The Canadian government has a “moral obligation” to protect the roughly 100 Afghan interpreters and cultural advisers who made the country’s military mission there possible, says a former commander.
A rapid Taliban resurgence in the country is raising fears the interpreters and advisers are facing imminent retaliation, and pressure is growing for the government to act.
“Our assessment is that the situation will slowly devolve and that situation could put the lives and the well-being of those men and women that worked for us in peril,” said retired Maj.-Gen. David Fraser, the former task force commander for the mission as well as commander for Operation Medusa.
“Without them, we couldn’t have done the mission. So we have a moral obligation, when in fact we were providing hope and opportunity for that country, to give them a chance to choose whether they want to come over here where that hope and opportunity started off.”
Fraser said there are about 115 Afghan interpreters and advisers who are in danger.
In recent days, a group of Canadian veterans have been working to virtually try to coordinate a way for some of the Afghans who worked with soldiers to get to a safer place, pending evacuation, by using their existing network of contacts in the country.
“We managed to get a guy who was surrounded by gunfire, active airstrikes coming in to try and clear the Taliban from the area. He was trapped. And we got him to safety,” said Robin Rickards, a Canadian veteran of the war.
“Well, to relative safety.”
Global News was able to speak with that man — a former Afghan interpreter who was stuck in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province currently under siege by the Taliban. Out of concern for his safety, Global News is not identifying the man or where he is currently located.
“They already have information about the people who work with the coalition forces,” said the interpreter of the Taliban fighters entering the city.
He described witnessing fighting just 500 metres from his home, and said Taliban fighters are dumping bodies of those who helped coalition forces on highways and roads to send a signal as they continue to retake territory across the country.
“They wanted to show the people … we’re going to kill all of them,” he said.
“We want the government to start evacuation as soon as possible.”
Canada withdrew troops from Afghanistan in 2011 but after roughly 20 years, U.S. forces are now also in the process of withdrawing from the country after waging a war to remove the Taliban from power.
The Taliban are Islamist extremists who enforce sharia law and held power in Afghanistan from roughly 1996 to 2001, when coalition forces overthrew them.
Now, the Taliban insurgency has been making rapid gains and now holds roughly half of the 421 districts as U.S. forces retreat, raising concerns that the militant extremists will be in a position to support other regional terrorist groups like ISIS and also target those who helped Canadian forces during the war.
Thousands of people have fled the Taliban advance.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported on Tuesday that Canberra is now considering re-establishing a presence in Afghanistan to monitor the resurgence within the coming months. The public broadcaster cited Australian officials who said the idea being mulled is to re-station intelligence officers and — depending on the security situation — potential send Australian diplomats back to Kabul.
It’s not yet clear whether Canadian officials are considering similar proposals.
The Canadian government has said work is underway to help those now facing threats and danger from the resurgent Taliban, but so far officials have provided no information on timelines or specific measures.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said last week that there is “tremendous urgency” and that officials in his department are working with both the Canadian Forces and Global Affairs Canada to try to identify Afghans who provided “essential support” during the war.
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“I know even in the last number of weeks that the situation has gotten worse, that lives are on the line,” said Mendicino on Friday. “Everybody within government is doing everything in our power to try and put the final strokes to this plan so we can put into action.
“The most important thing I want to convey with regards to this operation is that we know that Afghans put their own lives at risk by helping the Canadian effort in the war there, and we want to do right by them,” he added.
“We hope to have more to say about that in the very near future.”
A government official speaking on background told Global News work on the program is underway now and that it is expected to more closely resemble the White Helmets evacuation in Syria than the broader Syrian refugee program.
The U.S. State Department said on Monday it plans to evacuate around 2,500 Afghans who assisted American troops during the conflict, and fly them to a military base in Virginia within days.
The U.S. also has what’s known as the Special Immigrant Visa program which allows those who worked with U.S. troops in Afghanistan or Iraq to apply to immigrate. NBC News has cited U.S. officials as saying thousands of Afghans in the process of applying to that program will be flown to either military bases or a third country in order to be able to complete their application in safety.
READ MORE: Ottawa pledges to help Afghan interpreters, but gives no timeline
Among the most vocal of those calling for urgent action are the veterans who served in the conflict, as well as the sister of one of the first female Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan.
In an interview with Global News, Katherine Rusk said her sister, Capt. Nichola Goddard, believed in standing up for those in need and that Rusk is honouring that by using her voice to urge action.
“I think it’s really shameful,” Rusk said of the lack of action so far from Canada.
“These are people who believed in Canada — who believed in what we were doing, who believed in our mission, who believed in all of the things that we were in Afghanistan for, and we’re leaving them out to dry.”
READ MORE: Sister of Canadian soldier killed in action says leaving Afghans behind ‘unconscionable’
The head of one of the most prominent defence industry associations in the country recently pointed to the government’s success in resettling 25,000 Syrian refugees in the span of roughly 100 days after being elected in late 2015 as an example of how quickly officials have proven they can move.
Lt.-Gen. Guy Thibault, who heads the Conference of Defence Associations, said in a statement on Friday that he is “encouraged” by Mendidino’s remarks and acknowledges it is “complex” to identify and screen the Afghans in need of Canadian help.
But he said the only option is to honour the debt Canada owes.
“These courageous women and men helped to preserve Canadian lives at great risk to themselves and their families,” he said in the statement.
“Our nation has a debt. We owe them care and compassion, especially at this critical and frightening juncture. Beyond immediate action to accelerate screening and visa processing, we should also be facilitating safe transit to the extent that we can.”
With files from Global’s Marc-Andre Cossette and Mike Armstrong.