The Canadian government will wind down its Afghanistan evacuation efforts within days after President Joe Biden told G7 leaders on Tuesday he plans to withdraw all American forces from the Kabul airport by Aug. 31.
A senior government official told The Globe and Mail the Canadian Armed Forces has only about three to four days to airlift people out of Kabul before the U.S. starts to reduce its military presence at Hamid Karzai International Airport. The Globe is not identifying the official who was not authorized to discuss Canada’s response to Mr. Biden’s decision.
Complicating the final days of the airlift mission is word from the Taliban Tuesday that they do not want any more Afghan nationals leaving on evacuation flights.
Retired major-general David Fraser, who once commanded more than 2,000 NATO coalition troops in Afghanistan, said the U.S. departure schedule directly affects the timetable for Canada.
“Given the fact it takes days to pull out thousands of troops, it means we have literally a few days left at best,” Mr. Fraser said.
At a virtual meeting of G7 leaders, Mr. Biden cited the high risk of terrorist attacks on U.S. troops by Islamic State militants, who are sworn enemies of the Taliban, as one of the reasons for keeping to his Aug. 31 deadline.
“Each day of operation brings added danger to our troops,” Mr. Biden told a White House news conference. “But the completion by Aug. 31 depends on the Taliban continuing to co-operate and allow access to the airport for those who we are transporting out and no disruption to our operation.”
He said he told Prime Minster Justin Trudeau and the leaders of Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Japan that he asked the Pentagon and State Department for contingency plans to “adjust the timetable should that become necessary.”
However, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the rescue mission will end before the Aug. 31 deadline because the U.S. military needs time to draw down its 5,800 Marines and soldiers from the airport.
The looming deadline and scramble to evacuate Canadian nationals and Afghan allies took on added urgency as the Taliban rejected any plans to extend the Aug. 31 deadline and vowed to stop Afghans from travelling to the airport.
“The road that ends at the Kabul airport has been blocked,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a news conference Tuesday. “Foreigners can go through it, but Afghans are not allowed to take the road.”
The Canadian government would not say Tuesday whether it’s still advising Afghans eligible for airlift to head to the airport given the Taliban’s announcement.
“In this dangerous and evolving operation, we are continuously reviewing procedures and making any necessary changes,” Department of National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in a statement.
“We cannot provide further information about our operations as it would compromise the security of our members, as well as those who we are trying to evacuate.”
After the G7 meeting, Mr. Trudeau urged the Taliban to allow safe passage to the airport for Canadians or former Afghan translators and other support staff and their families.
“Canada is ready to stay beyond the 31st deadline if it is at all possible because we want to save as many people as possible,” he said. ”We will continue to put pressure on the Taliban to allow people to leave the country in safety.”
Mr. Trudeau’s ability to convince the Taliban to allow safe passage to the airport could also be hobbled by a pledge he made last week to not recognize the new hard-line rulers of Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, however, he opened the door to the possibility that Canada might eventually recognize a Taliban-led Afghanistan if they act responsibly.
“We know very clearly that the Taliban want to be recognized as a government,“ he said. “They have insisted that they are different than they were 20 years ago. That remains to be seen. We are highly skeptical.”
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner criticized Mr. Trudeau for flip-flopping on his promise from a week ago that he had “no plans” to recognize the Taliban as the government in Afghanistan.
“An Erin O’Toole Conservative government will never recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan,” she said.
Mr. Biden spoke individually to the leaders of Britain, Germany, France and Italy in the days before the G7 meeting, but he did not reach out to Mr. Trudeau even though Canada has a stake in the Afghanistan airlifts.
The last time Mr. Trudeau spoke to the President was on Aug. 2 when Mr. Biden thanked him for “the gift of Montreal smoked meats sent in congratulations for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s victory over the Montreal Canadiens for the Stanley Cup trophy,” according to a White House readout.
During that call, the two leaders did not discuss the situation in Afghanistan or the President’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of the country by the end of the month.
Asked Tuesday why Mr. Trudeau wasn’t consulted prior to the G7 meeting, White House deputy press secretary Christopher Meagher noted that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had telephoned Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau on Monday to discuss the Afghanistan crisis.
A senior Liberal campaign official said Mr. Biden was aware of Canada’s views. The Globe is not identifying the official who was not authorized to discuss the matter.
Foreign-affairs experts said the lack of consultation was surprising.
“Obviously it is a snub, especially since Trudeau will become the so-called dean of the G7 leaders when Angela Merkel steps down later this year,” said Derek Burney, who served as then-prime minister Brian Mulroney’s ambassador to Washington.
Roland Paris, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former foreign-policy adviser to Mr. Trudeau, said it would have made sense for Mr. Biden to call and consult the Canadian leader on Afghanistan.
“I would hope that President Biden would consult with all of his closest allies on such an important matter, including Canada,” Mr. Paris said. “Canada invested a lot in the Afghan mission and we have continuing interests there, including the people we are hoping to evacuate.”
Canada’s evacuation efforts have been hampered by complaints of a slow and ineffective government response in identifying people for flights to Canada as well as chaos at the Kabul airport, where tens of thousands of people have thronged, desperate to be airlifted to safety.
Mr. Trudeau insisted Tuesday that his federal election campaign is not interfering with the government’s ability to manage the crisis in Afghanistan.
“The business of government continues. I get updates every single day on the situation in Afghanistan,” he said when asked if he had any regrets about calling the snap election on Aug. 15, the day Kabul fell to the Taliban. He was also asked how he can properly deal with the refugee crisis when he is on the campaign trail.
Mr. Trudeau argued that he had to trigger the election because Canadians want to know what policies his political opponents are offering the country to get through the pandemic and revive the economy.
“Canadians across the country, yes, are thinking about Afghanistan but they are also thinking about how they are going to get through this pandemic,” he said.
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