Getting every eligible Afghan to safety is now 'almost impossible,' Trudeau says

·4 min read
U.S. soldiers stand guard along the perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. (Shekib Rahmani/AP - image credit)
U.S. soldiers stand guard along the perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. (Shekib Rahmani/AP - image credit)

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said today it's going to be "almost impossible" to bring most of the Afghans who worked with Canada's military mission to safety, along with their families, because the Taliban is blocking the effort.

Canada resumed military flights into Kabul today for the first time since closing its embassy on Sunday. Two Canadian Armed Forces C-17s will now be making "regular flights" into the region as part of the exodus, Trudeau said.

There are at least 1,500 Afghan interpreters with up to 5,000 dependents on a waiting list for Canadian visas, said a source. When asked by CBC News if most of them would be able to board flights, Trudeau said planes will be ready and waiting at the Kabul airport but they're unlikely to fill up entirely.

"But 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 while campaigning in Victoria, B.C.

"We will get some certainly, but to get many people out, as many as we want, is going to be almost impossible in the coming weeks."

WATCH: Trudeau says Taliban frustrating efforts to evacuate Afghans

The Department of National Defence confirmed on Thursday evening that Canadian soldiers are now on the ground in Kabul to assist with the evacuation.

"[Canadian Armed Forces] personnel are empowered to make decisions on the ground in the interest of saving human lives," a spokesperson wrote in an email.

The spokesperson also said the two planes being used in the mission are being reconfigured to carry the maximum number of passengers possible. The planes will continue flying into the Kabul airport "as long the security situation permits."

Some of the passengers on the Canadian military flights are refugees bound for other countries, while some Afghans coming to Canada are being evacuated on military flights operated by allies.

Taliban preventing people from leaving, Trudeau says

The Taliban seized nearly all of Afghanistan in just over a week and swept into Kabul on Sunday after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Since then, the Taliban has promised a peaceful transition of power and "amnesty" across the country. But Trudeau said the Taliban is preventing people from leaving the country.

"The difficulty right now is personnel and the safety of getting them out," said Trudeau. "It's been far fewer flights than people had hoped."

The federal government has been accused of not acting fast enough to send planes into Kabul and process Afghans' paperwork. The U.K. is dealing directly with the Taliban in Kabul to ensure safe passage for its citizens and eligible Afghans, Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan said Wednesday.

Trudeau said government personnel are arriving in Afghanistan later today to help ensure anyone who can make it to the airport is on Canada's list.

Stranded in Kabul

"It is an extremely difficult situation, but I can assure you that I and our ministers and our government is working extremely hard to ease all the barriers, whether they be around paperwork or bureaucracy, to make sure people are getting out of there as quickly as possible and to safety," he said.

CBC News spoke to an interpreter who worked with Canada's military. He said he's been stranded at the airport for days and he blames Canada for the red tape. He asked CBC News not to disclose his name because he fears for his safety.

He said he enlisted a smuggler in January to help him escape Afghanistan and cross the border into Turkey — before he learned that Afghan interpreters were only eligible to take part in Canada's resettlement program if they were physically present in Afghanistan. He said he was deported to Afghanistan this month, hoping to get on one of Canada's planes.

Not long after he arrived back in Afghanistan, Canada changed that eligibility policy — meaning he could have applied from outside the country. Ever since, he said, he's been terrified of being left behind. He's one of many at the Kabul airport waiting for a visa from Canada and said he keeps getting generic, non-committal responses back from government officials about the state of his case.

Rahmat Gul/AP
Rahmat Gul/AP

Others have told CBC News the Taliban have been searching for anyone who has worked with foreign governments. They say their time is running out.

So far, Canada has resettled more than 800 people from Afghanistan in Canada since flights started in early August. A plane carrying 92 evacuees landed at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Tuesday.

In a media statement, the Department of National Defence said it will continue operating flights to and from Afghanistan as long as "the security situation on the ground permits."

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