Why Canada failed to rescue 'a hell of a lot more' Afghans, according to former generals

The Liberal government could have evacuated many more Afghans from Afghanitan had it streamlined its cumbersome bureaucratic process and maintained a stronger military and diplomatic presence in the troubled region, former top Canadian military commanders and experts say.

The Canadian government was able to evacuate more than 3,700 people from Kabul

Hundreds of people, some holding documents, gather near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday. (Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/The Associated Press)

The Liberal government could have evacuated many more Afghans from the troubled region had it streamlined its cumbersome bureaucratic process and maintained a stronger military and diplomatic presence, former top Canadian military commanders and experts say.

While the Canadian government was able to evacuate more than 3,700 people from Kabul, the number should have been "a hell of a lot more," said retired major-general David Fraser, who commanded more than 2,000 NATO coalition troops during Operation Medusa in the Afghan province of Kandahar in 2006.

"The international world was surprised by the speed at which the Taliban took over. And [the Canadian government] applied the bureaucracy they had for normal operations," Fraser said.

Fraser, along with retired major-generals Denis Thompson and Dean Milner are all volunteering to help extract Afghan interpreters from Afghanistan.

They are all former task-force commanders of Afghanistan, and have blamed government bureaucracy for gumming up the system and creating obstacles for Afghans trying to flee the country.

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. 

'Bureaucratic clumsiness'

Earlier this week, another retired Canadian general, former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier told CBC's Power & Politics that Canada had "not shone greatly" and that the operation had been "so cluttered by bureaucratic clumsiness, bureaucratic inefficiency, bureaucratic paperwork."

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If the Canadian military isn't authorized to go outside the Kabul airport to help rescue vulnerable Afghans who are eligible to come to Canada, retired Canadian General Rick Hillier told Power & Politics that Canada "should be ashamed as a nation."

He was joined by other veterans and advocates who had complained for weeks about Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada's handling of the crisis, which included complicated forms for Afghans to fill out, unrealistic and confusing application requirements and complete silence from the department after paperwork has been submitted.

Former lieutenant-general Andrew Leslie, who is also former Liberal MP, also took the government to task, tweeting: "Canada's poor initial response in Kabul points to an extreme of centralized political micro-management."

Taliban fighters stand guard at a checkpoint in Kabul on Wednesday, Aug. 25. (Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/The Associated Press)

This week, Canadian officials announced that evacuation operations had finished ahead of the planned U.S. withdrawal from the country and that no more Canadian-operated flights were planned to take people out of Kabul.

However, Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families, and those seeking refuge in Canada still remain and it's not known how many potential migrants to Canada are still stuck in Afghanistan. Officials said they have received applications representing 8,000 people and that two-thirds of those applications have been processed.

Some of those applications, said Hillier, would have been difficult to fill out in Canada — "let alone someone in Afghanistan where paperwork is non-existent and identity forms and background stuff is sometimes very difficult or impossible to find."

'Nowhere near the numbers'

Milner agreed that the extra paperwork and bureaucracy meant people leaving Afghanistan were "nowhere near the numbers that we would have liked to have."

"When you've got tight timelines, you've got to understand what to cut out," he said. "You've got to be able to get to the cut to the chase."

U.S. Air Force loadmasters load passengers aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III in support of the Afghanistan evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. (Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Force/Handout/Reuters)

Instead, Afghans with basic documentation should have just been allowed to be airlifted to third-party locations where they could have been rigorously assessed through the "normal Canadian bureaucratic process," Fraser said.

 Thompson, who has expressed frustration with Ottawa's handling of the evacuation, told CBC News on Friday that at this stage, with the government airlift operation over, he didn't feel it prudent to criticize Ottawa for its response.  

He said his focus was on the future and securing the passage of as many Afghans as possible. 

Still, days earlier, he told CBC News Network about Afghans waiting outside the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul and of a family, having dodged Taliban checkpoints, being denied access even though they had documentation and Canadian passports. He said he also heard from families who had been split up: some allowed to go, others denied because of inappropriate paper work.

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Thompson said there was a "bottleneck" at the gate entrance, that there needed to have been "much more flexible entrance criteria" and that the measures being applied didn't "even meet the common sense test," he said earlier this week.

Friday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau defended his government's actions, saying the speed with which the Taliban took control of Afghanistan came as a surprise to many around the world.

"I think a lot of people on the ground and around the world thought there would be more time," he said.

"We accelerated our processes over the past number of weeks and months. We did everything we could."

Meanwhile, the government has said visas issued to those Afghans eligible to come to Canada will remain valid even if they haven't left the country yet. It also said it's waiving immigration paperwork fees for Afghans outside and inside Canada.

No robust military presence to negotiate

The Liberal government has also been criticized for failing to help Afghan interpreters and their families get through Taliban checkpoints to the airport or negotiate safe passage.

"[Canada] had to ask a lot of favours of a lot of other countries because we don't have a robust military presence there," former anchor and correspondent Kevin Newman, who volunteers with Veterans Transition Network, told CBC Radio's The Current.

"Many, many countries have set up a much more robust attempt to get people safely through Taliban checkpoints to the airport," he said. 

When Western embassies closed as the Taliban moved in,  many other countries moved their staff onto the airfield. 

"But we folded up our entire shop and came home, which would mean that it would be almost impossible to negotiate with the Taliban at that point," Thompson said.

That meant, without that diplomatic footprint on the ground, Canada was unable to negotiate bus convoys inside the airport, he said.

"All of our allies had eyes and boots on the ground this week at Kabul's airport. Canada did not. It closed its embassy and withdrew all its diplomats and military by jet to Ottawa just as the Taliban was rolling into town," Newman recently wrote for Substack.

"The government left no one behind to talk to the Taliban, or our allies, as they organized and negotiated the rescue of thousands."

Christian Leuprecht, a security expert and professor at the Royal Military College and Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., suggested Canada's so-called evacuation strategy was to "basically piggyback on the Americans and we'll try to get as many people out by putting as few Canadian resources at risk as possible."

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Justin Trudeau spoke with reporters in a Syrian restaurant in the riding of Mississauga-Streetsville in Ontario on Friday.

"Our footprint was pretty small," he said. "We didn't send any troops and equipment that could complement the U.S. effort."

Lacking political direction

What was lacking throughout was political direction, in part, because the election call meant many of the decision-makers were no longer in Ottawa, said Leuprecht.

"I think basically what the bureaucracy here got was: 'We've got a problem. Go figure it out.' And this sort of crisis requires clear political direction because the bureaucratic machine is not set up to kind of figure things out."

With no direction, Canada took the minimalist approach, he said, which meant deploying as few military assets as possible.

"I think that is really sort of ultimately why the Canadian response was sort of relatively muted."



Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Catharine Tunney, The Canadian Press