Efforts to evacuate expats and former Afghan support staff are being hampered by a network of checkpoints the Taliban have set up throughout Kabul, as those seeking airlifts to Canada also grapple with what are being described as unreasonable requests for exit documents.
About 800 former Afghan translators, fixers and staff who worked for Canada’s military or diplomats are hiding in Kabul, as are an unknown number of Canadians. They are afraid for their lives and uncertain how they can get safely to the city’s airport for flights to Canada, as the Taliban consolidates its control over Afghanistan.
“The Taliban have taken control of approaches to the airport, which is making it extremely difficult for people to get to the airport in order to get out. That is something we continue to work on,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday.
Adding to the fear is frustration with Canadian government red tape. Federal bureaucrats are inundated with requests to rescue hundreds of people after the swift collapse of Afghan security forces amid the Taliban’s advance.
Mohammad Qasim Popal, a Canadian citizen who went to Kabul on Aug. 3 to visit his ailing mother, has been frantically trying to contact Global Affairs for help boarding a military flight.
“They said they couldn’t do anything for me,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I even asked to contact one of the superiors, and they told me he was too busy.”
Global Affairs told him to send an e-mail to its Emergency Watch and Response Centre. He got an automated response, saying the “overall situation has rapidly deteriorated” and advising him to register online and “closely monitor emails for any incoming messages issued through this service.”
“I am in danger. The more I wait, the more my life is in danger,” he said on Tuesday. “Last night, the Taliban came to my brother’s house and were looking for us, and we went to a neighbour’s to hide.”
A Canadian government official said that, with the Kabul airport secured by U.S. forces, Ottawa was planning to dispatch military aircraft to the city shortly to pick up more evacuees. Canada has a number of military planes in Kuwait. The planes were expected to be sent to Kabul on Wednesday, said the official, whom The Globe is not naming because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
As of late Tuesday, the Canadian military aircraft in Kuwait included a CC-177 heavy-lift Globemaster, two C-130J Hercules transport aircraft and an Airbus CC-150 Polaris, which is often used for passenger transport, according to Steffan Watkins, an Ottawa-based research consultant who tracks aircraft and ships worldwide. Kuwait is located about 2,000 kilometres by air from Kabul.
As recently as Sunday, by which point the Taliban had taken Kabul, Canada’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration was still asking would-be Afghan evacuees to provide evidence of passports.
The department was also encouraging them to apply for passports if they didn’t have them – an impossible task in a country where the machinery of government has been upended by the Taliban takeover.
An e-mail sent Sunday night from the department’s resettlement operations office, a copy of which was viewed by The Globe, told an Afghan applicant that, in order to process their application, “we require a scan or photo of the passport for every member of your family.”
The department e-mail also told the applicant that “we strongly encourage you to apply for a passport if you are able to safely do so.”
The applicant is a former fixer who worked in Afghanistan for Sally Armstrong, a veteran Canadian journalist who has covered the country over the years.
Ms. Armstrong, who is trying to help former media support staff and others in Afghanistan flee, said the requirements are perplexing. Passports for exit control were a requirement that had been set by the former U.S.-supported Afghan government.
She said “almost nobody has a passport” in Afghanistan. “I think the government of Canada, after 20 years of dealing with Afghanistan, ought to know what Afghans have and do not have,” Ms. Armstrong said.
Alexander Cohen, press secretary for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, confirmed that the request for passport documentation in the Sunday e-mail was based on an exit requirement of the now-defunct Afghan government. “The e-mail that was sent out Sunday night was obviously old text that should no longer have been sent at that time,” Mr. Cohen said.
Ms. Armstrong said many Afghans who are applying for resettlement in Canada tell her they have heard nothing back. “They tell me: ‘Nobody said they received my documents; nobody got back to me,’ ” she said.
She said many Afghans are trying to eliminate all evidence of their work with foreign militaries and organizations. One former fixer is hiding in Kabul and trying to strip his computer of information that could draw retaliation from the Taliban, she said.
Mr. Trudeau told reporters that Canada will not accept people without proper documentation on flights to Canada, but added that he had asked government officials to be more flexible with their requirements for online applications.
“I have been assured by immigration officials that every flexibility has been given to enable people who can’t fill out things online to be able to transmit their information. There are phone calls, there are ways of reaching out to people to help them,” he said.
He also said Canada would not recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government. “They are a recognized terrorist organization under Canadian law,” he said.
On Tuesday, a charter plane carrying a group of 92 Afghan refugees who had worked for Canada, as well as Canadian citizens, landed at Toronto’s Pearson Airport. The passengers had originally left Afghanistan days ago – before Kabul was overrun by the Taliban. There have been at least 10 flights so far ferrying evacuees to Canada.
Retired major-general Denis Thompson, who is part of a group of veterans and volunteers trying to rescue Afghans with ties to Canada, said two security sources are on the ground providing him with “real-time intelligence.”
They told him the Taliban have not only set up checkpoints, but that they even accompanied a group of United Nations staff to the airport. The Taliban have also been been going house to house in search of Afghans who collaborated with Western countries, Mr. Thompson said.
The group has about 800 Afghans staying in more than a dozen safe houses in Kabul, with another 1,200 waiting outside the city.
“My feeling is the Taliban are not going to give anybody but expats a pass, and then they will stay quiet on the 31st of August when we are all clear of Kabul, and then the recriminations will start,” Mr. Thompson said.
He criticized the refusal of Canadian officials to share information on whether any of the 800 people in safe houses are on the list to be airlifted to Canada.
“It is a black hole at immigration, and we can’t get any information out of them. … We are totally gobsmacked by lack of information,” he said.
Retired major-general David Fraser said it’s getting more challenging to use safe houses to protect Afghans who worked for foreign militaries and governments. He said the utility of a safehouse depends on “who your neighbour is now.”
The Conservatives on Tuesday urged the Liberals to order Canadian military aircraft to Kabul immediately. Conservative defence critic James Bezan said Mr. Trudeau and his ministers must give direction to the military to rescue people “before it’s too late.”
Mr. Bezan said Canadian military veterans are relaying to him how Afghan support staff are now burning documents that connect them to Canada. “They know they would be killed if they are caught,” he said.
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