Canadians working to extract Afghans urged to take ‘great caution’ with calls, texts

World·THE FIFTH ESTATE

A volunteer network of veterans, diplomats, aid workers and journalists sent out a message earlier this week warning Canadians who have been calling people in Afghanistan to "exercise great caution now."

Families evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal at Washington Dulles International Airport on Wednesday. Thousands of Afghans were airlifted out of the war-torn country as the Taliban swept to power, but thousands more remain stuck inside, fearing retribution from the extremist group.(Gemunu Amarasinghe/The Associated Press)

Groups working to extract people from Afghanistan are warning journalists and others in communication with those inside the country to avoid texting or speaking in English for fear of reprisal from the Taliban.

A volunteer network of veterans, diplomats, aid workers and journalists sent out a message earlier this week warning Canadians who have been calling people in Afghanistan to "exercise great caution now."

The informal group has a wide network of aid workers and interpreters still in Afghanistan that they are trying to get out after the Taliban seized control of the country last month.

"Your phone call can reveal your contact with people in Kabul and identify them to Taliban and others," read the warning, which was shared with .

"Contacts in Kabul should never speak English out loud now."

With the end of the mass airlifts, a lack of clarity on how a Taliban government will govern and the country's borders largely sealed, the group said it is now "the most dangerous period for the hundreds of Afghans who have applied to come to Canada."

Thousands of Afghan nationals who risked their lives to assist the Canadian Armed Forces and other allied groups — many of them working as interpreters alongside Canadian soldiers — now fear retribution from the extremist militant group.

Afghan women take part in a protest march for their rights under the Taliban rule in the downtown area of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Friday. Under the group's previous rule, women were largely confined to their homes and restricted from participating in many aspects of society.(Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)

As of Tuesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau said the federal government was aware of 1,250 Canadian citizens, permanent residents and their families still in Afghanistan.

The government said it was able to get 3,700 people out of the country before the final U.S. troop withdrawal on Aug. 31 ended the 20-year conflict.

Those still left in Afghanistan are also being advised to memorize the details of their Canadian contacts and wipe all Canadian-based names and numbers from their phones.

"We don't want to alarm people, but at the same time, we want to make sure they get all the facts that they can make informed decisions," said retired major-general David Fraser, who volunteers with the group and commanded more than 2,000 NATO coalition troops in Kandahar in 2006.

"We're trying to give them as best advice as we can, to make it as safe as we can, given that we don't control and understand a lot of the factors that are changing by hour or by day," said Fraser.

"This is as dangerous and as complicated as anything I've ever done."

A vendor selling Taliban flags waits for customers along the roadside in Kabul, Afghanistan.(Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)

There are also secondhand reports of the Taliban taking some extreme measures.

According to one text message circulated in Canadian volunteer circles this week, there has been at least one instance where a family was killed after the Taliban searched their call histories and found Western phone numbers. CBC has not been able to independently verify these reports.

That text message included an appeal to "pass this to all your Afghan contacts."

Shuvaloy Majumdar has a large network of contacts in Afghanistan from his time leading democracy initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said receiving that text message from his network was "particularly horrendous."

"There are many Afghans who are reaching out that are totally panicked and desperate," said Majumdar, who is now foreign policy director of the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

David Fraser, shown in Kandahar in this 2006 file photo, commanded the Canadian troops in Afghanistan. He says the rescue efforts still being worked out in Afghanistan right now are as 'dangerous and as complicated as anything I've ever done.'(Les Perreaux/The Canadian Press)

Due to the recent security concerns, he said, he is re-evaluating the ways in which he communicates with his contacts in Afghanistan.

"I literally had to send a note … to a WhatsApp chat room saying: Stop calling, shut down all your social media now, stop communicating on Facebook messenger and WhatsApp and Viber and on Skype."

Najbullah Habibi is an Afghan interpreter living in British Columbia after he moved to Canada in April 2016. His parents were killed by the Taliban in 2010 while he and his brother were working with the Canadian Armed Forces.

Up until last week, Habibi had been in touch with a fellow interpreter still in Afghanistan. Now his friend is rejecting his calls, he said, fearing for his safety.

"He said, 'It's probably not even safe to talk to you. If they find your picture or your contact information on my phone somehow, I will be in trouble,'" said Habibi.

There has been a "documented threat" to interpreters throughout the entire 20-year conflict in Afghanistan, said Rebecca Petras, a spokesperson for Red T, a New York based non-profit working with interpreters in conflict zones around the world.

"The recent troop withdrawal has not changed that," she said. "Interpreters are living in hiding and are afraid to go out, their income has dried up, and now there is the additional threat of food insecurity."

Taliban special forces fighters quickly took over the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Tuesday after the U.S. military's withdrawal effectively ended the 20-year conflict.(Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi/The Associated Press)

"The bulk of the people sitting in Kabul are getting anxious, running out of money and have to make a decision," said Fraser. "It's a horrible thing, what they're going through."

While many in Kabul had been staying safe by hunkering down and sheltering in place, now that foreign troops have left and the evacuations have stopped, many no longer have that luxury — putting them at risk.

"The only out they see is a road," said Fraser. "And there's lots of bad things between them and that border."

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to clarify Najbullah Habibi's last name.
    Sep 04, 2021 9:54 PM ET

With files from Ivan Angelovski

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