Canada's airlift mission from Kabul ends, leaving many behind

Canada's effort to airlift those fleeing Taliban rule out of Afghanistan has come to an end, says the acting chief of the defence staff.

Government says it knows citizens, permanent residents and others are stranded

U.S. Air Force officials 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, Afghanistan, August 24, 2021. (Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Force/Handout/Reuters)

Canada's effort to airlift those fleeing Taliban rule out of Afghanistan has come to an end, says the acting chief of the defence staff.

A notice sent out this morning from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says that evacuation operations are done and "at this time, no further evacuation flights are being planned."

"The government of Canada recognizes that there are a number of people in Afghanistan, including Canadian citizens, permanent residents, their families, and applicants under programs for Afghans," said the notice sent to all on the government's list, a copy of which was obtained by CBC News.

"Until such a time that the security situation stabilizes, be mindful of the security environment and where possible, take the necessary steps to ensure your security and that of your family."

Gen. Wayne Eyre, the acting chief of the defence staff, said most of the Canadian personnel still in the country left Hamid Karzai International Airport eight hours ago, although a small contingent has stayed behind to support allies.

On Thursday, two suicide bombers and gunmen attacked Kabul's international airport, killing at least 60 Afghans,13 U.S. troops and wounding scores of others, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

The Department of National Defence (DND) confirmed that all CAF members are safe and accounted for. 

"The situation on the ground remains dangerous and CAF personnel are taking all appropriate personal security measures," said a DND media statement.

Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution under the Taliban, which swept to power in recent days, have rushed to Kabul's airport hoping to escape the country.

Eyre said Canada has helped to evacuate more than 3,700 people from Kabul.

Numbers unclear

Among those seeking to flee Afghanistan are Afghans who worked with Canadian troops during Canada's mission who now fear retribution at the hands of the Taliban.

It's unclear how many Canadians and people who applied to come to Canada remain stranded. Officials briefing reporters this morning said they received applications representing 8,000 people and that two-thirds of those applications have been processed.

But they said they don't have a tally of how many didn't make it out. They said not all of the people who applied are necessarily still in Afghanistan and many might have fled to neighbouring countries.

WATCH | Ottawa faces criticism for Afghanistan response:

Ottawa’s response in Afghanistan criticized on campaign trail

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
The crisis in Afghanistan has turned into a campaign issue with Justin Trudeau’s opponents criticizing his government’s handling of the situation at every stop. [Correction: At 01:08 we incorrectly reported the date of the first Canadian evacuation flight out of Kabul. The correct date is August 4.]

"Their pleas and the photos of the families in terrible situations that accompany many of them are heart-wrenching," said Eyre.

"They tear at our souls."

Harjit Sajjan, Canada's minister of national defence, stood up for the Liberal government's record and said it would not ignore the plight of those left behind in Afghanistan. 

"The security situation does not allow it and the Taliban did not allow us to bring everybody out, as we would like to," he told CBC's Power & Politics Thursday evening. 

"But we're not going to stop and we're going to continue to be able to support them, and especially all the families as well."

U.S. withdrawing Tuesday

The U.S. plans to complete the withdrawal of its forces from the country on Tuesday.

Sajjan said Wednesday that Canada needed to get its crews and equipment out of the country before then.

"As the Americans draw down to meet their deadline, partner nations, including Canada, must draw down our troops, assets and aircraft ahead of the Americans," he said. "These moves are necessary for the U.S. to safely maintain control of the airport until they depart."

WATCH | Top general says Canadian air force flights from Kabul have ended: 

Canadian flights from Kabul have ended, top general says

2 years ago
Duration 2:30
Gen. Wayne Eyre, the acting chief of the defence staff, briefed reporters on Thursday as Canada's effort to airlift those fleeing Taliban rule out of Afghanistan comes to an end.

The White House said Thursday that since Aug. 14, it has evacuated and helped in the evacuation of about 95,700 people. Britain said on Wednesday it has evacuated more than 11,000 people from Afghanistan.

Advocacy groups, families and those on the ground have reported problems reaching officials and have criticized the government for not acting sooner.

For months, interpreters and their families appealed to Canada to bring them to safety as the Taliban tightened its control.

The Canadian military was in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014. Canada ended its combat mission in 2011 but kept soldiers in the country for another three years to help train the Afghan National Security Forces.

In 2009, under the Harper government, Canada offered refuge to approximately 800 interpreters fearing for their lives in Afghanistan, but the program had restrictive criteria.

Singh, O'Toole say government was slow to act

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.

Two-thirds of the Afghans who applied to Canada for refuge were turned away, according to figures compiled by The Canadian Press.

The Liberal government announced a new temporary program in July.

"This is a very difficult day. Not just for Afghans but for people around the world, including in Canada, who have long been deeply committed to the Afghan people and a better future for Afghanistan," said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

In a statement from the Prime Minister's Office late Thursday, Trudeau condemned the "heinous attacks." 

"As the situation on the ground continues to evolve, we will keep working with our international and local partners to support humanitarian efforts, fight terrorism, and ensure those who want to leave Afghanistan can do so safely," he said.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole criticized the Liberal government's evacuation effort, saying that it started late and was badly run. He would not say exactly what he would have done differently.

"We were calling for action to get people out, to work with our allies. We've been demanding this for months and, in some cases, years. The Trudeau government has failed to act and they have abandoned people on the ground in Afghanistan," O'Toole said in Ottawa today.

WATCH | Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says 'the Trudeau government has failed to act in Afghanistan:

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole says 'the Trudeau government has failed to act' in Afghanistan

2 years ago
Duration 1:40
When asked how he would deal with the situation in Afghanistan if he were prime minister, O'Toole says Trudeau 'failed to act' during the crisis.

In a video statement released Thursday evening, O'Toole listed three ways Canada should provide assistance to those still in the country.

The Conservative leader said Canada should continue working with allies and Afghanistan's neighbours to help anyone fleeing the country; work with India and others to establish humanitarian and refugee corridors; and provide political and material support for those resisting the Taliban. 

"We must not stop in our efforts to stand up for those who stood with us," he said. 

'Canada has failed': NDP leader says

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau knew about the problems with the evacuation effort but didn't act in a timely way to help.

"It's with a heavy heart we now see thousands of our allies, people that put their lives at risk to support our troops, are now being left behind," he said.

"It's sad to say that Canada has failed."

One Afghan told CBC News that he had waited for 50 hours at a location near the airport but there were thousands of people waiting to be airlifted out.

He said he had been calling for help to get interpreters and their families to safety, but now feels "left behind."

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul also criticized the Liberal government, saying it was slow to get its evacuation plan off the ground. She called on all federal party leaders to suspend their campaigns for 24 hours to focus on coming up with a plan to rescue anyone left behind.

"We expect Mr. Trudeau and relevant federal ministers to immediately drop all election activities for as long as it takes for them to provide the people of Canada with the details of a credible plan to extract every Canadian, their families and the Afghan support staff who worked with Canada during its mission in Afghanistan," Paul said in a media statement. 

The immigration department advises those with an application in progress to contact them by email at Canada-Afghanistan@international.gc.ca or to call 1-613-321-4243.

With files from the CBC's Alex Panetta, Power & Politics, and the Associated Press