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Canada in talks with NATO allies about boosting military forces in Latvia

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Ottawa is talking with allies about reinforcing a Canadian-led combat unit in Latvia as the NATO military alliance moves to reinforce its eastern front with Russia.

Latvia’s ambassador to Canada revealed the discussions in an interview with The Canadian Press as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prepares to attend a NATO summit later this week where Russia and its invasion of Ukraine will be top of mind.

The aim is to add more troops and capabilities to the 2,000-strong battlegroup that Canada has been leading in Latvia since 2017, which will serve as a deterrent to further Russian aggression in the region, said Ambassador Kaspars Ozolins.

“We are trying to respond to the current security environment,” Ozolins said. “It’s important that we beef up the security and forward defence and deterrence of the eastern flank. And it should be at the (same) level as all NATO countries.”

The Canadian-led battlegroup in Latvia is one of four established by NATO in 2017, with Germany leading another such unit in Lithuania and Britain and the United States responsible for forces in Estonia and Poland, respectively.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, NATO members agreed to create four more battlegroups in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, effectively extending the alliance’s eastern front from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg on Monday confirmed the eight battlegroups will be increased to brigade-level forces, which entails doubling the number of troops to between 3,000 and 5,000.

Increasing the battlegroups to brigades will also entail adding more equipment, including dedicated air defence and electronic warfare units as well as better command and control capabilities, and the stockpiling of more ammunition and other supplies.

“With more forward-deployed equipment, including lots more forward-deployed combat formations, and more exercises, we will significantly increase our ability to defend and protect all allies also in the eastern part of the alliance,” Stoltenberg said.

The alliance is also dramatically increasing the number of forces on high readiness from 40,000 to 300,000, Stoltenberg said, so they can be deployed quickly in the event of war.

Yet while Germany and Britain have both said in recent weeks that they are ready to lead larger combat units in Lithuania and Estonia, Canada has so far remained silent about its plans in Latvia.

Trudeau in March announced Canada will continue leading the Latvian-based battlegroup until March 2025, which Ozolins described as a necessary first step toward strengthening the force.

Canada is now leading discussions with other allies, the ambassador said, including the 10 other countries that are already contributing troops to the force. Those include Spain, Italy, Albania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

“We are moving in the right direction,” Ozolins said. “The Canadians are leading the process. … This will be like a bit of a negotiation and discussion about who brings what.”

Since Russia’s invasion, Canada has deployed more forces to Latvia, adding to the 600 troops already there before the war began. That includes sending an artillery unit as well as a handful of staff officers, including a general.

Denmark has also stepped up in a big way in recent months, promising an 800-strong battalion following a request from NATO.

But Defence Minister Anita Anand’s office did not directly address questions on Monday about Canada leading a brigade-sized unit in Latvia, or the ongoing talks with fellow NATO allies about increasing the size of the force.

“Minister Anand remains in regular contact with Latvian Defence Minister (Artis) Pabriks about Canada’s further strengthening of its presence in the region,” spokeswoman Sabrina Kim said in an email.

“Since the beginning, Canada has made significant contributions to NATO’s deterrence and defence efforts on the eastern flank. In line with our allies in the region, we will continue to augment our contributions going forward.”

The battlegroups were initially billed as “tripwires,” with the aim of making the Kremlin think twice before launching an attack as doing so would bring a unified response from the whole of the 30-member NATO military alliance.

But with the war in Ukraine, alliance leaders now appear to agree with expert warnings that those tripwires would be more like speed bumps and do little to stop Russia from rolling through the Baltics before NATO could respond.

During a visit by Latvia’s prime minister in May, Trudeau acknowledged the need to “recalculate” NATO’s previous assumptions and what it considers acceptable with regards to an attack on the Baltics, noting the reports of mass atrocities by Russian troops in places like Bucha and Mariupol in Ukraine.

But he wouldn’t say whether Canada supports dramatically expanding the battlegroups and making them permanent.

Latvia is not necessarily expecting Canada to put more boots on the ground itself, Ozolins said, adding the multinational nature of the battlegroup in his country was likely one of the main reasons an announcement has yet to materialize.

