The federal government has confirmed for the first time that Canada’s special forces are operating outside the security cordon of the airport in Afghanistan’s capital, working to shepherd people from Kabul into the airport. 

“In order to respond to questions about our efforts on the ground inside and outside of [Hamid Karzai International Airport], the CAF has made the decision to disclose that Canada’s special operations forces have been and continue to work outside the confines of HKIA,” a government official said on background.

“Members of Canada’s special operations forces are working relentlessly to bring as many Canadian citizens and eligible Afghan nationals and their families through the security gates to waiting aircrafts,” the official said during a briefing for journalists Monday. 

The disclosure that Canada’s special forces are operating outside the confines of the Kabul airport is significant because it marks a departure from the federal government’s policy of not divulging operational details of the special forces currently working in Afghanistan. 

“For operational security reasons, for obvious reasons, I cannot divulge exactly what our troops are doing. One thing I can say: they have all of the flexibility to make all of the appropriate decisions so they can take action,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said Sunday.

This news comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he will be pushing G7 leaders at a virtual summit Tuesday to slap more sanctions on the Taliban, which is already listed as a terrorist organization in Canada. 

‘Air-bridge’ agreement reached with allies

Officials speaking on background Monday confirmed that since the start of the airlift Canada has evacuated 1,700 Canadians and eligible Afghans from Kabul on a total of 13 flights.

Four of those flights have taken place since August 19, with 188 people being taken on the first flight, 106 on the second, 121 on the third and 436 on the fourth. Hundreds of passengers from the fourth flight have been transferred to another flight and are now on their way to Canada. 

Passengers on these flights include Canadian citizens and their family members, permanent residents of Canada, foreign nationals, Afghan nationals accepted under Canada’s immigration program, Afghan nationals accepted under allies’ immigration programs and dozens of service members from 12 other nations taking part in the U.S.-led air-bridge as well as military assets.

Canada has struck an “air-bridge agreement” with allies in the region that is seeing people bound for Canada escape Afghanistan on planes belonging to allies, while Canada reciprocates by transporting people bound for allied nations on its planes.

A worsening security situation

There have been numerous reports of shootings and stampedes among the crowds outside the airport gates and people desperately try to breach the gates to board aircraft destined for allied countries.

The airport is essentially the last place in Afghanistan considered secure from the Taliban.

The government has identified about 6,000 people eligible for resettlement who are currently in Afghanistan and has said that it has processed about half of those applications.

The government says it has plans to resettle a total of about 20,000 vulnerable Afghans, including women and children, as well as Canadian citizens, vulnerable minorities and Afghan nationals outside the country.

Not everyone will get out: Trudeau

Government officials said the security situation around the airport continues to deteriorate.

On Sunday, federal ministers said they were working to help as many Canadians and Afghans escape Kabul as possible and would continue to do so as long as the worsening security situation permitted.

“Our goal is clear: It is to evacuate as many Canadians and vulnerable Afghans as possible for as long as the security situation will allow, whether in Afghanistan or in a third country for those who manage to leave on their own,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said in the briefing. 

The remarks suggest that the window to get people out of Kabul is shrinking and echo remarks made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week. 

“Unless the Taliban shift their posture significantly — which is something the international community and Canada are working on — it’s going to be very difficult to get many people out,” Trudeau told reporters on Thursday while campaigning in Victoria.

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