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A Canadian Armed Forces Medic assists Afghan refugees who supported Canada’s mission in Afghanistan disembarking a CC-150 Polaris aircraft at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Aug. 13, 2021.CPL RACHAEL ALLEN/DND/Reuters

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan says Canadian special forces have been given the “flexibility” to rescue Canadians, Afghan interpreters and support staff and bring them into the Kabul airport and onto evacuation flights.

The United States, which has carried out some helicopter rescue operations to bring people to the airport, has come under criticism for refusing to send U.S. troops outside the airport perimeter even though British and French special forces have carried out rescue missions in Kabul.

The British and French put their special forces into action because of reports of the Taliban hunting down Afghans who had co-operated with Western powers. Their families are also at risk. Those attempting to flee have faced difficulty getting through a network of Taliban checkpoints lining the route to the airport.

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At a news conference Sunday, Mr. Sajjan said that Canadian special forces, trained for dangerous missions, are empowered to do what is necessary to get people safely to the airport.

“For obvious reasons, I cannot divulge the situation of exactly what our troops are doing. But one thing I can say is that they have all the flexibility to be able to make the appropriate decisions so they can take actions,” he said.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino also told the same news conference that “all of our forces have the full operational discretion to take whatever actions are necessary to get as many people into the airport [and] on to those flights.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Mr. Sajjan briefed him several days ago on potential operational measures to get as many people as possible out of Afghanistan.

“I don’t want to go into details, operational details right now. But I can assure you we have given the authorizations for the folks on the ground to make the right decisions to help as many people as possible given the risks,” Mr. Trudeau said on Sunday.

The Pentagon has said the 5,200 U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan are not authorized to go outside the perimeter of the airport. Hundreds of desperate Afghans have stormed the terminal and tarmac, hoping to catch evacuation flights out.

Mr. Sajjan said there have been “many, many opportunities where people in the Canadian Armed Forces have been able to get Canadian citizens and Afghan nationals to safety.

“Every single time they took the opportunity, they have weighed the risk.”

A senior government official said the minister was referring to efforts by Canadian special forces at the airport and not any rescue mission in the capital where armed Taliban militants are patrolling the streets. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss operational details.

Pressed on the risk and the type of rescue operations in Kabul, such as using helicopters or buses, Mr. Sajjan said that he is “not discounting anything.”

“I have to be very careful what I say about what they are doing, even the possibility of doing something because you never know when an opportunity may come up and an action that they have to take,” he said.

Not Left Behind, a group of Canadian veterans and volunteers trying to get out Afghan interpreters and other workers who supported Canada’s military and diplomatic efforts, has been particularly critical of Ottawa’s handling of the evacuation operations.

“While other countries have taken steps to help their citizens safely travel to the Kabul airport, Canadian applicants have been told to fend for themselves,” the group said in a statement Sunday. “We need to help Afghans safely reach the Kabul airport.”

The government announced Sunday that just over 1,100 people have been airlifted out of Kabul since Aug. 4, when Canada began evacuations; 121 were flown out Saturday aboard a Canadian Forces Globemaster aircraft.

Although there have been complaints from people going to the airport that they have not been able to find any Canadian Forces personnel, Mr. Sajjan insisted soldiers are present at all the entry points.

Mr. Mendicino acknowledged the significant challenges facing expatriates and Afghan interpreters and media fixers now trying to leave the country. Taliban checkpoints on the road to Kabul’s airport “make getting this done perilous.”

He urged people in safe houses to wait until they receive either a phone call or text to proceed to the airport.

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, Canada didn’t renew evacuation flights until late Thursday. Many of the people airlifted out since then are Afghans destined for other Western countries as part of a reciprocal agreement to share space on flights.

There have also been widespread complaints of frustration with bureaucratic red tape, including requirements of documents, such as passports, which most Afghans do not have.

“I have instructed that processing be accelerated, resources be added and that all red tape be cut without compromising security,” Mr. Mendicino said.

Canada is trying to rescue 6,000 support staff and their families before the Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the Kabul airport and the end of evacuation flights. Mr. Trudeau has said many of those will have to leave Afghanistan for a third country to apply for resettlement in Canada.

Another 15,000 Afghans who are living in refugee camps outside Afghanistan are also eligible for settlement in Canada.

In addition, Mr. Mendicino said immigration officials are making it a priority to process family reunification cases of citizens, permanent residents and those Canada considers as “protected persons” with immediate family members in Afghanistan.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, during a policy announcement in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, said the federal government is distracted from the Afghanistan file by the election campaign.

He said he finds it frustrating that the Liberal government did not act sooner to facilitate the exit of Afghans.

“Like everything, Mr. Trudeau is never out in front as a leader,” said Mr. O’Toole. “He’s always scrambling, always playing catch-up.”

But asked about what specific measures he, as prime minister, would take on the file, Mr. O’Toole only said, ”I would act. I would lead,” citing his own experience with the armed forces.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, campaigning in Toronto, said the timing of the current national election campaign may have impeded a prompt and adequate Canadian response to the crisis in Afghanistan.

He said Canada has been slow on evacuations and wonders if Mr. Trudeau was more focused on campaigning and the election call than on a burgeoning humanitarian crisis in Kabul.

With reports from Ian Bailey, Kristy Kirkup and The Canadian Press

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