Former generals join fight to bring endangered Afghan interpreters to Canada

Three distinguished former task force commanders from Canada's war in Afghanistan have written an urgent appeal to the immigration minister to restart a resettlement program for local interpreters who worked alongside soldiers and diplomats.

'They will likely be imprisoned or worse' if they're found by Taliban, an open letter warns

Local interpreters who worked alongside Canada's soldiers and diplomats during the Afghan war face reprisals by the Taliban and should be quickly resettled, say three retired generals in an open letter to the immigration minister. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

Three distinguished former task force commanders from Canada's war in Afghanistan have written an urgent appeal to the immigration minister to restart a resettlement program for local interpreters who worked alongside soldiers and diplomats.

Retired major-generals Denis Thompson, Dean Milner and Dave Fraser penned an open letter warning Ottawa that up to 115 former translators and their families who are still in the war-ravaged country are in danger following significant gains by the Taliban.

"If and when they are found they will likely be imprisoned or worse, for their service in support of our mission," says the letter, released late Thursday. A copy of the letter was obtained by CBC News.

"Many Canadian veterans are in contact with the Afghans who served alongside them and their stories are harrowing. These people are considered 'comrades-in-arms' and their plight is affecting these veterans — as it should all Canadians."

The letter was sent to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and comes just days after a key district in the Afghan province of Kandahar — where Canadians did most of their fighting — fell to the Taliban.

All three generals served as commanders of the Canadian ground campaign at various points between 2006 and 2011 — the year in which the then-Conservative government withdrew combat forces and concentrated the military effort on training Afghan troops and police.

'We can't cut and run'

Canada has a moral obligation to these Afghans, Thompson told CBC News.

"What we have done collectively — and I'm not just talking about Canada, I'm talking about NATO, the United States and the other coalition partners — we have raised the expectations of the Afghan population that their society was going to transition to something that could be described as fair and just," he said.

"If that is not the case, and we have a whole number of people who helped us get there, we can't cut and run on them."

Fraser agreed, and posed a question to the federal government: "What does right look like?"

Fraser said it's going to be difficult to get the government's attention when it's focused on the lingering economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It's also going to be a hard fight to get the immigration minister on the eve of an election to do something that is right," he said.

In a joint statement earlier this week, three Conservative opposition critics called on the Liberal government to reactivate the settlement program and called its apparent reluctance unacceptable.

"Members of the Canadian Armed Forces who served alongside these Afghan interpreters are pleading for the government to listen to their calls that we must do the right thing and support them at a time when they need us most," said defence critic James Bezan, immigration critic Jasraj Singh Hallan and Pierre Paul-Hus, the critic for public services.

In their letter, the generals noted that under a previous resettlement program, which ran from 2009 to 2011, 780 Afghan translators and their families were brought to Canada.

Maj.-Gen. Dean Milner, the last Canadian commander in Afghanistan, poses for a photo in Kabul on March 10, 2014. Now retired, he says the Afghan government seems unable to defeat the Taliban. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

Restrictive criteria

That program had restrictive criteria, however — which meant two-thirds of the Afghans who applied for refuge were turned away, according to figures compiled by The Canadian Press when the initiative was closed out. The applicants were required to demonstrate they faced extraordinary risk as a result of their work with Canadians.

Being a local "terp," as they were called, was a dangerous job. They still face threatening phone calls and letters promising to visit death and disfigurement on their families. There were stories of abductions, even hangings. 

To qualify under the old program, the advisers had to demonstrate they worked for Canadian troops, diplomats or contractors for 12 consecutive months between October 2007 and July 2011.

That excluded a lot of interpreters. Canada first deployed special forces troops to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, followed that up with a battle group in 2002 and then launched a mission in Kabul before returning to Kandahar in 2006.

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The Taliban have made significant gains since the U.S. and NATO withdrew the bulk of their forces over the last month and emptied the major American base at Bagram, outside of Kabul.

Milner told CBC News said the situation is dire for those who served with Western forces, including Canada.

"The Afghans are fighting, but it just does not seem like the government has an answer for beating the Taliban," said Milner, who was the last task force commander in 2011 before going on to lead the Canadian component of the military training mission in Kabul.

"The Taliban has money. It has the fear factor and they are convincing Afghans to join them. And right now, they have momentum."

Retired major-general Denis Thompson, seen here in Kandahar in 2008, also signed the letter. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

Milner said he's convinced the Afghan army will be able to hold back insurgents in some — but not all — areas of the country. He said that's why restarting the resettlement program must become an urgent priority for the Liberal government.

"All the other NATO countries are doing this," said Milner. "The Americans are doing it. The Australians are doing it and they are being successful bringing interpreters out. I know this for a fact. I think Canada needs to step up to the plate and do the same."

The Liberal government demonstrated compassion — and showed how swiftly it could move — with the resettlement of Syrian refugees and later the White Helmet volunteers, he added.

"I don't think we can wait much longer." Milner said.

The appeal from the former generals follows a similar plea from other Canadian veterans who went public last weekend with their concerns.

Maj.-Gen Dave Fraser, now retired, in 2006, when he was commander of the Canadian Task Force and NATO's southern Afghanistan command. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.