Online criteria for Afghan refugee program changes, applies only to those who’ve fled

While one can understand the rationale given the difficulties in leaving Afghanistan under the Taliban, arguably the need is greatest for those stuck in the country. Will likely provoke controversy among the many who have already been working to raise the issues and help them leave:

The Canadian government has quietly changed the criteria on its website for a special program for vulnerable Afghan refugees so that only those who have already managed to escape to other countries are eligible.

The online criteria for the “special humanitarian program” used to include Afghans “who are in Afghanistan or outside of Afghanistan,” but it was changed this month to apply only to those “outside of Afghanistan.”

The program is one of two set up to help bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada and is intended for vulnerable groups including women leaders, persecuted religious or ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people and journalists.

The online criteria for the other program, which is aimed at interpreters and others who helped Canada during its military mission as well as embassy staff, still allows those inside Afghanistan to apply.

When the government first announced the special humanitarian program in August, it said it would apply to those outside Afghanistan, but it ultimately included those stuck inside the war-torn country in its online criteria.

Canada was the first country worldwide to  launch a special pathway to Canada for women, girls, LGBTQ and targeted minorities in Afghanistan.

Groups working with Afghans trying to flee the country said the change to the program’s eligibility criteria on Canada’s official website would sow confusion and desperation among Afghans hoping to come to Canada.

It could drive Afghans to resort to people smugglers to get outside the country in order to qualify, they warned.

Alex Cohen, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, said Canada was “the first country in the world to announce a humanitarian program for Afghan refugees, which will see some 40,000 refugees start new lives in this country.”

The humanitarian initiative, he said, requires refugees to have left their country of origin to be consistent with the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

He said the government is “adapting our programs to the evolving situation in Afghanistan, and have added a provision to enable two new partner organisations to refer exceptional cases of individuals who are inside Afghanistan.”

“We regularly review IRCC’s public communications to ensure they reflect our policies and provide the best possible information to applicants, and update them accordingly,” he said. “The edit to our website was a communications change, not reflective of a policy shift.”

Stephen Watt of Northern Lights Canada, a refugee organization, said the government’s plan to bring 40,000 Afghans to Canada has been wrapped in secrecy ever since it was announced.

“There is still no clear way to apply to the program, or to discover who it is accepting or how it is operating,” he said. “This is a life and death question for many of the people we are talking to within Afghanistan.

“Our government needs to come clean about its plans for these very vulnerable people who it promised to help in the heat of the election, and provide a clear path for providing that help. This isn’t a time for empty promises and secret processes.”

Canada ended its airlift mission from Kabul near the end of August as the U.S. was completing its own withdrawal from the country. Thousands of people with permission to travel to Canada were left behind — including Canadian citizens.

Since the Taliban seized control, it has been increasingly difficult to get people out.

Wendy Noury Long, director of the Afghan Interpreters Association, said she feared that government’s change to its criteria, made in mid October, would drive desperate Afghans to go to extreme lengths to get out of the country so they qualify.

“People will be thinking how do I get out? Do I contact human smugglers? Countries are actively deporting people back to Afghanistan,” she said.

“This is a policy change. This is the explanation of whether you qualify. You are taking a huge risk to try to get out to another country and you might find yourself deported back to Afghanistan.”

The humanitarian program Canada set up to help Afghans at risk has strict eligibility criteria. To qualify, Afghans must also be a woman leader, a human rights advocate, a member of a persecuted religious or ethic minority, in the LGBTQ community, or a journalist or someone who has helped Canadian journalists. As of mid October, they must be located outside Afghanistan.

Those who fit these criteria need to register for refugee status through existing refugee programs, with the United Nations Refugee Agency or the government where they live, and wait to be referred. They can also be identified as eligible by a private sponsor.

Around 3,700 Canadians and Afghan refugees, including former interpreters, were airlifted out by Canada before the end of August.

Approximately 1,700 interpreters and other Afghans with papers to come to Canada are currently in safehouses in Kabul. Some safehouses, being run by an NGO and funded by veterans and private donations, face closure within weeks because of lack of funding.

Source: Online criteria for Afghan refugee program changes, applies only to those who’ve fled

Alboim and Kohl: A post-election to-do list for the Afghan crisis

Good practical recommendations:

Now that the federal election is over, it’s time to make urgent policy decisions in response to the Afghan crisis. People remain in peril there and Canada needs to play its part domestically and on the international front.

Canadians worked side-by-side with Afghan nationals to improve security, democracy, human rights, women’s rights, girls’ education and a free press in Afghanistan. Canada has a moral obligation to help people who are now at risk. Even if there is no direct link to Canada, coming to the aid of people in danger is the humanitarian thing to do, the right thing to do. It’s what Canada does and has done well in other refugee crises.

Here’s our suggested to-do list of what government should tackle on an urgent basis.

Get people out
Canada should intensify its work with allies on the diplomatic front to encourage the Taliban to allow safe passage out of the country. Afghans with travel authorization to Canada can then leave the country. We should also continue to encourage and support neighbouring countries to keep their borders open to fleeing Afghans and allow Canadian immigration processing to take place in these countries of first asylum.

Increase government assisted refugees 
Prior to calling the election, the Liberals committed to the resettlement of up to 20,000 vulnerable Afghan nationals through two new programs. They have now doubled their commitment to 40,000. At least half of these should consist of government-assisted refugees. This will expedite arrivals and send a strong message to private sponsors that they are complementing, rather than replacing, government efforts.

