Whatever happens next in Afghanistan – or more specifically, happens to those we have left behind – Aug. 26, 2021 will go down as a dark day in Canada’s history.
It also turned out to be a rather deadly day, even by the standards of a country that’s been rocked by so much violence and bloodshed. A pair of bombs left at least 72 dead, including 12 U.S. service members. As of this writing, there have been no confirmed Canadian casualties. What we don’t know, and may never know, is how many Canadian allies and aspiring and future Canadians were among the dead.
One of those bombs targeted the civilians who were crammed into a wastewater canal just outside the airport in Kabul. Many of those civilians were there because they’d been told by Canadian officials to try and make their way to a nearby hotel – a journey that proved to be near impossible.
These were civilians who were desperate to leave. Many of whom had good reason to think or to at least hope that they’d be airlifted to safety. Those who managed to survive the bombings have not escaped the spectre of death. Earlier that day, the final Canadian evacuation flight took off from the Kabul airport. Our rescue mission is now over, even if the thousands left behind would tell us otherwise.
In short, we have failed. Yes, we were able to evacuate approximately 3,700 individuals and yes, that was done under very trying circumstances and a quickly eroding security situation. This is all spin and excuse-making, however. Ultimately, Canada’s efforts were too little, too late, and too bureaucratic.
The excuses really only hold if one accepts the notion that one month ago was the earliest possible start to these rescue efforts. The reality is that the July 23 announcement was preceded by weeks and months of numerous groups and individuals trying to light a fire under the government on this issue. The inaction was a choice and no amount of spin can regain that lost time.
Clearly now, in the midst of a federal election campaign, the politics around this issue have been amplified (although, in fairness, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole went out of his way to avoid mentioning Trudeau or the Liberals in his statement Thursday night). The Liberals can hardly complain about that, since the timing of the election was 100 per cent their decision. No, we probably shouldn’t be in an election campaign right now – for a variety of reasons, including the Afghanistan crisis – but that was a choice the Liberals made.
In the 2015 election, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals pulled no punches in criticizing then-prime minister Stephen Harper over his handling of the Syrian refugee crisis. The fact that the crisis coincided with a federal election campaign wasn’t a reason to pause or avoid the conversation. Quite the opposite, in fact – it was an opportunity to hold the government to account. Governments should never get a pass on mistakes and missteps, including and especially in an election campaign.
It’s often said that foreign policy issues don’t have a major impact on election outcomes or how Canadians vote. This, however, is much more than your typical foreign policy issue.
First of all, there are Canadian citizens and permanent residents caught up in the chaos in Kabul – many of whom were unable to navigate the bureaucratic mazes and get on one of the flights to safety.
Secondly, Canadians understand the moral obligation we have here. Afghans who worked alongside Canadian forces as translators and in many other jobs are in grave danger now because of that. The work they did was crucial to the Canadian mission, but it is work that has marked them for death at the hands of the Taliban, who are out for revenge against those who worked with allied troops.
A poll released last week found that almost 70 per cent of Canadians – a truly remarkable consensus – support the government doing “everything it can” to evacuate those Afghans who worked with Canadian forces.
Unfortunately for those Afghans – not to mention Canada’s honour and reputation – we very much did not do “everything we can.” That stain isn’t going to be easily erased.