Poor planning and a ‘chaotic environment’: Internal report reveals Trudeau government’s blunders during the fall of Kabul

Poor planning and a ‘chaotic environment’: Internal report reveals Trudeau government’s blunders during the fall of Kabul

Share this post
Listen to this article

OTTAWA—Canada’s response to the 2021 collapse of the Afghan government was dogged by a failure to anticipate the rapid advance of the Taliban, poor policy and operational planning within the public service, and a lack of political direction and co-ordination from a Liberal government that was in election mode, says an internal government report released to the Star.

A redacted copy of the report, dated 2022 and released under access-to-information laws, found there are “many lessons” to be learned from the Afghan crisis response. The “after action” investigation was led by Privy Council Office (PCO) deputy clerk Nathalie Drouin and a small group of senior public servants with the help of an unnamed outside adviser.

While overall it concluded that Canada did as well or better than allies with a similarly small diplomatic and military footprint in Afghanistan, it nevertheless took a hard look at bureaucratic foot-dragging, poor planning, and chaotic internal and external communications that marred the response.

It said the federal government was slow to realize the unfolding security crisis, and slow to develop special immigration measures to protect local embassy staff, interpreters and others who’d aided Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. And once Kabul fell on Aug. 15 — the very day the Trudeau government called a federal election — the government failed to adequately inform the public of facts about its response.

The report hailed the fact that Canada was able to airlift 3,000 Canadian citizens, permanent residents, refugees and persons vulnerable to Taliban reprisals out of Kabul on 17 Canadian flights between Aug. 3 and Aug. 25.

“Evacuations by countries with a similar footprints and capabilities in Afghanistan evacuated from a low of 1,100 (Norway) to a high of over 5,300 (Germany),” it says.

It emphasized the timing of the collapse of Kabul was “a strategic surprise to all governments,” saying the “consensus view” among allies and in Canadian intelligence was the “Taliban would not move to seize Kabul and replace the government until late 2021 or early 2022.”

When the Taliban took control of several provincial capitals and advanced on Kabul, Canada, like most governments other than Australia’s (which shut its embassy in late May), was left scrambling to evacuate people, without the strong diplomatic and military support that the United States and United Kingdom had on the ground.

Canadian planning for that eventuality started late and came up short, the report concludes.

The Trudeau government has continued to defend its response to the crisis in Afghanistan since 2021.

Canada’s newly appointed ambassador, Reid Sirrs, urged before leaving Ottawa in November 2020 that Immigration Canada should pursue a special immigration program to allow entry to Canada for staff at the embassy should the Afghan government collapse.

However, serious discussions didn’t begin among assistant deputy ministers until April 29, 2021, and not at the deputy minister level until June 22 that year, mere weeks before Kabul fell.

By then there were also calls to help Afghan interpreters and others who’d worked with Canadian military, diplomatic and humanitarian missions, and their families as well. It wasn’t until July that the government announced new immigration measures.

It was only then that regular briefings to the foreign affairs minister and minister of national defence began, later in July. The first full meeting of top public servants in concerned departments, and the Prime Minister’s Office and the PCO was held July 15, the same day the PCO sent an information memo to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

It warned the “collapse of the Afghan government within the coming months is now a conceivable scenario,” and said contingency planning was underway for the Canadian Embassy. It also outlined the Canadian military’s plans to “start operating evacuation flights by mid-August, subject to approval.”

But by July 30, Marc Garneau, then the foreign affairs minister, was briefed that the Taliban “were in a position to choose whether to attack provincial capitals within two to three weeks.”

The Immigration Department repeatedly hiked the caps it had initially placed on the number of people expected to enter under its special measures.

Aug. 12 was “a tipping point,” the report says.

After an unnamed allied embassy told Canada’s ambassador it was closing and pulling its security forces from access points into the Green Zone, Sirrs decided to close Canada’s embassy on Aug. 14. That was not publicly announced until the next day, the day when Kabul fell, and when Trudeau launched the 2021 campaign.

The scramble to evacuate people was then underway.

The report says as the “fluid” situation unfolded, there was “very little paper documentation in PCO of the developing crisis and there tended to be a heavy reliance on verbal briefings of the political level, and increasingly … of political staff due to the election,” it said. That lack of a paper trail made it difficult to reconstruct decisions by cabinet ministers and the prime minister.

Outside “stakeholders” — veterans groups, human rights advocates, media organizations who’d worked with Afghans throughout the years of Canada’s nine-year mission there, along with MPs and cabinet ministers — “flooded” Immigration, Foreign Affairs and Defence Department officials with lists of names of Afghans at risk whom they wanted to help get admitted to Canada.

“The chaotic operating environment — both in Ottawa and on the ground in Kabul — made the application of consistent evacuation criteria very challenging,” the report said. “As a consequence many of the decisions around who to evacuate during the height of the crisis were opportunistic and not necessarily optimized.”

The public service was “overwhelmed” when it came to conducting proper security screening. The document shows that on Sept. 30 and Nov. 15, the Canada Border Services Agency identified “security concerns among evacuees.” Details about those concerns are redacted in the copy that the PCO released to the Star.

The report made several recommendations for responding to such major events, including:

  • Establishing a crisis management group in the PCO led by a top public servant.
  • Written documentation of all key decisions by officials, ministers and the prime minister.
  • Preparation for “low probability but high consequence events” to better prepare cabinet to make decisions.
  • Early, consistent and regular briefings to officials, political staff and ministers on a priority basis.
  • Regular factual briefings to the public on the state of play during any major event.

Tonda MacCharles is Ottawa Bureau Chief and a senior reporter covering federal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

Go to Source

Leave Your Comment