At his home in Thunder Bay, Ont., Robin Rickards’ laptop keeps pinging with notifications of messages and emails from former Afghan interpreters and staffers of the Canadian Forces, who are desperate to get out of Afghanistan before it’s too late.
With the full withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan in about six weeks, the retired Canadian corporal has tried to use his own contacts on the ground to bring a group stuck in Kandahar to relative safety in Kabul, the capital city.
But that journey is literally full of road blocks, with at least 40 checkpoints — and growing — set up by insurgents along the 300-mile highway linking the two cities, based on the latest updates Rickards received from his two former Afghan interpreters there.
“What they do to vet people is they will ask for your cellphone at the checkpoints and go through all your contacts. They will start calling the contacts and start asking questions. As long as the answers to the questions align, then you’re fine to go on your way,” he said.
“But if they don’t, they will use the airport security term, you’ve been selected for ‘secondary screening.’ They take you to the side of the road and shoot you or they cut your throat.”
With the road to the Kandahar airfield still under Afghan government’s control for now, Rickards said the only option to get the civilians out is by air before they are captured by the Taliban, which views these former employees of western governments as infidels and threatens to kill them and their families as it takes control of the country once again.
But with few civilian flights leaving Afghanistan’s second largest city, Rickards said it can’t be done without the help of the Canadian government, which has been under intense criticism for its tardy response to help those who supported the Canadian mission.
“It is atrocious and really shameful that there are more than 115 people who are in danger because they helped Canada, because they believed in Canada and risked their lives, serving alongside Canadians as interpreters, as drivers, as staff, and because of that, they are targets now,” said Kate Rusk, whose sister, Capt. Nichola Goddard, was killed by Taliban insurgents in an ambush on May 17, 2006.
“Franky, I think we owe them,” added Rusk, whose family launched a website this week to urge Canadians to reach out to their MPs and demand immediate action from the Liberal government.
Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino told the Star that his staff are working with officials from the Department of National Defence and Global Affairs Canada with the hope of rolling out a program “as soon as possible.”
Currently national defence officials are compiling a list of interpreters who worked for them while foreign affairs is handling the question of locally engaged staff who were employed at the embassy.
Meanwhile, the immigration department is acting as the “facilitator,” trying to figure out, among other things, how to properly vet everyone, what “category” of immigration they should fall under, where they’ll go once they arrive in Canada and what family members they can bring with them.
Specific details around who will qualify — for example, for how long and when did they need to work for Canada, and in what capacity — are still being ironed out, Mendicino said.
On Wednesday, Washington launched “Operation Allies Refuge” to evacuate interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their families. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said they will include those “who have supported the United States and our partners.”
Mendicino wouldn’t say whether a direct ask has been made to the U.S. for assistance, but that Canada is talking to coalition partners, and that no option, including Canada sending in its own aircraft, is off the table.
A Canadian team is also on the ground now assessing the risks that would be involved in an evacuation, Mendicino said.
“We’re going to move heaven and Earth to get this done,” he said in an interview.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Ottawa must provide a date when it will get these former Afghan interpreters and support staff out of Afghanistan.
“Other countries are taking immediate action to help Afghans who worked with their armed forces and ensure their safety, while Canada is dithering and delaying,” he said in a statement.
“There is no excuse why the Canadian government does not have a plan in action to save the lives of these brave Afghan interpreters and support staff.”
It followed an open letter last week by three retired Canadian major-generals who called on the federal government to restart a resettlement program for Afghan civilians who worked for the country.
Rickards, who did three tours in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2010, said there is no excuse for Ottawa’s inaction.
He and advocates with the Afghan-Canadian Interpreters — a grassroots advocacy group made up mostly of war veterans, active military members and supporters — along with Liberal backbencher Marcus Powlowski have identified and vetted some 120 Afghan staffers (with a total of about 500 people including family members) and Ottawa has had the list for some time.
“Partisan politics is destroying our country. I would say that a lot of this is not driven by operational security issues, but because of the need to manage the message because we’re gonna have an election coming soon,” said Rickards.
“We’ve been ignoring this because it wasn’t a wedge issue. It wasn’t something that we could drive Canadians to park on for political advantage.”
Mendicino insisted Thursday the program would be rolled out election or not.
“This operation is many things, most of which is, I think, an effort to do right by the Afghans that supported Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan,” Mendicino said.
“But what it is not is partisan. And the election, whenever it occurs, is not a factor in whether or not to do this.”
Rickards said time is running out and Ottawa must either dispatch its own military aircraft to Kandahar to get those civilians out now or ask for help from its allies.
He said if vetting is the issue, Canadian officials can fly these people to Kabul or a military base where the screening and paper work can be done.
Rickards said he has had his buddies in Afghanistan sourcing apartments for some of the former Afghan Canadian employees to hide at, but even trying to wire money is a challenge because of restrictions placed under money laundering rules.
“We’ve got an Afghan risking his life right now to try and find accommodations for people so they have a place to stay. People are telling us they’re not going to leave Kandahar to live on the streets of Kabul because it’s just not safe and that it’s safer to stay in a war zone where the Taliban is encroaching on them daily,” he said. “It’s just nail-biting anxiety.”
Rickards, who has been in touch with some of the Afghan civilians on the ground, said he has been advising everyone to delete contacts and social media accounts on their mobile devices and destroy the proof of their service for Canada, to avoid insurgents’ detection.
“But that’s a Catch-22,” lamented Rickards, as yet another text message popped up on his computer screen from one of his field contacts.
It read: “The Taliban frontline was just at Mirwais (hospital in Kandahar). I told you there will be a day that you guys wouldn’t be able to help us.”