The Canadian government is warning those left behind in Kabul not to expect any more evacuation flights and advising them to “shelter in place” after it halted efforts to airlift Canadian nationals and Afghan refugees from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
In a message sent by e-mail and text Thursday to people still in Afghanistan, including Canadian citizens, Ottawa warned that “no further Canadian evacuation flights are being planned” and urged recipients to find safe locations indoors to hide “until such time as the security situation stabilizes.”
The last Canadian evacuation flight left Kabul Thursday, capping weeks of effort.
“I understand the heartbreak of those who were not able to get out,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said to reporters.
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General Wayne Eyre, acting chief of the defence staff, said Canada’s airlift stopped because the United States needs the runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport to extract thousands of troops before its Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline. He also cited the increasing danger of terrorist attacks from Islamic State militants, who are enemies of both the Taliban and the U.S. He urged reporters to put the blame on the Taliban, which has thwarted more a comprehensive evacuation.
Gen. Eyre said he has received e-mails from Afghans he worked with during military tours in Afghanistan who are now desperate to find ways out for themselves and families.
“Their pleas and the photos of the families in terrible situations that accompany many of them are heart wrenching. They tear at our souls,” he said.
Hours after the last Canadian aircraft left, two suicide bombings struck crowds and American soldiers outside Kabul’s airport, inflicting multiple casualties and disrupting the final days of the U.S.-led evacuation mission. Those who lost their lives included children and 13 U.S. troops. Afghan health officials were quoted as saying 60 civilians died, but it was not clear whether that was a complete count.
Department of National Defence spokesperson Daniel Le Bouthillier said no Canadian troops were hurt, but it is not known if there were any casualties among Canadian citizens or Afghans with Canadian exit documents.
Kevin Newman, a former journalist volunteering with the Veterans Transition Network to rescue Afghans who had worked with Canada’s military and diplomats, said he did not know whether anyone destined for resettlement in Canada was injured in the blasts.
“To our knowledge, at this time all of our families remain either in our safe houses or in hiding elsewhere,” he said.
Speaking in Quebec City, Mr. Trudeau would not take personal responsibility for the failure to evacuate Canadians, as well as Afghan interpreters, fixers and support staff who were promised asylum in Canada.
Canadian soldiers spent 13 years in Afghanistan as part of this country’s biggest combat operations since the Korean War. Canada spent tens of billions of dollars on combat, training and development, and 158 Canadian soldiers lost their lives in the deployment. During this time, Canadians built up a network of local Afghans who worked for troops and diplomats, despite the risk to their own lives from the Taliban. In July, as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan, the federal government announced a special immigration program to resettle those Afghans in Canada, where they would be safe from reprisals.
Daniel Mills, an assistant deputy minister at the immigration department, said Canada received applications for resettlement from 8,000 Afghans, although he said it wasn’t certain whether some were applying from neighbouring countries.
Mr. Trudeau told reporters he thinks Canada outperformed many allies in airlifting people out of Kabul. He noted that Canadian military flights have evacuated 3,700 people since early August. It is not clear how many are coming to Canada, though, because several allied countries pooled their evacuation flight efforts.
“The speed with which the Taliban took over Kabul rendered this an extraordinarily difficult situation for allies, for Canadians and especially for Afghans,” he said. “Compared to many of our allies, we have done extremely well.”
Britain’s Minister for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, said Thursday that the evacuation was not finished for his country. Britain was planning 11 military flights from Kabul over the next 24 hours, with capacity for 3,000 people, he said.
Cindy Termorshuizen, assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs Canada, urged Canadian nationals, permanent residents and former Afghan support staff to find safe places to hide.
“We encourage Canadians still in the country to stay in contact with us,” she said. “If you need to move to a safe location, please do so with great caution.”
The government has made no pledges to extract more Canadians from Afghanistan, but Ms. Termorshuizen said Canada will explore “what options might be available for us to further assist” Canadians and permanent residents of Canada, as well as Afghans who have applied for resettlement.
Canadians left behind in Kabul fear their lives are in danger from the Taliban.
Cindy Williams said her friend, an Afghan-Canadian whom The Globe and Mail is not naming because Ms. Williams fears for her safety, left for Afghanistan in July to take care of her ailing father. She has been trying to get out of Kabul since the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15.
Ms. Williams said her friend, who has a Canadian passport, tried countless times to get help from Global Affairs, but received no response. She was turned away at the airport perimeter by U.S. troops because there were no Canadian soldiers to escort her inside.
“She advised us last night she is now without hope,” Ms. Williams said in an e-mail on Thursday. “She knows she will not be rescued, she will not see her home or her children again and she will likely be killed by the Taliban because she is considered an ‘infidel’ by them.”
A family of four Afghans, with Canadian exit documents, made five attempts to gain access to the Kabul airport – all futile. During their fifth attempt on Wednesday, they waited more than 12 hours at a hotel where Canada had directed them to go, only to be told by a Canadian soldier that the military was only taking people with Canadian passports to the airport.
Shamsuddin Amin, his wife Jamila, his son Muhammad Mahdi and his daughter Manizha have since returned to their home. They feel abandoned, Mursal Amin, Mr. Amin’s other daughter, said Thursday.
She said their hopes were dashed after they learned that Canada had ended its evacuation flights.
The explosions at the Kabul airport have heightened their fears. “We are all scared, thinking about what will happen next,” Ms. Amin said.
Ameer Khurram Rathore, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Canada, said in an interview that his country is willing to do what it can to aid the evacuation of Canadian citizens and Afghans headed to Canada.
Pakistan borders Afghanistan to the south and west, and Mr. Rathore said Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul is one of the only working foreign missions there right now.
He said his country will give people trying to leave Afghanistan entry visas if they wish to make their way to Pakistan before continuing on to Canada. He said the embassy in Kabul is issuing 1,000 to 1,200 visas every day.
The Taliban control the land border with Pakistan, however. And it may not be possible for evacuees to arrive by air, either, because it’s not clear whether Kabul’s airport will reopen to foreign commercial flights after the Taliban take control of it.
A small contingent of Canadian special forces remains on the ground in Afghanistan to support the U.S. withdrawal, although they are expected to leave within days.
The Canadian rescue operation had been plagued by complaints from evacuees about red tape, clogged phone lines in Ottawa and difficulty finding Canadian special forces at Kabul’s airport to let them inside the security perimeter.
Adding to the confusion was a web of Taliban checkpoints, and the militants’ decision in recent days to stop all Afghan nationals from travelling to the airport.
Retired major-general David Fraser, who once commanded 2,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan and is one of numerous Canadian veterans working to evacuate former Afghan colleagues and their families, said many people have been left behind and anxiety is running high. “I’m getting calls at three o’clock in the morning from distressed people … it’s horrendous.”
He said that of the 400 families his network is tracking – about 2,000 people – only about 17 per cent managed to get out before most allied airlift flights ended. “Eighty per cent of the families we’re tracking are sitting on the ground in Kabul.”
Mr. Fraser said he’s advising those left behind to “dig in” and prepare to wait it out, while he and others draw up new air and ground evacuation plans.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole criticized the Liberal government for not moving faster once President Joe Biden announced in April that the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan by Aug. 31.
“We knew that there was a short timeline to act and Mr. Trudeau did not act,” Mr. O’Toole said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called Canada’s evacuation effort a failure. Veterans had raised concerns about evacuations not starting early enough, Mr. Singh said, and Mr. Trudeau “didn’t act in a timely way.”
With a report from Reuters.
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