OTTAWA — The Canadian military will begin wrapping up its mission at Kabul airport in the coming days ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline the United States set for full withdrawal, the Liberal defence minister said Wednesday, while his cabinet colleague Maryam Monsef appealed directly to the Taliban to allow Afghans to flee the country.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said the U.S. is leading the mission and providing security and so its forces, some 6,000 personnel, must be the last to leave the airport. That means Canada's special forces and aircrews must begin 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, but he declined to give specific details.
"We remain dedicated to evacuating as many people as we can in the limited time we have left."
The pace of Canada's evacuation efforts has ramped up noticeably in the past three days with a flight on Monday carrying 506 people, about half of which were children and a record 535 on a flight out on Tuesday.
Sajjan was one of four ministers briefing journalists on the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan as the frantic effort continues to fully evacuate all foreign nationals and vulnerable Afghans who helped Canada, the U.S. and their NATO allies before the country's recent fall to the Taliban.
Monsef, the minister for women and gender equality, used the 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.
The Canadian military will begin wrapping up its mission at Kabul airport in the coming days ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline the United States set for full withdrawal, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Wednesday. #cdnpoli #Afghanistan
"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."
During the briefing, Monsef was asked about her use of the term, and replied: "I think this whole situation is jarring … that there are terrorists taking over my beloved ancestral land."
Monsef was born in Iran to Afghan parents during the height of the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
"Muslims refer to one another as brothers and sisters," she said. "Rest assured, I continue to believe deeply that the Taliban are a terrorist organization."
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.
Garneau said Canada and the G7 will be laying down markers for the Taliban in talks that will take place over the coming days to impress upon the regime that 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," Garneau explained.
"There will be discussions with the Taliban; they are the regime that is in place in the country. And all of this will unfold in the coming days."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2021