Keep extended families together
Every effort should be made to keep extended families together when selecting refugees for resettlement to Canada. Where families have become separated, it is also important to enable and expedite mechanisms to reunite them. Many people living in dire circumstances, whether in Afghanistan or other countries, are ineligible under existing rules to be reunited with family members in Canada.

People in Canada can sponsor certain close family members, but they cannot sponsor others such as adult children or siblings. This creates an untenable situation. Afghans in Canada will have a hard time adapting to their new life when fraught with worry over relatives who are in peril abroad. Both groups will suffer without the mutual support that they can provide.

Pave the way for private sponsorship
Canadians are willing to pitch in but there are obstacles to private sponsorship. First, the lengthy processing times and backlogs must be reduced. Organizations that have sponsorship agreements with government are further hampered by caps on the number of refugees they can sponsor each year.

During the Syrian refugee crisis, the government allowed sponsors to exceed those caps. The same approach should be taken for Afghan refugees. Additionally, as Canada did with the Syrian crisis, privately sponsored Afghans should be deemed “prima facie” refugees without requiring a formal assessment by the United Nations Human Commissioner for Refugees or another state. This will allow groups that are not affiliated with agreement holders to play a strong role in private sponsorship.

Clarify the new humanitarian program 
The government has announced a promising new program to resettle vulnerable Afghan nationals who have managed to leave the country. This includes women leaders, human rights advocates, persecuted religious minorities, LGBTI individuals and journalists. The government needs to communicate how eligible people will be identified and what processes will be used for this program. Lists prepared by Canadian organizations, family members and others will be instrumental in identifying candidates.

Speed things up 
Afghan refugee claimants in Canada should be fast-tracked at the Immigration and Refugee Board, as has been done for groups from certain other world areas. We also need to expedite the transition to permanent residence for Afghans who entered the country on a temporary permit because they didn’t have the opportunity to complete their immigration processing overseas. Individuals on a temporary permit are not eligible for federal programs available to permanent residents, including income support and the sponsorship of family members.

Strengthen international aid 
We cannot forget that most vulnerable Afghans are unable to leave and that millions of Afghan refugees are hosted by neighbouring countries. This reality has existed for decades, exacerbated by the most recent crisis. Perhaps the most important task on the government’s to-do list is to increase humanitarian aid for organizations working on the ground in Afghanistan and neighbouring or nearby countries such as Pakistan and Turkey.

Achieving the items on this to-do list will require sustained government commitment, funding and staffing in Canada and abroad. If Canada can check off all of the boxes, we can be confident that we are doing our part in response to this international crisis.


Ambrose and Cotler: Bureaucratic barriers are making life even harder for Canada’s allies in Afghanistan

Good bipartisan commentaryÈ

Make no mistake, the Taliban are in control of Afghanistan. Their swift return and seizure of power caught all of us off guard. Afghans who bravely served Canada now find themselves at great risk.

Their lives, and those of their families, are under constant threat of Taliban reprisals. Vulnerable Afghans, including female leaders, human-rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community, have been abandoned in a country where they are now completely marginalized and must hide once again from an old enemy.

For the interpreters and their immediate family members who came to Canada under special immigration measures between 2009 and 2011, this remains a crisis. These Canadian citizens are desperate to help the extended families they left behind, knowing that they will continue to be actively targeted because of who they are related to. Shall we wait until disaster befalls before we hasten our efforts to evacuate these deserving Afghans?

Like many Western countries that rushed to get people out, Canada did its part, evacuating 3,700 people at risk. The door was open, briefly; now it is firmly shut. Those left behind are pleading for us to honour our commitments. They believe that Canada is a just and compassionate country, with a free and open society – at least, that is what we told them when we first came asking for their help. All is not lost. We can still live up to that ideal, but we have to act fast as lives hang in the balance.

Various charitable and volunteer groups have rallied behind the government of Canada’s efforts to evacuate and resettle the maximum number of eligible Afghans. We call on the government to fund these groups that help keep these people and their families safe. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) should simultaneously accelerate the vetting process in partnership with these groups. While we wait for borders to open, we need to protect these people through the continued provision of support inside the country and the issuance by IRCC of documentation proving their official link to Canada. The very act of this recognition is a lifeline and protected pathway out of Afghanistan.

For vulnerable Afghans, the Canadian government needs to allow visa applications from inside Afghanistan. We must not force people to needlessly risk their lives any further on unnecessary and illegal border crossings in the hope that a Canadian embassy or high commission will process their applications in another country, such as Uzbekistan or Pakistan.

We also need to honour our promises to the interpreters who have already resettled in Canada and are fellow citizens. By extending special immigration measures to the extended family members who remain in Afghanistan, we can remove them from harm’s way and make good on our promises.

Most importantly, we must recognize that there is no playbook for this. Blind adherence to policy and inflexibility to change it, despite the challenging situation on the ground, runs counter to the urgency of doing the right thing. It is a cruel reality that those left behind are facing. Canada must remove the barriers that our own policies present. We need to get the proper documentation to these people so we can get them out quickly and safely when the borders open to the world.

Despite the federal election, all parties must stand behind these initiatives. This is not about politics, not about who is right and who is wrong. It is about honouring the commitments we made to the people of Afghanistan and those who served our interests there. Only then will we be able to live up to our belief that Canada is a force for good in the world.

