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Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a freelance defence and security reporter who specializes in military affairs and procurement now based in Milan, Italy.

Canada’s Afghan resettlement plan to rescue those who supported the government and military may have started off with the right intentions, but it has been fraught with problems since its inception in late July.

Ottawa initially gave Afghan applicants only 72 hours to assemble all necessary visa documentation required for approval, sparking concerns that the process was unviable.

Despite amending the timeline, other logistical problems arose. The requirement to fill out paperwork solely in English and the need for a good internet connection, plus access to a computer, posed challenges for applicants living in Afghanistan, where access to translation services and technology are luxuries unavailable to most.

Last month, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced that Canada would welcome more than 20,000 Afghan refugees. Although a process was in place, Ottawa’s efforts should have been accelerated given the urgency of the need to bring these people to safety.

Kara Osborne, a former Canadian Armed Forces major and Afghanistan veteran, critiqued the decision to close Canada’s embassy on Aug. 15.

“As a nation, we signal the end of political options when we close the embassy, since embassies and consulates serve crucial role during crises,” Ms. Osborne said.

Canada’s actions differed to measures taken by its allies, including Britain, which chose to keep its ambassador in Kabul until Aug. 28, to issue special humanitarian visas to expedite the evacuation of Afghan refugees.

As of July 15, Canada’s resettlement plan in response to the current crisis had still not been finalized or approved. The first flight of refugees landed in Ottawa on Aug. 4. In contrast, the U.S. implemented an Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program in 2009 and has issued more than 16,000 since 2014. A supplementary emergency program was enacted on July 30, with the first participants landing that day.

In late July, Washington was in negotiations with Doha for Qatar to be one of the designated third-country relocation spots for Afghan refugees. Since then, Qatar has been temporarily housing approximately 6,000 Afghan nationals at the American bases of Al Udeid and As Sayliyah until their visas can be processed. Washington has also offered to send an additional 1,000 personnel to Doha to accelerate this process.

The U.S. evacuation plan is working in collaboration with countries such as Bahrain, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. Canada only joined the U.S. collaborative process on Aug. 31.

As reported by The Globe and Mail, Canada has stated that it will take in some of the many Afghan refugees currently housed in American military bases in Qatar. Taking part in this process would not only be Canada’s ticket to regaining some credibility in resolving humanitarian crises, but may also salvage its chances of recruiting interpreters in future missions.

By joining the U.S.-Qatari process, Canada would become an additional designated third-party resettlement location and alleviate the stress on Qatar while creating additional space to accept more Afghan refugees to the American bases. In return, Qatar, which shares good relations with the Taliban, could help Canada negotiate the return of citizens.

In 2009, Canada announced the creation of a special visa program to provide protection to at-risk Afghan nationals who supported Canada’s mission in Kandahar. Eligible applicants needed to demonstrate 12 cumulative months of work with the Canadian mission, have a recommendation letter from a senior official, and prove that they were facing extraordinary threats or had been severely injured during their work.

However, two years after its implementation, a ministry spokesperson said that out of the more than 475 applicants, only 60 Afghans had been brought back to Canada under the program. A number of interpreters and local staff, alongside their extended families, were left behind, having been rejected or unable to meet the immigration requirements.

Canadian combat operations ceased in 2011, and the last Canadian soldiers returned home in 2014. These actions indicate that the federal government has known for years that Afghan nationals and their families would need humanitarian visas to be able to relocate to Canada. In the past, Canada has shown its capacity to respond to humanitarian crises and execute timely large-scale evacuation missions. In 2006, Canada evacuated 14,000 Canadians out of Lebanon over a one-month period.

In Afghanistan, not only did Canada act too late, it did not seem pressed to act at all.

Arguably, all Canadian allies waited until the Afghanistan situation was dire until they accelerated their evacuation procedures. Resettlement missions are also much more complex than other evacuation missions, as they face substantial bureaucratic and logistical hurdles.

However, Canada’s response is set apart as the worst among its allies for two reasons. First, the resettlement program fundamentally lacked a comprehensive plan and concrete timeline.

Second, and more detrimentally, Ottawa failed to act with the necessary urgency to save Afghan refugees. As pointed out by Mike Lalonde, former intelligence officer for the Canadian Armed Forces, it is ultimately, “Canada’s preference and habit of following rather than leading,” that cost it fundamental time when it could have done much more to save these lives.

The consequences of Canada’s inaction and failure to rescue Afghan refugees may mean that Canada has endangered its future missions, as troops heavily depend on the communication abilities and knowledge from interpreters and local contractors for counter-insurgency operations. Forging these relationships ultimately requires time, trust and assurance of protection. Future partners and allies will remember that Canada failed our Afghan interpreters and guides when it mattered most.

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