressed in local garb and headdress. While this served to reduce our visibility, our driver was nevertheless forced to pay bribes at police checkpoints.

But the trick was to pay the policemen quickly to avert a vehicle search, as this would have uncovered our camera gear, which would have undoubtedly increased our “fine” substantially. While filming through Afghanistan, we kept a constant vigil for roving police patrols.

It is hard to contemplate many circumstances in which you live in perpetual fear of not only Taliban insurgents but also the uniformed authorities, which we, the West, have trained and equipped.

As Menard discovered the hard way, there is no good-guy, bad-guy, black and white scenario in Afghanistan, just various shades of grey.