Rona Ambrose, the former leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, is deputy chairwoman of TD Securities. Irwin Cotler, the former Liberal minister of justice and attorney-general, is the international chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.


Taliban vows to purge education system of anything ‘against Islam’ as Afghan folk singer shot dead

No surprise:

The Taliban is planning to purge Afghanistan’s education system of all elements that are “against Islam”, according to an official, as activists and campaigners warn of a return to authoritarian rule in the country.

Speaking on Sunday, interim higher education minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani criticised the current education system that was founded by the international community, claiming that it had failed to adhere to religious principles.

“[The] world tried to take religion out of scientific education, which harmed the people,” Mr Haqqani said.

He added that “every item against Islam in the educational system will be removed”.

Mr Haqqani’s comments came as reports of the killing of an Afghan folk singer in a mountain province raised fresh concerns about the threat to human rights in the country as the Taliban works to form a new government.

The family of Fawad Andarabi said he was shot dead by a Taliban fighter in the Andarabi Valley (after which he was named), an area of Baghlan province some 100km (60 miles) north of Kabul.

“He was innocent, a singer who only was entertaining people,” his son said. “They shot him in the head on the farm.”

Mr Andarabi played a bowed lute, known as a ghichak, and sang traditional songs about his birthplace, his people and Afghanistan as a whole.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, told reporters that the insurgent group would investigate the incident, but he could not provide any details on it.

In response to the killing, Amnesty International secretary-general Agnes Callamard said: “There is mounting evidence that the Taliban of 2021 is the same as the intolerant, violent, repressive Taliban of 2001.

“20 years later, nothing has changed on that front.”

Although the Taliban has claimed that it will lead a more moderate government in Afghanistan, many fear that women and religious minorities will once again face severe restrictions and oppression under the group’s rule.

On Sunday, former officials and lecturers at Afghan universities called on the insurgent group to maintain and upgrade the country’s education system instead of dismantling it.

Former minister of higher education Abas Basir told a conference on higher education, held by the Taliban, that starting over would be repeating a mistake made by previous governments.

“Let’s not reject everything, starting a new system: we should work more on what we already have,” Mr Basir said.

Mr Mujahid has said that a full cabinet for the new Taliban government will be announced in the coming days, with governors and police chiefs already appointed in all but one of the country’s 34 provinces.

The insurgent group is appealing to the US and other western nations to maintain diplomatic relations after the withdrawal of foreign troops is complete.

However, the UK has warned that relations will only be maintained if the new government respects human rights and allows safe passage for those who want to leave Afghanistan.

Source: Taliban vows to purge education system of anything ‘against Islam’ as Afghan folk singer shot dead

Fatima Syed: Focusing on Maryam Monsef’s comments on the Taliban is a distraction from what Canada should care about: protecting Afghan lives

Good and needed commentary on Monsef’s remarks, providing the cultural context for her her use of “brothers”:

If you watch the video of Tuesday’s ministerial meeting close enough, Maryam Monsef looks down at her prepared remarks and pauses before she calls the Taliban “brothers.”

“I want to take this opportunity to speak to our…” Monsef pauses. Her lips quiver. Her face flinches. “…brothers, the Taliban.”

At that moment, I knew exactly what she meant. I also knew exactly what she was about to suffer next, and I sensed from her pause that she might have too.

As a Pakistani-Canadian (with no actual brothers), I have called many men around me “brother,” or “bhai” in Urdu. My older male cousins, my older male friends, shopkeepers, taxi-drivers, and, yes, even government officials who are from India or Pakistan.

It is as Monsef said, “a cultural reference” (although, I would have said “cultural practice.”) I can’t give you an English equivalent because there is none. There are many cultures and communities across the Middle East and Asia that use the term “brother” in varying ways as a term for any male who is older than you, above you in rank, or in a position of power. While no two cultures are the same even if they contain many similarities, that’s the simplest way I can put it.

It’s how we all talk. We — Arabs, Afghans, South Asians and more — address people not just by name but how they are in relation to us and our place in society.

Most Canadians watching Monsef’s remarks would not have known any of this. For all the pride we have in this country’s multiculturalism and diversity, we don’t actually care to learn enough about one another’s cultures, traditions and practices — things that make this so-called melting pot of a country.

If we did, we’d understand why Monsef, an Afghan refugee who has more experience with the Taliban than me and most of us, used the term “brothers” when referring to the Taliban.

Instead, speaking on that national stage, it became obvious that it was a bad choice of words used in the wrong context, the wrong setting and the wrong moment in time and for the wrong audience.

I am troubled by Monsef’s word choice; she is a federal cabinet minister who should’ve been more careful. But I’m much more troubled by the way Canadians responded to her.

In minutes, the political right used this moment as a way to disparage the Liberal party in the midst of an election campaign with Islamophobic comments and graphics. Fear-mongering against the Muslim community started almost immediately. And as exhausting as it is, I must once again note, religion does not equal culture; they are separate and distinct (and we should probably have a mandatory class on that in every school and university across Canada.) “Sharia law” was trending on Twitter. The word “deport” was being used way too freely across the Internet. Monsef — again, a refugee who escaped the Taliban — was called a terrorist by many online.

