On Wednesday morning, four Liberal cabinet members took a break from campaigning to read prepared statements about what a caretaker government has been up to in Afghanistan. Here’s how Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s began:
“We are working with our allies to evacuate as many of our citizens and vulnerable Afghans as possible. We continue to work together to keep our planes constantly flying in and out Hamid Karzai International Airport. Since my last update on Sunday, I can report that the Canadian Armed Forces have flown three additional flights.”
Three evacuation flights, over three days. One a day.
Mr. Sajjan later described this as, “pushing our people and our aircraft to their limits to make sure we can get as many people out of Afghanistan as humanly possible.”
The Taliban control Kabul and surround the airport. In recent days, it has become increasingly difficult for foreign citizens, and Afghans who worked with foreigners, to get to the airport. There is a crush of desperation, and the Taliban appear increasingly opposed to anyone, Afghans especially, getting through.
But a big part of the problem at Kabul airport, the reason people are camping out for days, or standing up to their knees for hours in a sewage canal, waving Canadian documents and pleading for rescue, is not the fault of the Taliban. It’s our fault.
The entire American-led evacuation effort has been shockingly poorly organized. The end in Afghanistan has been a fitting denouement to the war in Afghanistan: An affair horribly mismanaged by people who ought to have known better, heaping suffering upon people who deserved better.
The young men and women on the ground – several thousand American Marines and soldiers, about a thousand Brits, hundreds from nearly a dozen other nations, and a handful of Canadians – have been thrown into a difficult and deadly situation. They’ve been saddled with bureaucratic roadblocks, given limited resources, and told to somehow rescue the honour of their unprepared governments.
On Wednesday morning, U.S. Major-General William Taylor said that over the previous 24 hours, 19,000 people had been flown out of Kabul – 11,200 on American planes and 7,800 by the allies.
On the one hand, 19,000 evacuees is a huge improvement over just a few days ago. The airlift is finally finding its stride – though before anyone in Washington or Ottawa starts going on about how this is pushing the limits of the humanly possible, consider that before the pandemic, Canada’s fifth-busiest airport, Edmonton International, moved an average of more than 22,000 passengers a day.
And unlike Edmonton, where if you miss your flight to Vancouver you can catch another one tomorrow, Kabul is out of tomorrows. The Aug. 31 deadline is fast approaching, and because the last few days will be devoted to the extraction of troops, the civilian lifeline will be withdrawn sooner than that. Possibly much sooner.
On Tuesday, a government source told The Globe and Mail that Canadian flights might go on for another three or four days. On Wednesday, a senior government official told The Globe that the last flight out would be Thursday.
Time was always short, yet Canada’s plan for getting marked men and women through a fast-closing door was designed as if there was all the time in the world. Much of the holdup at the airport appears to have come from saddling the evacuation with too much immigration-process bureaucracy, and too few bureaucrats to do the processing.
And beneath it all, there’s the basic dearth of flights. How much of a difference could Canada have made had it sent more planes? The world is awash in idle airliners to charter. Instead of offering just one flight a day, what if Canada had sent two, or four, or six?
In the early days after Kabul fell to the Taliban, there were opportunities to move people. Each day, the window has shrunk. Soon it will close. Many who helped Canada and our allies are going to be left behind.
And what then? Washington, Ottawa and our partners should be negotiating safe passage for thousands of designated Afghans, after Aug. 31. That might mean paying what is effectively a kind of ransom to the Taliban. If so, so be it. The alternative is consigning our former allies to what could be very short lives in the new Afghanistan.
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