OTTAWA — Ongoing complaints about roadblocks in Kabul and bureaucratic hurdles in Ottawa tempered any sense of relief on Thursday after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed on the campaign trail that the Canadian military has arrived back in Afghanistan to help with evacuation efforts.
The Department of National Defence Canada announced this week that two C-17 transport aircraft had been deployed to conduct regular flights out of Kabul, and Trudeau revealed while campaigning as Liberal party leader in Victoria that the first troops are now on the ground.
“Canada has personnel on the ground now and we’ll have more personnel arriving later today to help with the processing,” he said, adding the images out of Kabul have been heartbreaking and that government remains committed to helping hundreds of Afghans who helped Canada.
Those Afghans include former interpreters and support staff as well as their families who are now at risk of Taliban arrest or worse for having worked with the Canadian military and other organizations after the militant group took over the country.
Defence Department spokeswoman Jessica Lamirande said in an email Thursday that the C-17s have been reconfigured to maximize the number of passengers they can carry and have begun to fly in and out of Kabul.
“Our CAF teams will be given a list of vetted and vulnerable individuals, and will be assisting those individuals onto flights,” Lamirande added.
“These flights can be expected to have foreign and Afghan nationals who have been accepted under the immigration programs of other nations. In turn, other nations have, and will continue to, extract Canadian citizens or Afghans who are destined for (or eligible for immigration to) Canada.”
Yet questions and concerns remained about exactly how interpreters and their families would make it to those Canadian military planes — and what would happen if they were fortunate enough to actually get on board.
One interpreter who spoke to The Canadian Press on Thursday shared videos of the scene outside the airport, where crowds of Afghans had gathered in the hopes of finding an avenue to escape the country. The videos show U.S. soldiers firing into the air to keep the crowd at bay.
The interpreter, whose identity is being shielded to protect his safety, says he worked with the Canadian military in Panjwaii district from 2010-2013 and is now hiding from the Taliban in Kabul with his three young children and wife.
“It is very scary for the last five days because everybody’s very scared,” he said. “Everybody’s afraid of the Taliban.”
Retired major-general Denis Thompson, one of numerous Canadian veterans working to help former Afghan colleagues and their families, says Taliban checkpoints represent the main challenge in getting people to the airport and away to safety.
“How do you get people out of their safe houses, through the Taliban checkpoints and onto the airfield in a safe manner and in a manner where they’re not delayed so long that they actually missed a flight,” Thompson said in an interview.
American officials have said they are in talks with the Taliban amid reports some insurgent fighters have been turning back or detaining people who are trying to get out of the country while others have let asylum seekers through without hindrance.
“Unless the Taliban shift their posture significantly, which is something the international community and Canada are working on, it is going to be very, very difficult to get many people out,” Trudeau said.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said U.S. forces on the ground at Kabul airport are helping allied countries get their nationals out of Afghanistan.
“We obviously are … willing to support the movement, safe movement of citizens of our allies and partners,” he told a briefing Thursday.
Getting to the airport is only one challenge. Stephen Watt, whose organization Northern Lights Canada has been working with hundreds of former interpreters, says the next obstacle is getting past the U.S. military checkpoints and onto a plane.