Canada must ‘fulfill the promise' and rescue remaining Afghans, veterans say

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Veterans are pleading for the government to rescue more Afghans who helped Canada’s military as thousands remain stuck in the Taliban-run country.

Canada must ‘fulfill the promise’ and rescue remaining Afghans, veterans say
© Provided by Global News KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — AUGUST 29, 2021: A C-17 Globemaster takes off as Taliban fighters secure the outer perimeter, alongside the American controlled side of of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 29, 2021. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)

To date, Canadian military veterans have been able to extract almost 300 Afghans, but they said more than 10,000 remain in limbo.

The government’s slow pace, and the personal accounts of those left behind in Kabul, have left veterans like retired Canadian Maj.-Gen. David Fraser feeling let down.

“I’m disappointed by the lack of speed in safely getting people out of Afghanistan,” said Fraser, a former commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan.

“We need to know what the plan is to get these people out of the country.”

Global News journalists visited three safe houses in Kabul last week, which have been home to Afghans who aided Canada since August. There, reporters heard from former employees of Canada’s military during its Kandahar operation. The residents described fleeing to the capital in August after they were told the government would resettle them.

But as the Taliban seized the country on Aug. 15, Western nations scrambled to rescue at-risk Afghans and their own citizens ahead of the United States’ complete withdrawal from the region on Aug. 31.

Canada ended its special military operation on Aug. 26, and was able to get 3,700 people out of the country in just under two weeks. But thousands were left behind. The advice for those who remained was to “stay put” while officials explored other options.

The government continued to get Canadians and others out of the country on flights from allies before the U.S. withdrew, but evacuation efforts have since slowed. Qatar has managed to get some out of the country on flights after the U.S. withdrawal.

With the resettlement process lagging and a humanitarian crisis looming, the Canadian non-profit that operates the safe houses, which are home to roughly 1,700 people, said it was running out of money and would have to begin shutting the safe houses on Nov. 5.

“These people are in this situation because they supported Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, either directly or indirectly to create a free and fair society,” said veteran Corey Shelson, an advocate for the evacuation of stranded Afghans.

“It’s our responsibility to fulfill the promise we made to these folks to bring them to Canada and to give them the life that we all take for granted every single day.”

Sean Fraser, Canada’s new immigration minister, told reporters Wednesday he will be meeting with his department to go over the details regarding the operation of safe houses in Afghanistan, but that his plan is to get as many people out as quickly as possible.

“If that means working with the groups that are on the ground today that are actually putting people in the safe houses and getting them to transit points and actually getting them out of Afghanistan, that’s something I’m keenly interested in working on them with,” he said.

“I am looking forward to getting a little bit more information this afternoon so we can start to put wheels in motion and get a plan in place to actually make this happen.”

When it comes to that plan, Maj.-Gen. Fraser believes the government should explore ways to increase air operations with international partners.

Afghanistan, being a land-locked country with mountainous regions, is a tough country to get refugees out by land. Fraser said not only are there Taliban checkpoints, but bandits patrol some regions as well.

The country has several airports, for example in Kabul, Herat and Kandahar, that can be used as ports to get refugees out.

“Let’s avert the humanitarian crisis by creating air options, even charters, to get them out and the international community can probably work together on doing that in a more efficient way,” Fraser said.

Video: What’s next for the women of Afghanistan?

Retired Canadian Maj.-Gen. Denis Thompson, a former commander of NATO’s Task Force Kandahar, told Global News that Canada could consider diplomatic missions to nearby countries, in order to reach agreements to move Afghans en masse by air into their regions.

Once the Afghans are safe, they can then be processed to Canada.

“Nobody in the Canadian Armed Forces is going to fly into a hostile country, and no one’s asking them to do that,” he said. “The best way to facilitate an air bridge is with contracted air.”

Thompson noted officials might have no choice but to talk to the Taliban.

“We’re not recognizing them, we’re negotiating the safe departure of those who supported Canada,” he said.

As of Oct. 21, Canada has received 13,545 applications under its special immigration program for Afghans who assisted Canada, and has processed 9,460 of them, according to the government’s website.

So far, 3,125 refugees have arrived in the country and 2,575 have settled in a community after quarantining. Canada has upped its commitments to bring in 40,000 Afghans.

Taliban members and officials assured Global News in interviews they would not retaliate against Afghans who worked for Canadian and other international forces during the 20-year conflict.

But many in Kabul remain skeptical as the Taliban continue to pitch to the world it’s a more moderate force.

The United Nations has said the Taliban have broken promises on letting women continue their schooling and work, while the group’s foreign minister has said they can’t be expected to make changes overnight.

With that in mind, both Maj.-Gen Fraser and Thompson said the government needs to move swiftly to rescue more Afghans who helped Canada.

“The big deal here is there are 10,000-plus Afghans still in Afghanistan. They are eligible for a program that the government has announced, we’ve raised their expectations and we just need to follow through on it,” Thompson said.

“That’s going to require a plan the government organizes and shares transparently with non-government groups that, quite frankly, have the same interest and don’t want to compromise any form of operational security.”

— With files from Stewart Bell, Jeff Semple and The Canadian Press

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