Canadian government urged to rescue Afghan interpreters long before American withdrawal, leaked emails reveal
Federal government’s ‘bureaucratic, cautious manner’ left thousands behind, staffer says
The Canadian government's stance has long been that no one could have possibly known how quickly the security situation would deteriorate in Afghanistan, but an investigation by CBC's The Fifth Estate reveals it had plenty of warning.
With the U.S. military's evacuation from Afghanistan this summer — bringing America's longest war to an end — Afghan interpreters and mission staff who had worked alongside the Canadian Armed Forces were left at the mercy of the Taliban, who considered them traitors for having assisted Western allies.
The Fifth Estate obtained more than 200 pages of documents, reports, interpreter's biographies and support letters as well as 45 leaked emails sent to Canadian cabinet ministers and their staff, well before the American pullout, making the case to rescue those Afghan nationals.
"They had so much time to act on this, and they didn't," Robert St. Aubin, who worked as a legislative assistant in the House of Commons, told The Fifth Estate.
"And then when they did act on it, they did it in such a convoluted and complicated, untransparent and such a bureaucratic, cautious manner that it resulted in ... thousands of people being left behind."
- Watch "Abandoned in Afghanistan: Canada's failed promise" on The Fifth Estate on CBC-TV Thursday at 9 p.m. and stream on CBC Gem.
When Canada's combat mission in Afghanistan ended in 2011, soldiers left behind local Afghans — former interpreters and mission staff — who helped them navigate the country they had landed in nine years earlier.
Canada never made written commitments, but there was an understanding among interpreters and veterans that those who had risked their lives to assist Canadian efforts would be taken care of.
In February 2019, the office of the Thunder Bay-Rainy River MP — at that time Don Rusnak — took notice of a local veteran campaigning to bring interpreters he had worked with in Kandahar to Canada and wrote to Immigration Canada on their behalf.
The documentation was comprehensive — including letters of commendation from the Canadian Armed Forces, along with letters of intimidation from the Taliban. However, the response Rusnak's office got from the government was underwhelming.
"I don't want to say that they didn't care," St. Aubin, who was working for Rusnak, told The Fifth Estate. "But it was that they didn't seem all that interested, right? It just seemed like another immigration case to them."
In the 2019 federal election, Marcus Powlowski, a medical doctor from Thunder Bay, won the Thunder Bay-Rainy River seat for the Liberals and the interpreters' file landed on his desk. He continued reaching out to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada on their behalf.
"You'd think that a person who's essentially a war hero — an interpreter who essentially is a veteran himself — you'd think he'd be given some help," said St. Aubin, who then started working for Polowski. "There was nothing. Absolutely nothing."
- LISTEN: The Fifth Estate's Gillian Findlay talks with The Current host Matt Galloway about how Canada was urged to rescue Afghan interpreters long before the U.S. withdrawal.
The exchanges between Powlowski's office and the immigration minister at the time, Marco Mendicino, began in February 2020 and went on for months, without any apparent result.
Powlowski told The Fifth Estate it wouldn't be politically wise for him to discuss his emails.
WATCH | Warnings were sent to the immigration minister's office:
By that point, eight months had passed since the U.S. government's negotiations with the Taliban, which were aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan and bringing American troops home.
The Taliban were gaining strength and other Canadian veterans were also getting urgent requests from former colleagues and friends trying to get out of Afghanistan.
"They are begging for help and claiming Canada has forgotten them," Polowski wrote to Mendicino in October 2020.
By November 2020, more groups joined in raising the alarm.
Abdul Hakim Azizi worked as an interpreter in 2010 and did over a hundred missions with the Canadian Armed Forces.
Since people knew he had worked with Canadians, he said it put him in serious danger for possible retribution from the Taliban.
In late December 2020, 17 Liberal MPs signed a letter sent to Mendicino and Francois-Philippe Champagne, then the minister of global affairs, supporting Powlowski in his efforts to help Afghan interpreters. The following week, another seven members signed the same letter.
Still, it seems nothing was happening, or if it did, it wasn't known to Powlowski.
In March 2021, after several email exchanges, Powlowski again wrote directly to Mendicino, saying: "I am getting somewhat frustrated with the lack of movement on this file.… It will look very bad for our government if one of these people is murdered while waiting for our government's response."
Mendicino responded via email 20 minutes later.
"We'll schedule a call so I can give you an update, and then we can take it from there," he wrote.
They met a few days later, giving a glimmer of hope to Powlowski, St. Aubin and the interpreters they were in touch with. However, nothing changed, according to St. Aubin.
"It's a tough situation," said Azizi. "Where's the... humanitarian help or things that we do for people?
"It's not about living in Canada or living in Afghanistan, it's about humanity."
