Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. The Taliban declared an “amnesty” across Afghanistan and urged women to join their government Tuesday, seeking to convince a wary population that they have changed a day after deadly chaos gripped the main airport as desperate crowds tried to flee the country. (AP Photo)

Trudeau says Canadian diplomats out of Afghanistan as fears mount for interpreters

OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau revealed on the campaign trail Thursday that all Canadian diplomats have left Afghanistan, as his Liberal government faced fresh criticism and calls for action to save hundreds of former interpreters and their families still stuck inside the country.

A total of nine flights out of Afghanistan have arrived in Canada over the past few weeks, the Liberal leader and prime minister said during a campaign event in Markham, Ont. That includes two chartered civilian flights that arrived in Toronto and Ottawa late Monday night.

The Department of National Defence confirmed earlier that the Toronto-bound aircraft was carrying Afghans admitted through a special immigration program for former interpreters and others, while the Ottawa-bound plane carried Canadian diplomats and special forces troops.

“Over the last weeks, we have had nine flights out of Afghanistan, including having fully evacuated all of our diplomatic officials,” Trudeau said before making a child-care campaign pledge.

“We’re also working closely with the U.S. and looking at how we can remove more people in the coming days and weeks. And we’re working with our allies on what Canada as part of the international community can do to stabilize the situation, protect civilians, and put an end to the violence.”

The crisis in Afghanistan is happening while Canada is going through a federal election campaign and now the Conservatives are asking key cabinet ministers involved to suspend their re-election efforts to focus on the issue.

“These Afghans risked their lives to assist Canadian soldiers and diplomats — and now is their time of need,” said a statement Tuesday from Conservative incumbent candidates Alex Ruff and Michael Chong.

They aimed their request at Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan.

Trudeau did not say how many Afghans were on the flight to Toronto, when they left Afghanistan or who they are. He did tell reporters Monday that more than 800 former interpreters, cultural advisers, drivers, cleaners and others, as well as their families, have arrived through a special immigration program established in July.

That program followed months of pressure from Canadian veterans and others worried about former Afghan colleagues, with many of those veterans now criticizing the government for not having acted faster to save Afghans who are now at risk because they supported Canada.

Andrew Rusk, the founder of a national advocacy campaign to bring interpreters and local staff to Canada, has said his group is aware of at least 2,000 individuals still in Afghanistan waiting to be evacuated.

The evacuation of all Canadian diplomats from Afghanistan follows the Taliban’s stunning seizure of Kabul on Sunday, which followed a lightning quick takeover of the country that caught Afghans and the world by surprise.

The Taliban’s march into the capital prompted widespread panic and a rush for the country’s main airport, with some people clinging to the side of a U.S. military plane before takeoff in a video that captured the sense of desperation as the 20-year war came to a chaotic end.

The Conservatives also demanded Tuesday that the Liberals deploy the military to Kabul to help spirit out those who worked with Canada.

“The government must act now,” Conservative James Bezan said during a news conference. “Prime Minister Trudeau must give direction to the military to land those planes and rescue all our people before it’s too late.”

Trudeau, whose government also promised last week to resettle an additional 20,000 Afghan refugees who have already left the country, said Canada would continue to try to help the interpreters.

That includes applying “every flexibility” when it comes to providing the necessary paperwork to immigration officials, he said, in reference to what veterans and others have blasted as the government’s unrealistic — and potentially dangerous — documentary requirements.

“Obviously, the situation right now is extremely fluid,” Trudeau added. “The Taliban has 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. And that is something that we continue to work on.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby revealed Tuesday that the U.S. military is co-ordinating with the Taliban, who declared an “amnesty,” while accelerating the airlift of Americans and Afghan allies from the Kabul airport, and also bringing in additional U.S. troops in a scramble to complete the evacuation by Aug. 31.

The disclosure that U.S. commanders are speaking with Taliban commanders is an indication that the new rulers of Afghanistan, who swept to power after 20 years of war against the U.S.-supported Kabul government, will not interfere with the evacuation.

Kirby also said plans were being made to house up to 22,000 evacuated Afghans and their families at three military installations in the U.S.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the military alliance was working to facilitate the evacuation of Afghans as quickly as possible, even as he demanded the Taliban keep the airport, roads and border crossings open.

Stoltenberg also appeared to lay down some markers for recognizing a Taliban government, saying: “There must be a peaceful transfer of power to an inclusive government. With no revenge or retribution. A government that does not respect the fundamental rights of all Afghans and reinstates the reign of fear, risks international isolation.”

Trudeau told reporters that Canada “has no plans to recognize the Taliban as the government of Afghanistan,” as he walked back Garneau’s earlier suggestion that Ottawa would take a wait-and-see approach.

“When they were in government 20 years ago, Canada did not recognize them as a government,” Trudeau said. “They have taken over and replaced a duly elected democratic government by force. And as you point out, they are a recognized terrorist organization under Canadian law.”

The Conservatives responded to Garneau’s comment on Monday by saying a Tory government would not recognize a Taliban government with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh adding his voice to the issue on Tuesday.

“My position is it’s a terrorist group, it’s not a legitimate government,” Singh said in Coquitlam, B.C.

Conservatives sidestepped questions about whether refusing to work with the Taliban would make it more difficult to rescue people at risk, as well as whether Canada should send troops into Kabul to help escort people through the Taliban lines.

Conservative Michelle Rempel Garner did commit to following through on the Liberals’ promise to resettle 20,000 Afghans who have already fled the country while comparing the Taliban threat to women in Afghanistan to the Islamic State group’s genocide on Yazidis in Iraq in 2014.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 17, 2021.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press