Canadians did what they always do when a racialized cabinet minister makes a mistake or does something they don’t understand or goes against the “normal” way of things: they vilified Monsef and othered the community she belongs to at a moment when they need all of us the most. And they did all this on the day we learned that there were an estimated 223,000 self-reported hate crimes in Canada in 2019, and less than 1 per cent were captured in police-reported statistics.

I can’t imagine the strength Monsef would have needed to gather to look up at the camera during her remarks and implore the Taliban — the very group she was lucky enough to escape — to protect her former countrypeople and any family members, friends and neighbours still in Afghanistan. I can’t imagine what was going through her mind when she looked up at the camera during Tuesday’s meetings and kept her gaze squarely there to ask the Taliban to “stop the violence, the genocide, the femecide, the destruction of infrastructure.”

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with her politics or the words she used. We need Maryam Monsef now more than ever. In theory, she is the champion of those still waiting to escape or return to this country — the country we tout as a safe haven for all.

Canada, there’s work to do — and demanding the resignation of a federal cabinet minister whose culture you don’t understand isn’t on the to-do list.

You can help sponsor a family. You can help advocate for faster immigration processing times. You can donate to the various groups trying to help the almost 1,000 Afghans that have arrived in Canada in a rush, who need homes, mental health support, friends and care.

Attacking Monsef, dismissing and denouncing her culture will only create an unsafe and unwelcoming environment for new Afghan refugees. If Canada truly is the diverse, accepting society we think it is, it’s far past time we start acting like it and learning about one another.

On Thursday, Canada announced that its mission had officially ended in Kabul. A few hours later, explosions rippled near Kabul’s main airport, resulting in U.S. and civilian casualties.

A lot of Canadians are about to become “brothers” to Afghans who have lost theirs or are leaving them behind. They need us.

Fatima Syed is a Mississauga-based freelance journalist and host of The Backbench, a podcast about Canadian politics. Follow her @fatimabsyed.

Source: Focusing on Maryam Monsef’s comments on the Taliban is a distraction from what Canada should care about: protecting Afghan lives

Alboim and Cohl: Ordinary Canadians can help Afghans settle successfully in our communities

Useful recommendations and call for support:

The planes are arriving. They are bringing to Canada people who fear retribution, oppression or death from the Taliban, now firmly in control of Afghanistan. These arrivals are part of the federal government’s commitment to resettle vulnerable Afghan nationals. Officials estimate this will include 6,000 people from within Afghanistan and 15,000 who have managed to flee the country. With minimal opportunities for people to make it safely to the Kabul airport, let alone get on a plane, and with borders to neighbouring countries closed, Canada may be hard pressed to reach these numbers quickly. The reality is that many Afghans are trapped in their landlocked country, unable to escape by land, sea or air.

The immediate priority must be to get vulnerable people out of Afghanistan, whether they are at risk for having helped the Canadian government or for their human rights advocacy. Women leaders are particularly vulnerable and urgently need help to exit the country. But this cannot be our sole focus. We must also create systems to help Afghan refugees to settle successfully in our communities. In this regard, there is much to learn from previous crises where Canada welcomed large numbers of refugees.

Although every refugee movement requires tailored solutions to address unique circumstances, Canada’s success with Indochinese refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (after the fall of Saigon in 1975) and Syrian refugees (after the civil war began in 2011) is particularly instructive. An overarching lesson from these two movements is that the involvement of ordinary Canadians – in addition to governments, the private sector, and civil society organizations – can have a huge and positive impact.

One way that members of the public and civil society organizations make a difference is by being vocal about their support for a strong government response. In 2015, public outrage and concern helped to make Syrian refugees a federal election issue, garnering strong commitments from all political parties. An initial target of resettling 1,300 Syrian refugees, set by the Conservative government in 2013, became 25,000 after the Liberals came to power two years later.

Iconic photos of capsized boats and a young child who didn’t survive the journey were factors in galvanizing Canadian support in the past. Heart-wrenching images emerging from the Kabul airport could potentially have a similar effect. Canadians may feel especially motivated to help the two categories the federal government has prioritized: people who helped the Government of Canada, and those who fought for human rights and democracy, principles highly valued in Canada. These individuals and their extended families are clearly in grave danger.

While many potential refugees remain trapped in Afghanistan, those who fled to other countries before the Taliban took control are eligible for private sponsorship. The people being airlifted directly from Kabul and arriving in Canada as government assisted refugees could also benefit from being matched with groups interested in private sponsorship. This would give those refugees the benefit of the personal relationships, networks and cross-cultural connections that privately sponsored refugees typically enjoy.

For such approaches to work, authorization for sponsorship agreement holders to help Afghan refugees will need to be above and beyond any existing caps. And the lists of persons and families at risk being compiled by veterans, human rights groups, Afghan organizations, and family members in Canada should be consolidated to assist in the matching process. Private sponsorship would also be enhanced by creating a community organization modelled after Operation Lifeline and Lifeline Syria, which formed during the Indochinese and Syrian crises respectively to train sponsors and match them to refugees. Now is the time to create Lifeline Afghanistan with the leadership of Canadian Afghan organizations, like the Afghan Women’s Organization, working closely with other civil society organizations.

Another lesson from previous refugee movements is that Canada’s commitment must be long-term. The dangers abroad do not stop once Canada has reached its initial target for refugees, and the need for reunification with extended family members can take many years to resolve. Canada is still accepting Syrian refugees, although considerable frustration exists due to lengthy processing lags now that this movement is no longer a top priority.

