Canada suspends operations at embassy in Kabul as Taliban breach Afghan capital
Government urging Canadians currently in the country to leave immediately
Canadians working to evacuate allies from Afghanistan described chaos, fear and disappointment on Sunday as Canada shut down its embassy in Kabul and suspended diplomatic relations as the Taliban advanced on the capital.
The Canadian government said the situation in Afghanistan poses "serious challenges" to its ability to ensure safety and security at the embassy.
"After consulting with Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, the decision was made to temporarily suspend our diplomatic operations in Kabul," the federal ministers of foreign affairs, immigration and defence said in a joint statement.
The ministers said safety of Canadian personnel is a top priority, adding that staff are "safely on their way back to Canada."
"The Canadian embassy will resume its operations as soon as the security situation in Afghanistan allows us to guarantee appropriate service and adequate security for our staff," they said.
The Taliban have seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week and breached the capital on Sunday, seeking the surrender of the government.
Officials told The Associated Press on Sunday that President Ashraf Ghani had flown out of the country. Personnel were also being evacuated from the U.S. Embassy and other Western missions on Sunday, as staff destroyed sensitive documents.
Dave Morrow, a retired corporal with the Canadian-Afghan Interpreters group, said he and other volunteers were receiving panicked messages from Afghans who feared they had been left to fend for themselves.
"The level of panic on the ground is indescribable," Morrow said by phone from Montreal. "It's a very dark time for everybody involved."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the violence on Sunday and said Canada remains committed to the Afghan people and to the country.
WATCH | Taliban surround Kabul after capturing Jalalabad:
"We are heartbroken at the situation the Afghan people find themselves in today," Trudeau said from Ottawa.
"This is especially so given the sacrifices of Canadians who believed and continue to believe in the future of Afghanistan. We will continue to work with allies and the international community to ensure that those efforts were not in vain."
Canada has committed to taking in 20,000 refugees from Afghanistan who have already fled.
It also has said it is working to evacuate Afghans who have assisted Canada over the years.
On Sunday, the federal government said it was working with allies such as the United States to keep that immigration program for interpreters going, although Trudeau said that mission would depend on "the extremely fast evolving" conditions on the ground.
"We will continue to work to get as many Afghan interpreters and their families out as quickly as possible as long as the security situation holds," he said.
A government official, speaking to CBC News on a not-for-attribution basis, said Canada is working with the U.S. to get more military planes in and out of the country as part of the effort to rescue Afghans who worked closely with Western countries during the war.
Canadian military planes already have left the region but could return in the days ahead to evacuate more people, the official said.
While the Canadian embassy is now closed, the official said other Canadian diplomatic posts in the region, including the embassy in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, are processing the paperwork for Afghans applying for asylum.
"The priority is no longer documents. It's getting people out of Kabul quickly," the official said.
But according to emails reviewed by CBC, as late as this morning Canadian immigration officials were still asking Afghans to send photos of their passports so that their asylum claims could be processed. Passport offices in the country are closed after the government's collapse.
Even though the federal government is now in caretaker mode with an election underway, the public service is "going full steam to get Afghans on the ground out," the official said.
'There's going to have to be a reckoning very soon'
Morrow, the retired corporal, described the situation in Afghanistan as a worst-case scenario, but a predictable one that his group and others had been calling on Ottawa to mitigate for months.
He said the Canadian government failed in its response and his group has started exploring other alternatives to help contacts on the ground, with diminishing hopes for success.
"How do you tell somebody that, 'I'm sorry, but we're probably not going to be able to get you out,''" he said
"A lot of us veterans are having that conversation right now with interpreters that believed in us and it's heartbreaking. There's going to have to be a reckoning very soon about what this means as a country to just let this happen."
Others criticized the government for dissolving Parliament on Sunday for a fall election instead of focusing on allies who need immediate help.
Jack Harris, deputy defence critic for the federal New Democrats, said in a tweet that he was concerned to hear reports of 100 Nepalese workers at Canada's embassy who were not included in the evacuation effort.
Concerning to learn 100 Nepalese Gurkhas & former staff working at Cnd embassy are not included in evacuation plans. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Canada?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Canada</a> must take measures to ensure their safety. <br><br>Instead of focusing on evacuating those at risk in Afghanistan, today <a href="https://twitter.com/JustinTrudeau?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@JustinTrudeau</a> is calling an election.—@JackHarrisNDP
"Canada must take measures to ensure their safety," Harris said. "Instead of focusing on evacuating those at risk in Afghanistan, today Justin Trudeau is calling an election."
Andrew Rusk of advocacy group Not Left Behind also criticized the timing of the election call and the closure of the embassy, a move he said meant "effectively halting the government's extraction efforts" for stranded workers who supported Canada.
"As our government pursues a majority, they've turned their back on both Afghanistan and our veteran community," he said in a statement.
In an interview, Rusk said his group is hearing reports of violence — including some recent killings – targeting Afghans who worked with Canada, and of "pandemonium" in Kabul as people scramble for ways to get out.
He said the Canadian government was too slow to act on calls to rescue people, leaving it to volunteers to field their desperate pleas for help.
"This isn't something that a bunch of veterans and other Canadians should be taking the leadership role on. It has happened because there is a gap in leadership within the federal government," he said.
With files from the CBC's Ashley Burke