Toronto, August 26, 2021 – Canada has ended all evacuation flights from Kabul airport, abandoning thousands of Canadian nationals and Afghan refugees who now must escape Taliban-controlled Afghanistan on their own.
“I understand the heartbreak of those who were not able to get out,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, hours after Acting Chief of the Defence Staff Wayne Eyre announced that the last Canadian Armed Forces flight departed Kabul early Thursday morning.
Gen. Eyre said Canada’s air operations ceased because the U.S. needed the runway to withdraw 5,800 U.S. troops before the August 31 deadline. He also cited the increasing danger of terrorist attacks from Islamic State militants and sworn enemies of the Taliban and the United States.
Two suicide bombings rattled the area outside Kabul airport Thursday, causing multiple casualties, including children, and disrupting the final push of the U.S.-led rescue mission.
Department of National Defence spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said no Canadian troops were hurt.
“All Canadian Armed Forces members are all safe and accounted for,” he said.
Kevin Newman, a former journalist working to help rescue Canadian Afghan allies, said he did not know whether any Afghans seeking to come to Canada were injured in the blasts.
“We had passed on Government of Canada advice last night to leave the airport area immediately. To our knowledge at this time all of our families remain either in our safe houses, or in hiding elsewhere,” he said.
Canadians left behind in Kabul are living in fear that their lives are in danger from the Taliban.
Cindy Williams said her friend, an Afghan Canadian who cannot be named, 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 into the airport.
“She advised us [Wednesday] night she is now without hope,” Ms. Williams said in an e-mail. “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,” Ms. Williams said.
Speaking in Quebec City, Mr. Trudeau would not take personal responsibility for the failure to evacuate all Canadians and former Afghanistan interpreters, fixers and support staff who worked for Canada’s military and diplomats and were promised asylum.
He said Canada performed better than many other allies in airlifting people out of Kabul, noting 3,700 people were evacuated since early August. It is not clear how many of these people are going to Canada.
“We all understand that 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.”
Canadian government officials said Thursday that Canada has received applications from about 8,000 Afghans to resettle in Canada and managed to airlifted about 3,700 people from Kabul airport – not all of whom are headed for Canada.
Britain’s Armed Forces minister James Heappey told British TV Thursday the evacuation is not finished for his country. He said the UK will be operating 11 military flights from Kabul over 24 hours with capacity for 3,000 people.
In recent days, Gen. Eyre told a media briefing that Canada had flown nine emergency airlifts, bringing more than 800 people back to Canada, but many thousands will have to escape the Taliban through other countries.
Cindy Termorshuizen, assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs, urged Canadian nationals, permanent residents and former Afghan support staff, who worked for Canada’s military and diplomacy, to find a safe place to hide as they try to figure out how to get out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
“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. Use your judgment to decide the right time and safest means to do so.”
In the weeks and months ahead, Canada will work with allies to find a path to help these people get to Canada, she said.
Canadian special forces also left the Kabul airport but a small contingent remains on the ground to lend support to the U.S withdrawal., although they are expected to leave within days.
The Canadian rescue operation had been plagued by complaints of bureaucratic red tape, clogged phone lines in Ottawa and difficulty in finding Canadian special forces at Kabul airport to let them inside the security perimeter.
Added to the confusion were a web of Taliban checkpoints, and the group’s decision in recent days to block all Afghan nationals from travelling to the airport.
“We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone who was so desperate to leave,” Gen. Eyre said, but he blamed the Taliban for what unfolded.
“The Taliban are the ones responsible for this crisis,” he said. “The Taliban is the one who is restricting the ability of so many to get to the airport to be extracted. So put the blame on them, please.”
Retired major general David Fraser, who once commanded 2,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, and is working with a network that is seeking to evacuate former Afghan allies, said many people are left behind.
“Eighty per cent of the families we’re tracking are sitting on the ground on Kabul,” he said.
He said the anxiety is running high. “I’m getting calls at 3 o’clock in the morning from distressed people … it’s horrendous.”
He said of the 400 families his network is tracking – comprising 2,000 people – only about 17 per cent managed to get out before the allied airlift flights ended.
Mr. Fraser said he’s advising those left behind to “dig in” and prepare to wait it out safely while he and others draw up new air and ground evacuation plans
“Because of the security situation, we’re telling them to go into hibernation now – not hiding, but hibernation.”
“We’re not going to rest until we figure a way to get these people out,” he said.”
Ameer Khurram Rathore, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to Canada, said his country is willing to do what it can to aid the departure from Kabul of Canadian citizens and Afghans headed to Canada. He noted when he flew to Canada from Islamabad earlier this week there were dozens of Canadian troops in the departure lounge.
“We are more than willing to facilitate whatever is required of us,” Mr. Rathore said in an interview.
Pakistan borders Afghanistan to the south and east and the envoy said Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul is one of the only working foreign missions right now.
He said Pakistan will also furnish those wishing to depart Afghanistan with entry visas if they wish to make their way to Pakistan first. Mr. Rathore said Pakistan’s Kabul embassy is issuing around 1,000 to 1,200 visas every day. Pakistan is also able to grant travellers visa-on-arrival, he said.
The Taliban controls the land border with Pakistan, however. It’s not clear whether Kabul’s airport would reopen to foreign commercial flights after the Taliban take control.
Mr. Rathore said Pakistan would nevertheless be willing to help Canada find exit routes where possible.
Speaking to reporters at a campaign event in Winnipeg on Thursday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that Canada’s evacuation effort was a failure.
“It’s with a heavy heart that we now see thousands of our allies, people that put their lives at risk to support our troops, are now being left behind,” he said. Mr. Singh referenced how veterans had raised concerns about evacuations not starting early enough and added that Mr. Trudeau “didn’t act in a timely way.”