Canada has responded to refugee crises before and we can do it again. We have the infrastructure on the ground, a robust settlement sector, an engaged Afghan community, and above all a Canadian public with a history of coming forward to do their part. We are in the middle of another federal election. It is time to speak up.

Naomi Alboim is the senior policy fellow at the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Migration and Integration at Ryerson University and was actively involved in the Indochinese and Syrian refugee movements. Karen Cohl is a consultant specializing in access to justice and immigration policy issues.


Matt Gurney: We could not have saved all Afghan evacuees. But we could have saved more

One of the better critical pieces with appropriate balance and nuance:

Developments have been coming so fast that this column risks going obsolete before it can be published. But as of this time, early Friday morning, Canada has largely discontinued its military operations in Afghanistan. The bulk of our forces withdrew the day before, leaving only a few soldiers and staff to co-ordinate with our allies on the ground. There were two bomb attacks near the airfield Thursday that killed at least a dozen American military personnel, injured 15 others, and killed dozens of local Afghans; the exact number is hard to come by, but reports Friday put it at over 100. 

As the mission ends on this bitter note, it’s important for us to separate the reasonable criticisms of our federal government’s response from the unreasonable. 

Partisan opponents of the Liberals, sensing opportunity, have been levelling some wildly unfair accusations of Liberal responsibility. Partisan Liberals for their part, are attacking strawmen erected for the purpose of deflecting all criticism, fair or otherwise.

We have to cut through the fanatics on both sides and be very clear about this: the evacuation was always going to be messy. We were never going to get everyone out. But it is obvious that we did not get out as many people as we should have. It’s clear that we made major errors, including failing to work with veterans and aid groups on the ground; we did not lift bureaucratic hurdles quickly enough. We lost time dithering. That is our shameful failure.

It is not the Canadian government’s fault that our American allies decided to pull out of the conflict. Frankly, I still can’t entirely blame either the Trump or Biden administrations for that decision, although the execution of that decision has been catastrophic. 

This was not a decision made in Ottawa, but in Washington, and for entirely American reasons. Further, the Liberals are not to blame for the U.S. government’s massive intelligence failure. We were caught totally flatfooted by the rapid and total collapse of the former Afghan government — what had been expected to take months took days. Canada, a member of both NATO and the Five Eyes, relies heavily on the intelligence gathered by our larger, more powerful ally. I do not fault Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau or his government for being caught unprepared. 

So let’s dispense with that nonsense right away. In the big picture, there is not a whole hell of a lot Canadian governments could have done to avoid this crisis.

But we could’ve managed the crisis much better.

Over the last 10 days, we’ve had repeated reports of bottlenecks caused by over-restrictive paperwork requirements. We’ve seen other allies flying helicopters into Kabul to allow them to retrieve their people from sites around the city; Canada has helicopters and the ability to deploy them (see photo above), but we didn’t follow suit. 

Reports indicate that there was a gap of several days in any meaningful Canadian Armed Forces presence on the ground — and that gap set us back in terms of intelligence and planning. Canadian officials reportedly worried about the number of seatbelts on our transport planes even as other allies were loading their aircraft up with as many people as they could (we eventually began cramming evacuees into ours, as well). In several recent pieces here at The Line, Kevin Newman has described the struggle faced by those those trying to escape — people to whom we had had promised safe haven as their lives were now in peril due time they spent helping us during our missions in Afghanistan. There are numerous reports of our government telling these people to show up at gas stations and hotels — only to ghost them. 

Facts beyond our control limited how effective we were ever going to be at getting people out, but we did not max out our effectiveness within those constraints. As a result, people will die who did not have to. The gap between the best-possible Canadian response and the actual Canadian response is a gap measured in lives.

Lauren Dobson-Hughes wrote about this in her piece in The Line yesterday: the Canadian government is bad at managing crisis. “Our foreign policy and development work has suffered from a lack of long-term, strategic planning and coherence,” she wrote. “Canada tends to hyper-focus on the minute details at the tactical level (no, the text on a roundtable invite does not need to be reviewed by an assistant deputy minister), but has much less ability to anticipate broader trends and challenges.”

Read her piece in full, if you haven’t — it’s worth your time. But it strikes me as perhaps simpler to say that the Canadian federal government cannot transition to an emergency mindset. Our leaders can stab the big red button until their fingers bleed — but nothing happens. 

I’m not honestly sure if the problem is isolated pockets of bureaucratic dysfunction within a workforce that is mostly energized, nimble and effective, or the reverse: a generally sluggish series of inefficient institutions that smother to death the rare pockets of success that may accidentally spring to life within the hostile environment of our federal government. It would be good to know this, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter: whether we failed by a little or failed by a lot is of entirely academic interest to the people who’ll face Taliban bullets because of said failure. There are moments in life where you can’t grade on a spectrum of success, when it is a binary choice between success and failure. We failed thousands of our friends in Afghanistan, and for them, that failure is total.

Our armed forces seem to have responded to the challenge with their usual courage and professionalism. But of course they did — these are the people who live in a world where a split-second decision can mean the difference between survival and death. We train them for that kind of crisis management, and that training, combined with their understanding of the harsh nature of reality, allows them to work wonders despite chronic underfunding. 

