Canada Failed Our Afghan Allies
Normally, this space is dedicated to discussion and analysis of military law. However, from time to time I permit myself a degree of leeway to discuss topics that might not fall squarely within the definition of ‘military law’, but which are still relevant to the function of public law and the armed forces of Her Majesty raised by Canada.
Canada’s assistance to our Afghan allies is one such matter. I have discussed this previously.
And Canada failed her allies. More specifically, Canada’s federal government failed her Afghan allies. And had it not been for the efforts of individual private citizens, many of the them veterans of Canada’s campaign in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, it is likely that it would have been an even greater failure.
It has been over a year since the Canadian government purportedly tried to rescue many of our Afghan allies from the clutches of a vindictive Taliban. As I say – it may be inaccurate to suggest that this was ‘led’ by the Canadian government.
One of my colleagues (and, for greater clarity, a colleague who is a soldier, not a lawyer), Major Quentin Innis (retired), was one of several veterans of Canada’s Afghan campaign who went to great lengths to help facilitate support for our Afghan allies. Frankly, it would not be hyperbole for me to suggest that Quentin, and several other veterans (whom I won’t name here in case I inadvertently slight one of these colleagues by forgetting to list her or him among many) did far more for our Afghan allies than did many or most legislators and government policy-makers. And they did so without remuneration or personal benefit (aside from the satisfaction of doing the right thing).
Last week, Quentin noted that a post from a year ago ‘popped up’ in his Facebook ‘feed’. Rather than paraphrase Quentin’s eloquent and succinct year-old remarks, I will simply reproduce them, verbatim. On 17 August 2021 (shortly after Prime Minister Trudeau called an expensive election that really wasn’t necessary), Quentin wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister and other relevant Ministers:
[The content of this open letter has not been altered, save for some minor formatting or correction of syntax. Note, too, that the dates referred to below were in 2021.]
Right Honourable PM Trudeau, Honourable Ministers, et al:
Background. By now, it has become apparent that the Canadian Government’s pledge to extract the Afghan interpreters, contractors, and other workers who supported the Canadian mission in Afghanistan has faltered. Of the 2,000 people identified in the initial estimate, it seems that approximately 600 have arrived in Canada to date.
In addition, despite the Government’s claim that all Canadian citizens are out of Afghanistan, there are still Canadian citizens on the ground.
How did this effort, which Ottawa was apparently “seized” of from mid-July onwards, come to this? To answer this question, it is first necessary to reconstruct the timeline.
Essentially, it took 19 days from the day PMO passed direction to GAC for the first aircraft, with some 60 persons abord, to arrive in Pearson. Why did it take so long to generate a list of people insufficient to fill an airplane? I suspect that the answer is that GAC prioritized getting their people out, supplemented by the few Afghans in Kabul who had passports and were able to complete the forms in time. In other words, an adherence to bureaucratic processes limited the numbers of people who could get on the plane and be flown to safety.
Current Situation. On 16 August, President Biden announced that the US would continue evacuations of American citizens, estimated to number 10,000, for 14 days. While this is, on the face of it, good news, the airbridge solves only part of the problem; we still need to get the Afghan refugee applicants from their current locations in safe houses to the airport. This problem is critical, as the access to the civilian terminal (Hamid Karzai International Airport, or HKIA) is controlled by a Taliban checkpoint on Airport Road, and access to the military side (KIA North) is through a US controlled checkpoint on Russian Road. There is a network of Taliban checkpoints to be negotiated, some manned by Taliban factions who may not be fully under the control of the Taliban leadership. It is important to note that there is a widespread rumour in Kabul that Canada will accept any applicant who shows up at the airport. This means that the vetting process must be closely controlled, and a list of approved applicants must be developed quickly and adhered to.
This is a complex problem which will require the utmost attention of all three government departments involved, coordinated by the Privy Council. However, the focus of effort and distribution of labour between the departments will be crucial to success.
Engagement. GAC will reach out an engage the Taliban leadership currently running Kabul and negotiate an agreement to move those Afghan refugee applicants who have been accepted by Canada to the airport and on to the aircraft. This negotiation should focus on the following points:
Vetting. DND will take over the vetting process and will be responsible for the refugee applicants from the time they arrive at the HKIA to disembarkation at Pearson. DND will emplace liaison cells and close protection teams to support the movement of refugee applicants from their current locations to HKIA.
Reception. IRCC will turn the vetting process over to DND and focus efforts on reception, both at the staging base in the Gulf and at Pearson. There is no need to rush the reception, as the Afghan refugees are subject to 14 days quarantine on arrival; this will provide plenty of time to fill out the requisite forms.
Way Ahead. To achieve this, the following steps should be taken immediately:
[End of original text.]
When this ‘open letter’ popped up in Quentin’s Facebook ‘feed’ a year later, his conclusion was that this was “… another reminder of a massive fail.” I cannot but agree.
Based upon figures published by the Government of Canada recently, it is estimated that, as of 24 August 2022, 17,655 Afghan refugees were rescued. But that number can be misleading. The Government of Canada website that offered this information expressly stated that this number described all “… [p]eople who have arrived in Canada, under all streams, since August 2021.” [emphasis added]
The same Immigration and Citizenship website also indicates that, as of 24 August 2022, of the 15,270 applications received under the “Special immigration program for Afghans who assisted the Government of Canada”, only 10,805 have been approved and only 7,325 of those people have arrived in Canada. Another 10,330 arrived under a ‘Humanitarian Program’ – but those refugees were distinct from the allies who assisted Canada.
And, remember, on August 13, 2021, the Canadian Government was promising to resettle 20,000 Afghans, specifically those who had worked for or with Canada, and presumably within a short time-frame, in light of the danger that they faced under the Taliban. Those are the Afghans identified under the “Special immigration program for Afghans who assisted the Government of Canada”.
Note, too, that the same Immigration and Citizenship website expressly indicates that Canada committed to welcome at least 40,000 refugees and vulnerable Afghans.
So, after more than a year, Canada has met 44% of its overall commitment.
That’s a failing grade.
At the risk of repetition: Prime Minister Trudeau, you and your government have to do better.