The Canadian military will end its mission at Kabul airport on Thursday, as Liberal cabinet minister Maryam Monsef sparked controversy by using the term "brothers" to challenge the Taliban to protect those left behind.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said because the U.S. is leading the mission and providing security, its 6,000-strong contingent must be the last to leave the airport on Aug. 31, the American deadline for departure. That means Canada's special forces and aircrews must begin their departure preparations in advance.
Canada is using two C-17 transport planes to airlift Afghans to safety and is one of 13 countries taking part in the airlift. It also has special forces operatives on the ground who are working outside the airport's confines to spirit fleeing Afghans to waiting flights.
"Drawing down a mission takes a considerable amount of time. It is not done overnight, and it comes with considerable risk," Sajjan said.
Senior government sources, who spoke anonymously citing the need to maintain operational safety, said the last C-17 would depart Kabul sometime on Thursday, but it was not clear when given the chaotic situation on the ground. Nor was it known if all Canadian military personnel would be on the plane because Canada and its allies are also helping each other by evacuating their personnel on their various flights.
In the coming days, the U.S. military will have to extract its own soldiers and equipment, but will prioritize human life and helping its partners, said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
"We are now and have been working with our allies and partners to help them withdraw their people. And we'll help them withdraw their forces as well."
The pace of Canada's evacuation efforts has ramped up noticeably in the past three days with a record 535 on a Tuesday flight, part of the frantic effort to fully evacuate all foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans who helped Canada and its allies before the country's recent fall to the Taliban.
In addition to the Aug. 31 deadline, which Taliban leaders have insisted is non-negotiable, American and Canadian military planners fear the risk of an attack on the airport and the massive throngs of would-be evacuees outside by a breakaway faction of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a group the Pentagon refers to as ISIS-K.
The two most senior U.S. commanders on the ground in Kabul, Rear Admiral Peter Vasely and Maj.-Gen. Chris Donahue, are directly involved in the effort to ensure eligible evacuees are able to get into the airport, Kirby said.
"I fully recognize that not every step of this process is in our firm control, and that there are going to be instances where it doesn't work as advertised."
Monsef, the minister for women and gender equality, used a government briefing to make an impassioned appeal directly to the Taliban to allow Afghans to flee the country and respect the rights of others who are left behind.
"I want to take this opportunity to speak to our brothers, the Taliban," she said in a remark that caught attention on social media and on the campaign trail as the federal party leaders were vying for votes ahead of the Sept. 20 election.
"We call on you to ensure the safe and secure passage of any individual in Afghanistan out of the country. We call on you to immediately stop the violence, the genocide, the femicide, the destruction of infrastructure, including heritage buildings."
Referring to Monsef's use of the phrase "our brothers," Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said, "the language used by the Trudeau government is completely unacceptable."
Dan Albas, a Conservative running for re-election in British Columbia, said on Twitter that he strongly disagreed with Monsef's use of the term, but added: "I also believe it is important we disagree on policy. Disagreement and debate should never be used as a catalyst for personal attacks."
Monsef was born in Iran to Afghan parents during the height of the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Her family came to Canada as refugees in the 1990s after having fled Afghanistan once the Taliban came to power in Herat, where they had returned to live at the time.
"I think this whole situation is jarring … that there are terrorists taking over my beloved ancestral land," she told the briefing.
"Muslims refer to one another as brothers and sisters," she added. "Rest assured, I continue to believe deeply that the Taliban are a terrorist organization."
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he wasn't interested in scoring political points at Monsef's expense.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said the security situation keeps deteriorating, and that with time running out, "there is a possibility that we're not going to be able to bring everyone that we want to when the air bridge stops."
A vivid illustration of that desperation came with the emergence of a cellphone video posted on Facebook that appeared to depict Canadian troops at the airport wall not engaging with desperate Afghans, brandishing the documents they needed to come to Canada.
"We have our visas, our approved visas with all the instructions … but nobody is gonna take care of us," says an English male voice above the shouting.
Sajjan called the video "heart wrenching" but said there are many other examples of Canadian Forces personnel doing "tremendous work to take Afghans to safety in a high threat environment" that includes terrorist groups as well as the obstructionist Taliban.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Aug. 31 deadline does not mean the end of American and allied efforts to get people out of Afghanistan.
"The Taliban have made public and private commitments to provide and permit safe passage for Americans, for third-country nationals and for Afghans at risk going forward past Aug. 31," Blinken said.
Garneau said Canada and the G7 will soon be telling the Taliban it must not block Afghans from leaving the country.
"We are working together to develop the necessary approach that we will take towards this Taliban regime in the coming days and to put down in front of them very important markers with respect to how they have to treat Afghans who want to leave the country."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2021
Mike Blanchfield and James McCarten, The Canadian Press