However, for most Canadian officials, products as they are of a rich, peaceful country far from danger — “a boat in safe harbour,” as Dobson-Hughes aptly described it — there’s one way of doing things: the usual way. And if the usual way means only letting people onto the plane if their paperwork is perfect, and even then, only until the limit set by how many seatbelts are aboard the plane, that’s what they’re going to do. 

We saw this play out during the early phase of the pandemic, when even as countries all over the world where falling into the grips of raging, deadly outbreaks, the official line in Ottawa remained, essentially, “Sa’ll good!” The government was insisting that “the risk to Canada is low” weeks after most of us began loading up on toilet paper and canned soup. There was something in our government, as an institution, that prevented it from seeing what was coming, accepting it for what it was, and then shifting itself into high gear. 

And when it finally came, we watched absurd moments; of federal officials insisting all was being appropriately managed at the airports, even as Canadians actually in the airports — myself included — were shouting that that wasn’t true. Provincial and local leaders finally sent their own people in to compensate for the federal government’s obvious inability not just to respond to the emergency, but really, to even comprehend it.

The government did eventually shift into crisis mode, and Ottawa did have some successes, including a vaccine procurement that beat expectations and fiscal support programs that were rushed into service with admirable speed. Andrew Potter, a contributor here, wrote wisely in the National Post early this year that governments specialize, and if there’s anything the federal government knows how to do, it’s send people money. It’s not that we can’t get anything right; millions of Canadians benefit from capably delivered government services (federal, provincial and local) every day. The failure is in our ability to respond quickly to the unexpected. Adapting on the fly requires a degree of flexibility that we simply do not have.

Some of this can be fixed with time and energy and money — I’ve been writing about the need for a larger, more capable Canadian military for years, and a few more C-17s certainly would have come in handy this week (alas, they’re no longer being built). Indeed, one of the side stories that didn’t get enough attention this week is a perfect example of how our institutional lethargy has real consequences on the ground: Canada has five C-17 transport aircraft, and the C-17 is designed to be refuelled in mid-flight by an aerial tanker. But Canadian evacuation efforts in Kabul faced fuel constraints because while our planes are capable in midair refuelling, our crews are not trained for it. Canada does have refuelling tanker aircraft, but our tankers aren’t compatible with our C-17s, and we haven’t trained our C-17 pilots to refuel from allied (mainly American) tankers. Canada is working to replace its current tanker aircraft, but until we pick a next-generation fighter — something we’ve been working on for literally decades, with successive governments refusing to close a deal due to the high cost of the program — we don’t know which type of refuelling system we’ll need. So this critical capacity remains absent from our military.

Of course, even the best-trained and equipped military cannot help us until we develop the ability to skip the shock and denial phase that seems to mark our automatic response to any crisis, and ram emergency action through a resisting bureaucracy. The ongoing election campaign no doubt hindered our response to the crisis in Kabul, but we shouldn’t overestimate by how much. COVID-19 caught us with our pants down and we had literally months of warning that that was likely to reach our shores.

Trudeau and the Liberals didn’t bring down Afghanistan or screw up the intelligence estimates. But they are the ones at the wheel of a government that has, yet again, failed to respond in real-time to a fast-moving crisis. Tens of thousands of Canadians died of COVID, and thousands of our friends abroad may now die at the hands of the Taliban. Some of those deaths were probably unavoidable, but not all of them. We could have saved more people here and in Kabul. That we didn’t is something we should be deeply ashamed of, and determined to never let happen again.


Afghan Hazaras being killed at school, play, even at birth

Awful situation:

Just running errands in the mainly Hazara neighborhoods of west Kabul can be dangerous. One day last week, Adila Khiari and her two daughters went out to buy new curtains. Soon after, her son heard that a minibus had been bombed — the fourth to be blown up in just 48 hours.

When his mother didn’t answer her phone, he frantically searched hospitals in the Afghan capital. He found his sister, Hosnia in critical condition with burns over 50% of her body. Then he found his mother and other sister, Mina, both dead. Three days later, on Sunday, Hosnia died as well.

In all, 18 people were killed in the two-day string of bombings against minivans in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi district. It was the latest in a vicious campaign of violence targeting Afghanistan’s minority Hazara community — one that Hazaras fear will only get worse after the final withdrawal of American and NATO troops this summer.

Hundreds of Afghans are killed or injured every month in violence connected to the country’s constant war. But Hazaras, who make up around 9% of the population of 36 million people, stand alone in being intentionally targeted because of their ethnicity — distinct from the other ethnic groups, such as Tajik and Uzbek and the Pashtun majority — and their religion. Most Hazaras are Shiite Muslims, despised by Sunni Muslim radicals like the Islamic State group, and discriminated against by many in the Sunni majority country.

After the collapse of the Taliban 20 years ago, the Hazaras embraced hopes for a new democracy in Afghanistan. Long the country’s poorest community, they began to improve their lot, advancing in various fields, including education and sports.

Now many Hazaras are moving to take up arms to protect themselves in what they expect will be a war for control among Afghanistan’s many factions.

Inside the Nabi Rasool Akram Mosque compound, protected by sandbags stacked against its ornate doors and 10-foot high walls, Qatradullah Broman was among the Hazaras attending the funeral of Adila and Mina this week.

The government doesn’t care about Hazaras and has failed to protect them, he said. “Anyone who can afford to leave, they are leaving. Those who can’t are staying here to die,” said Broman. “I see a very dark future for our people.”

There is plenty for Hazaras to fear.

