OTTAWA — Canada's military mission at Kabul airport ended Thursday morning with the majority of its personnel departing, but some Canadians and their families remain trapped in Afghanistan, government officials said Thursday.
Gen. Wayne Eyre, the acting chief of the defence staff, said the Canadians were among the last to leave, and that military personnel are taking the withdrawal personally and many will feel guilty that they had to leave people behind.
He said Canada brought roughly 3,700 people out of Afghanistan, which fell to the Taliban earlier this month.
Eyre said the airport was under constant threat of attack and Canada and its allies acted admirably.
Indeed, an hour after Eyre and other government officials finished a sobering media briefing, locals left behind could hear several explosions near Hamid Karzai International Airport, so named after the man who became Afghanistan's first post-Taliban president two decades ago.
The Pentagon also confirmed the blast, but had no immediate word of casualties.
"The conditions our armed forces members working under were unlike anything we've seen in decades, even during our previous mission in Afghanistan," Eyre said in an emotional briefing informed by his own service in Canada's military mission years ago.
"They've witnessed horrific things. They've faced incredible dangers. And the feeling of helplessness and guilt that arises from having to leave people behind can be overwhelming."
Eyre said about 1,000 Afghans bound for Canada were airlifted out of Kabul on Wednesday night, half on a C-17 and half by the Americans.
The federal government is still trying to determine how many Canadians might still be left in Afghanistan.
Cindy Termorshuizen, the assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs Canada in charge of consular, security, and emergency management, said hundreds of Canadians and permanent residents and their families made it out of Kabul on Thursday night.
She said there were large numbers of Canadians on Canadian and allied aircraft and that her department is combing through the numbers and flight manifests to "gain a clearer picture" of how many might have been left behind.
The government is aware of people who have ended up in third countries, and Canada's entire network of foreign embassies and high commissions is on alert to track them down, she said.
"We recognize that today's announcement will be distressing news for those who are still in Afghanistan and wish to leave," said Termorshuizen.
"For our fellow citizens still in Afghanistan, if you need to move to a safer location please do so with great caution. Use your judgment to decide the best time and the safest means to do so. Assess the risk carefully as you take the necessary steps to ensure your security and that of your family."
Eyre said Canadian personnel will have to reflect on whether all the efforts expended in Afghanistan were worth it, but that Canadians made a difference in thousands of lives.
"We wish we could have stayed longer and rescued everyone who was so desperate to leave," said Eyre.
"That we could not is truly heartbreaking. But the circumstances on the ground rapidly deteriorated. Now this is an extraordinary humanitarian crisis. But make no mistake: this is a crisis of the Taliban's making."
Daniel Mills, assistant deputy minister with the Immigration Department, said visa applications for Afghan citizens who applied for them are still being processed.
Mills said the department received 8,000 applications under its special program for Afghans and 2,600 of those people made it out of Afghanistan. But that doesn't mean the rest are still trapped inside the country, because some of those applicants have already fled to third countries.
"I want to assure you that IRCC has been and continues to work tirelessly to process all applications under our special immigration measures," said Mills.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the "closing of a temporary air bridge" did not mean the end of Canada's connection to Afghanistan and that efforts would continue to reach the government's target to resettle 20,000 Afghans.
"Our continued work to put pressure on the Taliban alongside our international allies to allow people to leave Afghanistan and come to safety and Canada will continue," the Liberal leader said Thursday on the campaign trail in Quebec City.
"This particular moment is done and it's heartbreaking to see. But there is much more to do, and Canada will continue to be there for Afghans and the Afghan people."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2021
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press