This month, the United States pulled its remaining troops out of Bagram Air Base, becoming the second superpower, after the former Soviet Union, to invade Afghanistan in the past half century and subsequently leave with little to nothing to show for it.
Now the Taliban, emboldened since U.S. President Joe Biden first ordered the complete withdrawal of American forces in May, appear to be rapidly retaking control of the beleaguered Central Asian country.
Afghanistan is collapsing into chaos, with thousands of Afghan security forces recently fleeing into neighbouring Tajikistan, and Taliban troops laying siege to Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city.
This has created a life-and-death situation for Afghan citizens who worked as interpreters, drivers and staff for NATO military forces, embassies and consulates.
They now fear for their lives. “Everybody feels that Afghanistan won’t be a safe place, especially for the people who supported the NATO forces, the embassies, the United Nations, foreigners,” Abdul Qayum Hemat, who drove Canadian staff around Kabul for 13 years and was let go last October, told The Globe and Mail. “We will be the first target for the Taliban.”
And yet Canada, which sent thousands of troops to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011 and continued to maintain a presence there until 2014 – and still has a working embassy in Kabul – is failing to offer them a quick and easy route to the safety of this country.
Instead, people who allied themselves with Canada, and who are marked because of it, are having to apply through normal immigration and refugee channels – as if this country owes them no special debt, and the threat posed by the Taliban isn’t pressing.
Immigration officials say they are expediting requests from 40 Afghans who have applied to come to Canada. But that is a decidedly laid-back way of dealing with so obvious an emergency. Former drivers like Mr. Qayum Hemat say they are desperate to leave the country as the Taliban advance, and that time is of the essence.
Canada is facing calls from human rights organizations to put in place accelerated immigration programs for interpreters, drivers and other former staff. The need is obvious, as is Canada’s debt to these people. Yet Ottawa hasn’t budged.
It is hard to understand the Trudeau government’s reluctance. Twice before, Canada has created special immigration policies for Afghan contract workers and their families – in 2009 and again in 2012 – resettling more than 800 people.
Does this government fail to understand the peril its former employees now face? Are they somehow not the right kind of refugees? Are they a reminder of a failed international mission first embarked upon by a Liberal government?
The Taliban said in a recent press release that former interpreters would not be harmed. That is low comedy. A group infamous for its punishment of anyone who fails to abide by its medieval interpretation of religion is unlikely to show mercy to Afghans who performed jobs that the very same press release said “amount to treason against Islam and the country.”
There are already reports that the Taliban is once again banning women from working, or even leaving their homes, in areas they now control. Men are again being told to grow their beards.
And the many Afghans who served as interpreters are everything the Taliban hates: educated, multilingual beneficiaries of the freedoms that came with the 2001 end of the previous Taliban regime.
Canada saw 159 members of its armed forces killed in active service in Afghanistan, and more than 2,000 were injured. More than 40,000 Canadians served there in total. Many of the people now in danger were their friends and comrades-in-arms.
To see the country fall to the Taliban is heartbreaking enough. To see Canada abandoning Afghans who believed in and worked for something better than Taliban rule is disheartening, and baffling.
It is not enough for Canada to fast-track applications that happen to land on the desks of immigration officials. Ottawa should be seeking out the men and women who were our allies and helping them get to safety, while there’s still time.
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