Since it emerged in 2014 and 2015, a vicious Islamic State group affiliate has declared war on Afghanistan’s Shiites and has claimed responsibility for many of the recent attacks on the Hazaras.

But Hazaras are also deeply suspicious of the government for not protecting them. Some worry that government-linked warlords, who also demonize their community, are behind some of the attacks.

Former government adviser Torek Farhadi told the Associated Press that within the political leadership, “from the top down,” there is a “sorry culture” of discrimination against Hazaras. “The government, in a cynical calculation, has decided Hazara lives are cheap,” he said.

Since 2015, attacks have killed at least 1,200 Hazaras and injured another 2,300, according to Wadood Pedram, executive director of the Kabul-based Human Rights and Eradication of Violence Organization.

Hazaras have been preyed on at schools, weddings, mosques, sports clubs, even at birth.

Last year, gunmen attacked a maternity hospital in the mainly Hazara districts of west Kabul. When the shooting ended, 24 people were dead, including newborns and their mothers. Last month, a triple bombing at the Syed Al-Shahada school in the same area killed nearly 100 people, mostly Hazara schoolgirls. This week, when militants attacked a compound of de-mining workers, shooting at least 10 to death, witnesses said they tried to pick Hazaras out of the workers to kill.

Some of these attacks, deliberately targeting civilians, hospitals and children, could rise to the level of war crimes, said Patricia Gossman, Associate Director of the Asia Program of Human Rights Watch.

Pedram’s organization has petitioned the U.N. Human Rights Commission to investigate the killing of Hazaras as genocide or a crime against humanity. It and other rights groups also helped the International Criminal Court in 2019 compile suspected war crimes cases in Afghanistan.

“The world doesn’t speak about our deaths. The world is silent. Are we not human?” said Mustafa Waheed, an elderly Hazara weeping at the burial of Mina and her mother.

A black velvet cloth inscribed in gold with Quranic verses was draped over the two bodies. Family and friends carried them on wooden beds, then placed them inside the graves. Mina’s father fell to the ground crying.

“The U.S. can go into space, but they can’t find out who is doing this?” Waheed said. “They can see an ant move from space, but they can’t see who is killing Hazaras?”

In the face of the killings, talk has turned to arming Hazara youth to defend the community, particularly in the districts that the community dominates in western Kabul. Some Hazaras say the May 8 attack on the Syed al-Shahada school was a turning point.

It is a significant reversal for a community that showed such hope in a new Afghanistan. After the fall of the Taliban, many Hazara militias gave up their weapons under a government disarmament program, even as other factions were reluctant.

“We used to think the pen and the book were our greatest weapon, but now we realize it is the gun we need,” said Ghulam Reza Berati, a prominent Hazara religious leader. Fathers of the girls killed in the school attack are being told to invest in weapons, said Berati, who helped bury many of the girls.

Sitting on the carpets of west Kabul’s Wali Asar Mosque, Berati said Hazaras are disappointed in the democracy brought by the U.S.-led coalition. Hazaras have largely been excluded from positions of prominence, he said.

Hazaras worry about continuing Islamic State group attacks and about the potential return of the Taliban to power after the American withdrawal. But they also worry about the many heavily armed warlords who are part of the government. Some of them carried out violence against Hazaras in the past, and Hazaras fear they will do so again if post-withdrawal Afghanistan slides into a repeat of the brutal inter-factional civil war of the early 1990s.

One warlord who is still prominent in Kabul, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, led a Pashtun militia that massacred Hazara civilians during a ferocious 1993 battle with Hazara militias in Kabul’s mainly Hazara neighborhood of Afshar.

Rajab Ali Urzgani became a sort of folk hero in his community as one of the youngest Hazara commanders during the Battle of Afshar — only 14 at the time.

Now 41 and still known by his nom de guerre, Mangol, he returned to Afshar earlier this month with the AP to visit the site. He stopped to give a prayer for the dead at a mass grave where nearly 80 men, women and children killed in the bloodshed are buried. A black Shiite banner flies at the entrance.

Mangol held out little hope for peace in Afghanistan following the withdrawal.

“When the foreigners withdraw, the war will happen 1000%,” he said. “The war will happen like in the past with the different groups, and we will defend our family and our dignity.”

Source: Afghan Hazaras being killed at school, play, even at birth

Review finds successes, failures in Liberals’ feminist aid approach in Afghanistan

More failures than successes. Money quote: “…failure to ensure Canada’s attempts to increase gender equality included “a deeper understanding of Afghanistan’s local cultural context and Islamic tradition.””

An internal review of the nearly $1 billion in foreign aid that Canada quietly spent in Afghanistan after the Canadian military pulled out has found some successes but also many failures — especially when it comes to helping women and girls.

The Global Affairs Canada review covers the period between 2014 and 2020, during which Afghanistan remained a top destination for Canadian aid dollars even after the last Canadian troops had left and public attention drifted elsewhere.

Published on the department’s website late last month, the reviewers’ final report comes amid another round of peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban to end decades of nearly continuous fighting in the country.

It also follows a Canadian commitment in November to contribute another $270 million in aid over the next three years to Afghanistan, adding to the heavy investment that Canada has already made in the country since 2001.

The reviewers found that the $966 million in Canadian foreign aid spent since 2014 was almost entirely focused on empowering and supporting Afghan women and girls, particularly after the Liberals launched their feminist-aid policy in 2017.

