Politics

Canadian special forces ready to evacuate embassy after Kandahar falls to the Taliban

Special forces troops are on standby to help evacuate Canada’s embassy in Kabul, a defence source tells CBC News.

The Taliban have captured a dozen provincial capitals in recent days — and the capital is in their crosshairs

Afghan security personnel take a position during fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces in Herat province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 3, 2021. (Hamed Sarfarazi/Associated Press)

Special forces troops are on standby to help evacuate Canada's embassy in Kabul, a defence source tells CBC News.

The highly-trained soldiers are expected to work alongside allies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, which are sending thousands of troops to the Afghan capital to aid in the partial evacuation of their embassies as security throughout the war-torn country rapidly deteriorates.

In what can only be described as a major military and psychological victory, on Thursday the Taliban captured both Kandahar and Herat — Afghanistan's second and third largest cities.

The confidential source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that at the moment the government has no intention of deploying a large conventional force, as both the Americans and British plan to do. (The U.S. is sending 3,000 troops, the British 600.)

There has been extensive discussion between the Canadian military and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) — which is responsible for the Middle East — about providing logistical and transport assistance to Canada, should it be required, said the source — who is not being identified by CBC News because they were not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

The decision to shut down the Canadian embassy or reduce its operations lies with the federal government.

WATCH | Kandahar was hub of Canada's combat mission:

Dreams of progress lost with fall of Kandahar

12 months ago
Duration 2:03
For many in Canada, the fall of Kandahar is especially bitter because it was a hub for Canada's combat mission and filled with dreams of progress that have now been dashed.

Ciara Trudeau, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, would not confirm the embassy is in the process of being shut down, but did say that the federal government is closely monitoring the situation and that Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau is "in close coordination with our allies" and the country's ambassador in Afghanistan.

"The security of the Canadian Embassy and the safety of our personnel in Kabul is our top priority. For security reasons we do not comment on specific operational matters of our missions abroad," said Trudeau in an email late Thursday night.

Separately, the U.S. State Department confirmed Garneau spoke with Secretary of State Antony Blinken about Washington's plan to reduce the size of the U.S. civilian contingent in Afghanistan.

The 'security situation is deteriorating' — Sajjan

Earlier Thursday, before the news out of Afghanistan, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan acknowledged that Kandahar — the city Canadians fought and died to protect for five years — could fall.

"We're monitoring the situation extremely closely," Sajjan said during a media availability in South Vancouver. "In fact, I have daily briefings on this, and I had one this morning.

"All I can say is right now, yes, the security situation is deteriorating. We do have contingency plans in place to make sure that our personnel are safe."

Sajjan would not elaborate on those plans.

Members of the Afghan National Police are seen at a shura (meeting) with soldiers from the Canadian Armed Forces in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, on April 20, 2006. (John D McHugh/AFP/Getty Images)

Addressing one portion of his remarks to members of the military and to the families of the 158 Canadian soldiers who died in Afghanistan, Sajjan said their sacrifices and contributions to Canada were "extraordinary."

He even tried to suggest those sacrifices will endure, noting that the Taliban committed many heinous acts in Kandahar before they were driven from power in 2001 by the U.S.-led invasion and that Canada helped to transform the city in the years afterward.

"The stadium in Kandahar City that was used for atrocities, it was again used for people to play soccer. Girls were able to go to school ..." he said.

"There's a generation of Afghans who have benefited from the tremendous sacrifice that have been made by Canadians and our allies. And I want to say this — no one can erase that now."

Taliban reportedly hunting down those who worked for western forces

Sajjan acknowledged, however, that Canada can't "choose a destiny" for Afghanistan. He said that Canada will continue to support the Afghan people.

In areas conquered by the Taliban recently, humanitarian groups — notably Human Rights Watch — have reported militants executing prisoners and hunting down people who worked for western forces and civilian agencies. 

Canada has been working to bring some of those Afghan workers to Canada under a special immigration program. A first government flight carrying dozens of Afghans who assisted the Canadian military during the war in Afghanistan arrived in Toronto.

More are expected to arrive in coming weeks.

Tonight a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told CBC News that the agency is processing applications as quickly as possible. It is also adapting the program to help workers who have had to leave Afghanistan.

"Unfortunately, the security situation in Afghanistan is extremely dangerous and volatile," Nancy Caron said in an email. "Given this situation, we are adapting our processes to accommodate those who may now find themselves outside Afghanistan."

Individuals who want to come to Canada may now apply for the program from anywhere, provided applicants or their eligible family members were in Afghanistan on or after July 22, 2021, according to Caron. 

Taliban fighters patrol inside the city of Ghazni, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021. The Taliban captured the provincial capital near Kabul on Thursday, the 10th the insurgents have taken over a weeklong blitz across Afghanistan as the U.S. and NATO prepare to withdraw entirely from the country after decades of war. (Gulabuddin Amiri/Associated Press)

Quoting an anonymous Afghan official, the Associated Press reported that Kandahar had fallen after weeks of heavy street-to-street fighting.

The news agency said the provincial governor and other officials managed to flee the city by air on Thursday.

The capture of both Kandahar and Herat brings to 12 the number of provincial capitals which have fallen to the Taliban offensive in recent days.

Earlier this week, the city of Ghazni was also overrun. It is on the main highway between Kandahar and the capital and its demise means the hardline Islamist movement is tightening its grip on Kabul.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

With files from Nick Boisvert and Ashley Burke

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