The Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan took time off in mid-July as Taliban militants were sweeping across the country and former Afghan employees of the embassy in Kabul were begging for help to get them and their families to safety in Canada.
Reid Sirrs, who is now in Ottawa but remains envoy to Afghanistan, went on leave because he needed to take a short break from the stress of working in a dangerous country, Global Affairs said Wednesday.
“Under the Foreign Service Directives, measures are currently in place to recognize the hardships of these postings,” Global Affairs said in a statement to The Globe and Mail. “These include a mandatory decompression program that directs employees to leave the post periodically in order to address psychological stresses of the assignment.”
The department said diplomats working in hostile environments are “required to take eight days leave for every 56 days of work.”
Former major-general David Fraser, who commanded 2,000 Canadian troops in Afghanistan and has been leading an effort since June to help get former military translators, fixers and support staff out of the country, criticized Mr. Sirrs for not remaining at his post in Kabul.
“You got a crisis and where is the head of mission?” he said.
A senior government official said the decision to allow the envoy to temporarily leave Kabul as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan was made by senior bureaucrats at Global Affairs. It never crossed the Foreign Minister’s desk, said the official, whom The Globe is not identifying because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
Global Affairs officials would not initially provide any information on the reasons for Mr. Sirrs’s having taken time off. They have refused to say when he left or returned to Kabul.
“We cannot comment on employee’s leave for privacy reasons,” the department said Tuesday.
Late Wednesday, however, the department said Mr. Sirrs “remained engaged and continued to participate in key decision-making while on decompression leave.”
The Globe first reached out to Mr. Sirrs on July 18, requesting information about the government’s plan to evacuate current and former Afghan staff. The Globe told Mr. Sirrs that former embassy staff said they had written to him and were anxiously waiting for support to come to Canada. The Globe received an automatic reply, saying, “if urgent, please contact Francois Rivest.”
Mr. Rivest, a former envoy to Afghanistan, stepped in to take over the embassy while Mr. Sirrs was on vacation leave.
Before Mr. Sirrs went on vacation leave, The Globe was reporting on Afghan former staffers at the Canadian embassy who complained that no one was listening to their pleas to be resettled in Canada and expressed fear of Taliban retribution.
A former senior officer in Afghanistan who worked for the embassy for more than eight years told The Globe on July 14 that he had received death threats on several occasions from insurgents who learned about his affiliation with the Canadian embassy. The Globe did not identify him because of fears he could be killed by the Taliban.
Another former embassy staffer shared a memo Mr. Sirrs sent current staff in early July informing them they were eligible for special immigrant visa forms. The memo was not sent to former embassy employees, who were increasingly concerned for their lives and the lives of their families.
Former employees of the Canadian embassy continued to write to The Globe into early August, begging for help to get them and their family members out. They said they had written to officials with the Canadian government and were frustrated that they had not received confirmation of their travel to Canada.
All former embassy staffers who spoke to The Globe were eventually evacuated from Kabul on Canadian and allied rescue flights. However, many individuals still fear for the safety of their family members who have been left behind.
Mr. Fraser said Afghan veterans’ groups were sounding alarms bells in early summer for Ottawa and the embassy in Kabul to start the process of resettling Afghan interpreters, fixers and support staff who served alongside them.
“We tried to reach out to various people in various parts of the government, including the embassy in Kabul. Not terribly successful, which precipitated the need to write a letter to the Immigration Minister,” he said.
In an open letter addressed to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino on July 9, Mr. Fraser and retired major-generals Denis Thompson and Dean Milner warned that 115 former interpreters, cultural advisers, and other locals and their families might face reprisals from the Taliban for helping Canadian troops and diplomats.
It took until July 23 for the federal government to announce that it would resettle Afghan interpreters, embassy staff and their families, acknowledging that they had become targets for the Taliban. The announcement came after intense media coverage, the campaign of military veterans, and public calls from Conservative and NDP MPs to evacuate Afghan allies.
The federal government began evacuating Canadians and former Afghan allies on Aug. 4 although the mission was plagued by complaints of red tape, clogged phone lines in Ottawa and difficulty finding Canadian special forces at Kabul’s airport to let them inside the security perimeter.
Mr. Sirrs and all diplomatic staff at the embassy were evacuated from Kabul after the capital fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15. Ambassadors from the United States, Britain and France remained on the ground in Afghanistan to help with their rescue operations from Kabul airport although their embassies were shuttered.
Canadian soldiers spent 13 years in Afghanistan. Canada spent tens of billions of dollars on combat, training and development, and 158 Canadian soldiers died in the deployment. During that time, a network of local people worked for Canada’s troops and diplomats at great risk to their own lives. After the end of Canada’s military mission, local Afghans continued to work for Canada’s embassy and other Canadian groups such as NGOs.
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