OTTAWA — America's torturous, tragic withdrawal from Afghanistan finally ended Monday, leaving Canadian veterans and refugee advocates weighing several bad choices as they seek to protect hundreds of stranded Afghans still waiting to hear good news about their applications for passage to Canada.
The final U.S. C-17 transport plane departed Hamid Karzai International Airport at 3:29 p.m. ET — one minute to midnight in Kabul, where the Taliban had vowed to hold President Joe Biden's administration to its Tuesday deadline to leave.
"I'm here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third-country nationals and vulnerable Afghans," said Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command.
"Tonight, withdrawal signifies both the end of the military component of the evacuation, but also the end of the nearly 20-year mission that began in Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11, 2001."
As a result, those in Canada trying to rescue their stranded allies must now decide between having former Afghan interpreters and their families attempt an extremely dangerous trek to Pakistan, or following the Canadian government’s advice to sit tight and wait.
"I don't know," said Stephen Watt, co-founder of the Northern Lights Canada refugee group, which has been working with former interpreters and support staff. "I'm saying: 'Try to stay alive. Try to get out if you can.' But I don't think any of us have any concrete answers for them."
Attention has turned to the land border between Pakistan and Afghanistan with the end of the American withdrawal, which was marred last week by a deadly suicide bombing at the airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and nearly 200 local Afghans clamouring for a flight out.
The end of U.S. military flights all but shuts down the last remaining avenues of escape for thousands of Afghans who supported Canada and its allies since the war began in 2001.
In an attempt to keep the door open a crack, France and Britain were expected to table an emergency resolution at the United Nations Security Council on Monday proposing the creation of a “safe zone” at the Kabul airport that would continue to facilitate the safe departure of Afghans.
Canada supports such a proposal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on the election campaign trail where he is campaigning as Liberal leader, saying Afghanistan will continue to need a civilian-run airport after the U.S. military leaves.
The Taliban have been reportedly turning Afghans with travel documents away from the airport. In response, some countries have sent military forces outside the airport to escort foreign nationals and approved Afghans through the Taliban checkpoints.
“We're continuing as a global community to put pressure on the Taliban, including at the United Nations, to ensure that people with travel documents for … Canada are able to leave Afghanistan and can begin their lives anew elsewhere,” Trudeau said.
The Liberal government has been repeatedly criticized for not acting fast enough to save Afghans who helped Canada during its military mission there, with the special immigration program announced last month plagued by bureaucratic and technical problems.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki continued to insist Monday that the U.S. effort to help people leave the country would persist even after the end of the military element of the mission.
"Our commitment does not waver even as we bring our men and women from the military home," Psaki said hours before McKenzie announced the end of the evacuation effort, pointing to "ongoing, immediate, urgent" discussions "at a very high level" among coalition partners.
"We remain committed," she added. "That's why we are so focused on ensuring we have a means and mechanism of having diplomats on the ground being able to continue to process applicants and facilitate the passage of other people who want to leave Afghanistan."
Psaki pointed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken's virtual meeting Monday with foreign officials, including Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, as well as the coalition's demand that the Taliban continue to let Americans and Afghans alike to leave the country after Tuesday.
While Taliban leaders have already made that commitment, "that does not mean we trust what they say," Psaki added. "But there is an enormous amount of international leverage that we will continue to work, in a co-ordinated way, with our partners around the world."
It was well past the supper hour on the East Coast when Blinken finally emerged Monday to acknowledge the end of the mission and promise a "relentless" diplomatic effort with "no deadline" to continue helping those still in Afghanistan who want to leave.
"The military mission is over," he said. "A new diplomatic mission has begun."
That mission will be based in Qatar with a team dedicated to continuing the effort to exfiltrate American citizens, visa applicants and other vulnerable Afghans who assisted coalition forces and fear Taliban retribution. The U.S. embassy in Kabul, Blinken said, would remain vacant.
And he thanked the country's coalition partners in Afghanistan for their help during the evacuation, their willingness to serve as transit countries in the resettlement process, and those — like Canada — that have stepped up to resettle Afghan refugees.
"We hope more will do so in the days ahead," he said. "We are truly grateful for their support."
With uncertainty around whether Afghans will still be able to escape by air, Canadian volunteer organizations were increasingly mulling whether to encourage former interpreters and their families to risk fleeing to Pakistan where they can seek asylum.
Global Affairs Canada has warned Afghans who applied under the special program not to travel to the border with Pakistan. A copy of a message obtained by The Canadian Press instead says they should “shelter in place, given the volatility of the situation.”
Yet the message also says that “should individuals decide to assume the risk of travelling, the Pakistan government has indicated they will try to facilitate Canadian-sponsored individuals' entry into Pakistan on request of the Canadian High Commission in Islamabad.”
Watt accused the government of giving desperate Afghans “conflicting messages” by warning against travel to Pakistan while leaving the door open to possible salvation if former interpreters and their families can get there.
“That kind of mixed messaging could possibly get these guys killed,” he said.
Compounding the problem is continued uncertainty and frustration over the state of hundreds of applications from former interpreters, local staff and family members to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, which has failed to provide any update to most.
“We have still around 900 in safe houses waiting for IRCC to approve their applications and decide what to do next,” said retired corporal Tim Laidler, one of several veterans working to save former Afghan colleagues from the Taliban.
Without that approval, Laidler added, it makes it extremely difficult to know what to do next.
“We've got good contacts at the Canadian Embassy in Pakistan. We can build the route line. We can do it,” he said. “We just don't want to build it and then strand 1,000 people in Pakistan for two years and have to hire immigration lawyers. So we need to know decisively and quick.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 30, 2021.
— with files from James McCarten in Washington, D.C.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press