Those efforts led to some tangible progress, including the adoption of gender equality in some Afghan institutions, a decrease in violence against women in some communities, more educational opportunities for girls and better health-care services for both.

“Projects in the womens’ and girls’ rights and empowerment sector resulted in female beneficiaries becoming more active, confident and self-sufficient,” adds the reviewers’ report.

Yet the review, which included analyzing internal Global Affairs documents and interviews with Canadian, Afghan and international government staff and NGOs as well as average Afghans affected by the projects, found many problems as well.

Chief among them was a failure to ensure Canada’s attempts to increase gender equality included “a deeper understanding of Afghanistan’s local cultural context and Islamic tradition.” It also failed to include men and boys in its programs.

“The definition of gender roles was so central to Afghan society and culture during the period that any planned changes required not only consultation with male household members, but also with the larger community,” the report said.

Those shortcomings threatened to leave the perception of gender equality being imposed on Afghans, the report said, adding: “If not carefully managed, there was the risk that gender-equality efforts promoted by Western donors could lead to backlashes and harm.”

The reviewers cited several examples, such as women who used shelters to escape domestic violence being shunned by their families and women in the Afghan army facing direct threats, as among the unintended consequences of current efforts.

Memorial University foreign aid expert Liam Swiss, who has written extensively on the Liberals’ feminist approach to foreign aid, said the report’s findings reflected many of the concerns and criticisms that were voiced when the policy was first launched.

That includes a one-size-fits-all strategy that didn’t take into account the local conditions and culture in the countries where Canadian aid is being channelled — of which Afghanistan is one of the most difficult.

“That’s the problem when you kind of stake out a really broad set of priorities on your aid,” Swiss said. “If you’re trying to make them apply to all and to everywhere, you’re going run into a lot of issues of local appropriateness, local receptivity.”

The reviewers also suggested that Canada was guilty of the same sins as many of its western counterparts in Afghanistan, namely focusing its aid dollars on areas that it was more interested in than what was really needed in the country.

That was reflected in the lack of consultations with local communities and a limited consideration for the specific needs of the many different ethnic and religious communities in Afghanistan, which undermined their effectiveness and sustainability.

In fact, the reviewers found Canada did not actually have a strategy for its engagement in Afghanistan. Global Affairs also failed to adapt to the changing needs and environment as the Afghan government lost territory to the Taliban between 2017 and 2020.

The report instead paints a picture of Canadian diplomats and aid workers keeping their eyes firmly glued on their own priorities even as the Taliban was wresting more and more of the country away from Kabul.

To that end, the reviewers said nearly all of those interviewed as part of their study believed the progress made by Canadian aid efforts over the years will be threatened or completely undone if security in the country deteriorates further.

That possibility continues to loom over Afghanistan’s future amid the peace talks and as the world waits to see whether incoming U.S. president Joe Biden will continue the Trump administration’s work to withdraw American forces from the country.

Global Affairs spokeswoman Patricia Skinner said while the report shows progress has been made in Afghanistan, the department will address the reviewers’ six recommendations — including changing how it promotes gender equality — over the next two years.

Nipa Banerjee, who previously led Canadian aid efforts in Afghanistan before joining the University of Ottawa, said she hopes the review will lead to changes – including a more expansive approach.

“With all the insecurity and everything, shouting about women’s rights only, it’s not going to be very helpful,” Banerjee said.

“And Afghans themselves think that. They’re saying it is important, but without security and without political order, nothing will succeed. Women’s programs will not go anywhere. So there has to be compromises.”

Source: Review finds successes, failures in Liberals’ feminist aid approach in Afghanistan

Taliban Target: Scholars of Islam – The New York Times

Taliban mentality and reminder of one of the battles within Islam:

A lone grave, its dirt mound shaded under the drooping branches of a mulberry tree and kept adorned with flowers, has become a daily stop for seminary students and staff members near Togh-Bairdi, in northern Afghanistan.

It is the burial site of Mawlawi Shah Agha Hanafi, a revered religious scholar who founded the seminary about two decades ago and helped it grow into a thriving school for 1,300 students, including 160 girls. This month, the Taliban planted a bomb that killed him as he conducted a discussion about the Prophet Muhammad’s traditions, and his grave, at a corner of the seminary grounds, has become a gathering place for prayer and grief.

“When I come to work, the first thing I do is recite a verse of the Quran at his grave,” said Jan Agha, the headmaster of the seminary, in Parwan Province. “Then I weep, and then I go to my office.”

Mawlawi Hanafi joined a rapidly growing list of Islamic religious scholars who have become casualties of the Afghan war.

The scholars have long been targets, of one kind or another, in Afghanistan. Their words carry weight across many parts of society, and they are assiduously courted for their support — and frequently killed for their criticism.

Hundreds are believed to have been killed over the past 16 years of war, and not always by the Taliban. But there has been a definite uptick in the targeted killing of scholars — widely known as ulema — as the Taliban have intensified their offensives in the past two years, officials say.

It is being taken as a clear reminder of the weight the insurgents give not just to military victories but also to religious influence in their campaign to disrupt the government and seize territory.

“The reason the Taliban resort to such acts is that they want to make sure their legitimacy is not questioned by the sermons of these ulema,” said Mohammad Moheq, a noted Afghan scholar of religion who also serves as an adviser to President Ashraf Ghani.