Kevin Newman: Are we too late to save all our guides and brothers trapped in Afghanistan?
For years — years —committed groups of veterans and their civilian allies have been asking for this kind of rescue effort, and no one in government would act.
Afghan evacuees arrive at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Aug. 4, 2021. Credit: Canadian Armed Forces Operation Twitter.
By: Kevin Newman
As humanitarian efforts go, this one was middling.
That first huge Canadian Armed Forces C-17 Globemaster landing in front of Toronto’s CN Tower airlifted about three dozen of the thousands of Afghans who worked for Canada during the conflict in Afghanistan — people now desperate to be rescued from the Taliban, who are murderously reclaiming much of Afghanistan as the West withdraws.
The Canadian government refused to say precisely who was on board or how many, citing security concerns. But a news release was eager to characterize the arrivals as “Afghan refugees who provided crucial support to Canadian Armed Forces members in Afghanistan.”
Well, yes and no.
Two sources with knowledge of this effort say the initial passengers on flights are embassy staff and their families — some of whom currently or recently worked as drivers and translators for Canadian diplomats and military attaches in Kabul. Their immigration paperwork began weeks ago under an embassy evacuation plan drawn up by Global Affairs Canada. These were the easiest to extract from Kabul as the security situation deteriorates. They were flown to Kuwait last week, and from there, they were picked up for their trip in the mostly empty belly of the military transport. More planes are pledged to arrive in coming days and weeks.
So were they refugees? Yes. These people were clearly under threat if they remained in Kabul.
But were they the ones most in need of rescue? Absolutely not. These were the well-connected few at the head of the line, and none of them was part of a new immigration stream Ottawa recently announced for interpreters who served alongside Canadian soldiers during the NATO/ISAF mission that ended for Canada in 2014. Those are the allies the Taliban is currently hunting in a growing number of neighbourhoods each day. Every hour, our former friends, allies, guides, and helpers are sending terrified text messages to Canadian veterans they know pleading for our help.
Here was one received this week from an Afghan ally who is on the run, in hiding, and saw news reports of the airplane arrivals in Canada. I won’t share their names for his protection.
Afghan Interpreter: I don’t know what’s going on. They left us behind?
Canadian veteran: How are you?
Afghan interpreter: Kind of scared.
C: What is you plan to be safe?
A: I have to stay here in this room.
C: Can you call the Embassy on your phone and talk to someone?
A: No, they are not using cell. I have to be present there.
That Afghan former employee is farther along than most in navigating the onerous paper trail Immigration Canada is insisting he complete before he is considered for rescue. That gives him hope. While hiding with his family, the process requires he find an internet location with a powerful-enough computer to complete and scan all the documents and forms he’s required to provide. Then it insists on biometric finger prints and digital photographs that are difficult to complete in Kabul. He must risk detection by travelling to the Embassy for in-person meetings over several days, and that route is now treacherous.
This week, two mighty bombs detonated in Kabul’s secure ‘green zone’ where Canada’s embassy is housed. A paperwork process that would be frustrating for a Canadian navigating it in safety from an office tower in comfortable Ottawa, is absurd in Kabul, and impossible in Kandahar with the advancing Taliban damaging roads, runways, and communications infrastructure.
Yet in these final days before a Canadian election call, it’s that image of a big rescue plane the Trudeau government likely hopes Canadians remember. They will welcome comparisons made to the significant refugee absorption of Syrians that marked the beginning of the Liberals’ time in office. The show of magnanimity and compassion that convinced many Canadians to open their hearts and homes – and vote for Justin Trudeau for the first time. The Prime Minister echoed the same sentiment of 2015, right after the C17 landed, tweeting: “You were there for Canadians and now we’re here for you. Welcome to Canada.”
But this is not that kind of open-hearted gesture. The government had to be shamed into it by the increasingly desperate appeals of Canadian veterans already watching land they fought and friends died for fall back into enemy hands. All the while receiving those heart-breaking messages from “their brothers” every day.
The truth is for years — years —committed groups of veterans and their civilian allies have been asking for this kind of rescue effort, and no one in government would act. In 2016, the Trudeau government mothballed the immigration stream for Afghan interpreters and staff created under the Harper government. Even when every other country Canada served with recognized the need to extract employees who would face reprisals or death as U.S. troops left this summer, there was no sense of urgency in the Immigration Ministry, Department of National Defence, or the Prime Minister’s Office to get a program in place.
We were late. Very late. It was only a month ago, and after a rare public appeal from three retired Major-Generals who once led our military mission , that anyone in government started looking through the old employment files of Afghans who had worked for us. Volunteer organizations had already helped prepare more than two hundred cases with appropriate documents ready-to-go and provided the paperwork to Immigration officials, but they were shut out from helping the government develop a plan, and Afghan applicants had to start the process from scratch. Playing catch-up in a rapidly deteriorating country is never where you want to be operating, especially with the Taliban’s dark veil settling over more territory and people every hour.
But those are the kind of messy details that tend to recede in the mind when you have great big military planes flying directly over the city of Toronto on low approach. Perhaps millions of Canadians, soon to be voters in those suburban swing ridings, saw the landing and were told the refugees are starting to arrive. Conveniently, the government says it will keep all future missions just as secret to “protect their safety and privacy,” even though the US government informs its media of numbers and arrivals regularly. In the PMO issues management current playbook this will be the last they’ll want to say about it, if they can.
But as the Prime Minister knows from his own experience, sometimes things happen in a campaign that jolt the voters awake. It was the image of a dead Syrian child washed up on a Mediterranean beach in the middle of the 2015 election, and Trudeau’s embrace of doing more than Harper was willing, that helped rocket him to power. There is the very real chance as Afghanistan disintegrates into civil war in the coming weeks, and waves of refugees are driven from cities, that Afghan children, women, and men who were known to Canada will be murdered by Taliban because our government acted much too late. If that horror comes to pass, and no one wishes that, it won’t be Canada coming to the rescue of someone else’s tragedy. This will be one of our own making.
Kevin Newman is a (sort-of) retired journalist and anchor for CTV News, CBC News and Global National and reported from Afghanistan during Canada’s military mission.
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