OTTAWA — Canadian special forces are currently operating outside the walls of Kabul airport, Canadian officials revealed Monday, working to get people on flights out of Afghanistan.
The news comes one day before a special G7 leaders’ meeting is to be held to address the ongoing crisis.
CTV News has confirmed that forces have convened only a short distance away from the airport, in a designated holding zone where Afghans on their way to Canada are assembling.
At one airport entry gate, Canadian troops have scanned the crowd for Afghans wearing red – a colour those accepted for Canadian flights were told to wear.
Once they’ve made it through the danger and chaos on the streets just beyond, Canadians meet them to offer some reassurance.
Officials said Monday that a Canadian C-17 Globemaster took 436 people out of Kabul airport on Sunday night, up from the 121 airlifted the day before. The plane carried Canadian citizens and family members, as well as Afghan nationals who had been approved for resettlement by Canada and its allies.
“We are having success getting folks into HKIA in significant numbers, which has been a significant improvement over the last few days,” one official told The Canadian Press, using the acronym for Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The pace of evacuations out of Kabul is picking up after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last week. The U.S. military says in the last 24 hours 16,000 people were flown out on 89 planes, a combination of military and charter flights. Even so, U.S. president Joe Biden is under tremendous pressure from America’s allies to extend his Aug. 31 pullout deadline.
There are still many thousands desperate to leave Afghanistan. Footage from Afghanistan shows people standing in knee deep water outside the Kabul airport, waving their documents for Germany.
In one clip, a woman is pulled out of the crowd and safely over a wall. The fear is that many other Afghans at risk will be left behind.
Many Afghans who worked as interpreters for Western military forces and news agencies are now in hiding, terrified that they and their families could be targeted by the Taliban. Other vulnerable Afghans include human rights activists, politicians, journalists and others who fear that they could be in the crosshairs for their work in the country over the last two decades. Female journalists and politicians who have been outspoken against the Taliban have been frantically deleting online traces of themselves and trying to stay out of sight.
Thousands have been exposed to the threat of violent retaliation.
“Our forces on the ground have all the necessary authorizations to do what they feel is necessary to save as many people as quickly as possible,” Prime Minister and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said Monday in Halifax during a federal election campaign appearance.
A virtual G7 meeting, convened by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, will be held on Tuesday to discuss how to address the crisis.
“When we have our G7 leaders meeting shortly, we will certainly be talking about what more we can do and must do,” Trudeau said.
He has said that Canada’s focus is retrieving our troops, citizens and those with direct connections to Canada, but has said he would like to help more.
“We are also very interested in activists and human rights leaders, journalists and people who over the past many years have fought and delivered improvements for people in Afghanistan,” Trudeau said. “We know those people need to be brought to safety. And we, alongside our allies, will be doing everything we can for all the categories.”
But facing an end of August deadline, there simply may not be enough time to complete this frantic airlift.
America’s allies are pushing the U.S. to stay longer — a topic expected to come up in the G7 meeting.
“If their timetable extends, even by a day or two, then that will give us a day or two more to evacuate people because we are really down to hours now, not weeks,” Ben Wallace, British Defence Minister, said of the situation.
The Taliban have stood back and let the Americans take over the airport thus far.
But a spokesperson for the Taliban has said there is no patience for extending the evacuation.
“President Biden announced this agreement that until 31st of August, they would withdraw all their military forces,” Suhail Shaheen said. “So if they extended, that means they are extending occupation.”
Taliban leaders deny that people are running away out of fear, saying it’s to escape Afghanistan’s wretched poverty.
So far, officials say Canada has evacuated 1,700 people in total across 13 flights, four of which have occurred since last Thursday when the Kabul airport was secured. Around 300 Afghans have completed their COVID-19 quarantine and will be resettling in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.
The head of the Canadian branch of the organization Save The Children said Monday that more needs to be done to evacuate young people from Afghanistan, calling on world leaders to step up.
“Though Canada has already announced a resettlement program, it is important that evacuation efforts are not hampered due to bureaucratic red tape as the situation demands urgent action,” Danny Glenwright, the organization’s president, said.
The U.S. still believes it can finish the evacuation by Aug. 31, a little over a week away. But crucially, the U.S. has not entirely closed the door on staying longer.
With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press