The federal government has confirmed for the first time that Canada’s special forces are operating outside the security cordon of the airport in Afghanistan’s capital, working to shepherd people from Kabul into the airport.
In order to respond to questions about efforts by Canadian Armed Forces on the ground inside and outside Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKAI), the decision was made “to disclose that Canada’s special operations forces have been and continue to work outside the confines of HKIA,” a government official said on background.
“Members of Canada’s special operations forces are working relentlessly to bring as many Canadian citizens and eligible Afghan nationals and their families through the security gates to waiting aircrafts,” the official said during a briefing for journalists Monday.
The disclosure that Canada’s special forces are operating outside the confines of the Kabul airport is significant because it marks a departure from the federal government’s policy of not divulging operational details of the special forces currently working in Afghanistan.
“For operational security reasons, for obvious reasons, I cannot divulge exactly what our troops are doing. One thing I can say: they have all of the flexibility to make all of the appropriate decisions so they can take action,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Sunday.
Germany and the United States have previously revealed that they have been sending helicopters to collect people stuck outside the confines of the airport in Kabul, while France detailed how it negotiated with the Taliban for safe passage of a convoy of busses into the airfield.
Meanwhile Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today in Halifax that he would be joining British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s effort to impose further sanctions on Afghanistan’s Taliban regime when the leaders meet with other G7 leaders virtually on Tuesday.
“The Taliban are already recognized under Canadian law as a terrorist entity, and when we have our G7 leaders meeting shortly we will certainly be talking about what more we can do and must do,” Trudeau said.
WATCH | How Canadian rescue efforts are floundering in Afghanistan:
Officials speaking on background Monday confirmed that since the start of the airlift Canada has evacuated 1,700 Canadians and eligible Afghans from Kabul on a total of 13 flights.
Four of those flights have taken place since August 19, with 188 people being taken on the first flight, 106 on the second, 121 on the third and 436 on the fourth. Hundreds of passengers from the fourth flight have been transferred to another flight and are now on their way to Canada.
Passengers on these flights include Canadian citizens and their family members, permanent residents of Canada, foreign nationals, Afghan nationals accepted under Canada’s immigration program, Afghan nationals accepted under allies’ immigration programs and dozens of service members from 12 other nations taking part in the U.S.-led air-bridge as well as military assets.
Canada has struck an “air-bridge agreement” with allies in the region that is seeing people bound for Canada escape Afghanistan on planes belonging to allies, while Canada reciprocates by transporting people bound for allied nations on its planes.
A worsening security situation
There have been numerous reports of shootings and stampedes among the crowds outside the airport gates, and people are desperately trying to breach the gates to board aircraft destined for allied countries.
“The security situation surrounding the airport has become increasingly dangerous, which I won’t expand on at this time. Crowds are intense, violence is becoming more common, and Taliban checkpoints in surrounding areas are preventing many from reaching the airport area,” a government official said Monday.
The airport is essentially the last place in Afghanistan considered secure from the Taliban.
The government has identified about 6,000 people eligible for resettlement who are currently in Afghanistan and has said that it has processed about half of those applications.
The government says it has plans to resettle a total of about 20,000 vulnerable Afghans, including women and children, as well as Canadian citizens, vulnerable minorities and Afghan nationals outside the country.
Not everyone will get out: Trudeau
Government officials said the security situation around the airport continues to deteriorate.
On Sunday, federal ministers said they were working to help as many Canadians and Afghans escape Kabul as possible and would continue to do so as long as the worsening security situation permitted.
“Our goal is clear: It is to evacuate as many Canadians and vulnerable Afghans as possible for as long as the security situation will allow, whether in Afghanistan or in a third country for those who manage to leave on their own,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said in the briefing.
An official at Monday’s Afghanistan briefing stressed that Canada’s special forces “along with the Royal Canadian Air Force and other Canadian Armed Forces counterparts will continue to work 24/7 until the security situation necessitates they must stop.”
These remarks suggest that the window to get people out of Kabul is shrinking and echo remarks made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week.
“Unless the Taliban shift their posture significantly — which is something the international community and Canada are working on — it’s going to be very difficult to get many people out,” Trudeau told reporters on Thursday while campaigning in Victoria.