In April 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden announced a complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Two weeks later, the Taliban started its full offensive.
The next month, Powlowski wrote one last email. He addressed it to Mendicino, other Liberal MPs and cabinet ministers including Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan at the time, using their personal email addresses.
He wrote that his office was getting numerous emails from Afghan interpreters who had helped the Canadian military.
"Almost all of them are moving from house to house in order to escape the Taliban. Many have sent us copies of death threats from the Taliban." he wrote.
"I have to say, I am getting really pissed off at our government's lack of action on this," he added. "Forty years from now, will there be another prime minister apologizing yet again for our failures to do what is so obviously right?"
According to documentation obtained by The Fifth Estate, he didn't get a response from any of the recipients.
In an interview with The Fifth Estate, Mendicino said he remembers the letter.
"My thinking was that it was a priority, that we needed to keep an open line of communication with MP Powlowski, as we did."
Others had also noticed the government's apparent inaction and were getting worried.
Among them were three retired CAF generals — David Fraser, Denis Thompson and Dean Milner, who wrote their own open letter to Mendicino asking "the government to take decisive action and bring our interpreters to safety in Canada."
By June 2021, the Taliban gained control of nearly half of Afghanistan's district centres and in the areas they captured, there were reports of violent retribution against those who had supported international forces.
It would still be more than a month before Canada announced a fast-tracked immigration process for Afghan nationals who worked for Canadian troops and staff.
At a news conference in Ottawa on July 23, 2021, Mendicino acknowledged that the risk of retribution from the Taliban was grave, adding that people who worked with Canada, as well as their families, are often subject to intensifying threats of violence, torture and death.
"Not only does Canada owe them a debt of gratitude, we have a moral obligation to do right by them," he said.
It had been at least a year and half since Polowski had first reached out to Mendicino's office, in February of 2020.
WATCH | A harrowing journey to the Kabul airport:
Although the program offered hope, Fraser said it shouldn't have taken a crisis to get people out.
Frustrated by Canada's lack of action, Fraser, along with a group of volunteers — private individuals who included retired military officers, veterans, diplomats, aid workers and journalists across Canada and abroad — started using their own time, connections and money to move Afghans to safety.
"We have a humanitarian crisis where we've got to get people out fast, and the government doesn't work fast," Fraser said.
WATCH | Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino on the Afghanistan campaign in August:
Since the summer, the volunteer group says, it has moved more than 300 Afghan interpreters and staff over land, eventually bringing them to Canada. They've gone from a hundred names to more than 2,000 applicants and their families and are spending $10,000 a day on food, lodging and security — all funded by donations.
Joining the mission
It's not just Canadians who are part of this citizen effort. From the ground in Afghanistan, and upon landing in Canada, former interpreters have joined the ranks of the volunteer-run mission to help get others out.
When Wali was still in Afghanistan, he was approached by the executive director of Aman Lara (the name means Sheltered Path in Pashto) a non-governmental organization that is also the volunteer group's operational arm. (CBC has agreed not to use Wali's real name because he fears for the safety of his family who is still in Afghanistan.)
Wali worked as an interpreter from 2009 to 2011 and had been trying to leave the country since 2014. But he said "there was no way" to leave.
After navigating the process of applying for the special immigration measures program put in place for interpreters, Wali arrived in Canada on Sept. 2, 2021.
Since then, he has been working out of the basement of Aman Lara's makeshift offices in Ottawa. Along with other former interpreters, Wali spends his days communicating in Pashto and Dari with those stuck in Afghanistan who feel that Canada is their only way out.
"I have suffered a lot to get out of Afghanistan," he said. Now that he's out he feels it's his duty to "help my colleagues who used to work with me."
Kynan Walper, Aman Lara's operations officer, said such efforts are critical work the group can't do. "They're doing what our government should be doing."
In an interview with The Fifth Estate, Mendicino said: "I think it is incumbent on any responsible government to embrace the goodwill of volunteers who have the relationships on the ground.
"I do believe that it is too early to render a final judgment on the success of this operation."
However capable the network of volunteers is, they cannot issue documentation. And after months of operations, the group's funding is running out.
Although Mendicino told The Fifth Estate the government is finalizing funding for the volunteer group, at the time of publishing the group had not received any government money for the safe houses.
Last week, the group began issuing eviction notices to many of the Afghans taking refuge in the volunteer-run safe houses and who are still waiting to be evacuated from Afghanistan.
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Walper said he gets emails all day from Afghans who are "in complete terror" because of how dangerous things are.
"It's dire, our financial situation," Walper said. "We can't do this without the government. It's the only way this is going to work in the long term."
- An earlier version of this article misstated the name of one of the retired generals as Dean Miller. In fact, it is Dean Milner.Nov 01, 2021 3:46 PM ET