The House

'That was hell for us': Former Canadian Forces contractor on his flight from Afghanistan, debate over aid

An Afghan man who worked as a contractor with the Canadian Armed Forces is safe with his family in Pakistan, one of thousands who have fled the country now in desperate need of international economic support.

International debate continues over aid and recognition for Taliban-led Afghanistan

Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 23. (U.S. Marine Corps/Reuters)

Earlier this month, he was still stuck in "hell," waiting in Kabul for the chance to leave. The former Canadian Armed Forces contractor was one of thousands who did not make it out of Afghanistan during the chaotic evacuation effort after the Taliban conquered the country.

"It was the scariest days of my life. Every day," said the Afghan man, whom CBC is not identifying in order to protect family members still in Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of the Taliban takeover, he said he, his wife and four children moved as little as possible from their home to avoid attention. A friend helped bring them necessities, he said, while they awaited information to leave. And they hoped that the Taliban wouldn't come knocking.

"That's why I call it hell, because it was like I was in a prison," the contractor told host Chris Hall of CBC's The House in an interview that aired Saturday.

"We were not moving. Everybody was watching our actions."

LISTEN | A former CAF contractor in Afghanistan discusses his trip to safety:

In August, a former contractor with the Canadian Armed Forces detailed his family’s attempts to flee Afghanistan as the country fell to the Taliban. Now safely in Pakistan, he shares their journey out of the country and his hope for the future.

But just days ago, the former contractor, who had helped the Canadian military during this country's mission in Afghanistan, landed in neighbouring Pakistan. And in less than a month, he expects to step off a plane in Canada.

For this man, Canada represents both safety and the promise of a new life: the opportunity for his daughters — his "angels" — to become doctors or dentists, for his sons to work as software engineers or police officers.

"I'm looking for a bright future" for them, he said.

Afghan refugees who supported Canada's mission in Afghanistan arrive at Toronto Pearson International Airport in Canada on Aug. 24. (MCpl. Genevieve Lapointe/Canadian Forces Combat Camera/Canadian Armed Forces Photo/Handout/Reuters)

Difficulties with immigration and refugee programs

While thousands of people fled the country in August during a massive evacuation mission precipitated by the Taliban takeover, thousands more were left behind in the country and continue to face an uncertain future.

Canada has brought about 2,600 to the country through special immigration programs (of 9,400 approved applicants) and plans to resettle around 40,000 refugees.

"We will not stop before the remaining Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and their families, and the vulnerable Afghans who supported our work in Afghanistan and wish to leave are able to depart," Global Affairs Canada said in a statement to The House

But the process to come to Canada remains confusing for many, and too slow. The former contractor who spoke with The House said Canada needs to engage with the Taliban in order to ease flights in and out of the country so that people can reach other countries like Qatar or Turkey, then eventually Canada. He also criticized how long it took for the government to start its special programs as the Taliban gained strength earlier this year.

The federal government is also facing pressure domestically.

"We have that moral obligation to bring them out. They soldiered alongside us, we really need to put more effort [in]" said retired major-general Dean Milner, part of the group Veterans Transition Network, which helps Afghans get to safety in Canada. Milner said Canada could be trying to charter flights or land a team on the ground in Kabul to assist departures.

Canadian Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner, left, points as U.S. Maj.-Gen. James Terry and Harjit Sajjan, right, look on in this 2010 photo. Lt.-Col. Sajjan, now Canada's defence minister, was serving his third tour in Afghanistan at the time and was serving as adviser to Maj.-Gen. Terry. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

That suggestion is just one argument in an intense debate playing out throughout countries that were once part of the coalition that fought in Afghanistan: whether and how to work with the new Taliban government to provide aid in the struggling country.

The situation is serious. Afghanistan's economy is deteriorating rapidly and the United Nations now estimates that 97 per cent of Afghans could be living in poverty by mid-2022.

Direct talks between the Taliban and the United States resulted in an agreement to provide and distribute aid late last month, while in August Canada pledged an additional $50 million in humanitarian assistance to international organizations helping Afghanistan.

Still, the country is facing a "a make-or-break moment," UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said earlier this week.

The question of recognition

In a separate interview on The House, two international development experts debated how best aid could be distributed in Afghanistan, and what it meant for recognition of the Taliban government.

Nipa Banerjee, a professor at the University of Ottawa, said the focus should be on providing aid to Afghans, which might require taking a "negotiating position" with the Taliban, leveraging aid in order to secure aid distribution.

"Afghanistan should not be isolated at this time by taking away all support, not talking to them," she said.

LISTEN | Two experts debate how to deliver aid to Afghanistan:

Two experts in international development debate how Canada should funnel aid to the people of Afghanistan — and whether the best strategy will have to involve the Taliban.

International aid could help to guide the new government toward a stance different from when they first ruled the country in the 1990s, Banerjee argued, and aid could be conditional on guarantees for women's rights and safety for internally displaced people.

The Taliban has shown a "quest for recognition," she said, and while recognition need not be immediate, it could be down the road if certain milestones are reached.

Najia Haneefi, a member of the organization Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan who worked with a UN organization in Afghanistan, agreed that aid could be "used as a bargaining chip for human rights in Afghanistan," particularly women's rights. But she argued that recognition of the Taliban as a legitimate government was a step too far.

"They are the killer of Afghan people for the past 40 years. And I don't see that recognizing such a terrorist organization ... is a wise thing to do at this point," Haneefi said.

'We will still say, "Thank you, Canada"'

For the former contractor now in Pakistan, though he is still worried about family in his home country, attention is also turning to the prospect of a new life in Canada.

He said that after waking up on his first day in Pakistan, he cut his beard and hair so that he no longer looked like "somebody in the jungle for a long time."

The next step is to start looking for work in Canada, and figure out where he will be settled. He'd like to go to Ottawa, but would be happy with anywhere.

"If they send us anywhere, we will accept. Because from where we are coming, we will accept anywhere in Canada. And we will still say, 'Thank you, Canada.'"