“Canada leads the battlegroup with the most numerous countries,” he said. “Because of the sheer size and involvement of different countries in the battlegroup, it probably takes a little bit more time to discuss, consult and negotiate.”

The British-led battlegroup in Estonia includes four other nations while seven are working with the Germans in Lithuania.

The bottom line is that it is imperative the alliance bolster its military presence in Latvia and the surrounding region as a show of strength to prevent Russia from thinking it can simply roll through the Baltics, Ozolins said.

“Ukraine is a huge country and it’s not so easily overtaken, whereas the Baltic states are geographically rather smaller countries and you would not have time for regrouping and reinforcing,” he said.

“So that’s why the current effort is geared towards actually having more forces on the ground.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 27, 2022.

 

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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A year after the fall of Kabul, Canadian veterans urge Ottawa not to abandon Afghans trying to flee – CBC News

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It’s been one year since Kabul fell to the Taliban after American and allied troops — including Canadians — left the country.

Video footage showed Afghans streaming onto the tarmac at the Kabul airport, desperate to escape, as a U.S. air force plane took off. Some fell to their death trying to hold on.

“We watched that terrible situation unfold … we saw that tremendous catastrophe that happened in Kabul,” said Brian Macdonald.

A Canadian veteran who served in Afghanistan, Macdonald leads the non-profit Aman Lara, which is Pashto for “Sheltered Path.” The collective of Canadian veterans and former interpreters has been working over the last year to bring refugees to safety in Canada.

“When we were unable to get them out a year ago, it was devastating. But since then we’ve come together, we’ve doubled down and been able to get 3,000 people out,” he said.

But it’s been a slow and dangerous process when those refugees need to go through the Taliban to get a passport.

“These people that have helped Canada now have to stand up and go to an office that’s controlled by the Taliban and give their name and address and the dates of birth of their children,” Macdonald said.

“It’s a very dangerous thing to do.”

Brian Macdonald, the executive director of Aman Lara, says the non-profit has successfully helped more than 3,000 Afghan refugees to safety in Canada since Kabul fell to the Taliban one year ago. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

There was hope this June, when Pakistan agreed to temporarily allow Afghan refugees approved to come to Canada across its border, without a passport or visa.

But Macdonald says they’ve hit roadblocks bringing those refugees to Canada.

“We were hoping it would be thousands, and it ended up being dozens,” he said.

“We’re dealing with the Afghan-Pakistani border, and it’s a very wild place. And so messages aren’t always clearly communicated, but we believe the window may still be open.”

Ottawa promises to speed up application process

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said Canada has added more employees on the ground to process applications as quickly as possible, including in Pakistan.

The department did not say how many undocumented Afghans have successfully made it to Canada through the arrangement with Pakistan.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, Italian coalition forces assist and escort evacuees for onward processing during an evacuation at the Kabul, Afghanistan airport on Aug. 24. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps/The Associated Press)

Canada initially said it would bring 40,000 Afghan refugees to Canada — focusing on Afghans who were employed by the Canadian government and military. The federal government says that, to date, it has welcomed 17,300, with more still to arrive “in the coming weeks and months.”

“We remain steadfast in our collective resolve to bring vulnerable Afghans to safety in Canada as quickly as possible,” says a joint statement released Monday by Fraser, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly and International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan.

The statement does not indicate when Ottawa expects to reach its target of resettling 40,000 Afghans.

In the statement, the ministers lamented what they called the “steady deterioration” of human and democratic rights in Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power last year, citing the reintroduction of severe restrictions on the ability of women and girls to go to school and to move freely within the country.

‘We can hold our heads high,’ says deputy PM about evacuation

But the federal government has been criticized for not doing more to help Afghans who assisted Canada in the NATO-led effort and are now at risk of being killed by the Taliban for their ties to Western nations.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said “we need to not think in the past tense” when asked if Canada could have done more a year ago.

“We can hold our heads up high when we think about our response compared to that of our allies. There is a lot more work to do,” Freeland said in Toronto on Thursday.

“We need to keep on working to bring more people from Afghanistan to Canada, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Deputy prime minister answers questions about Afghanistan

4 days ago

Duration 2:23

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says Canada’s priority is to focus on the women and children of Afghanistan ‘who have suffered real setbacks.’

Last month, Canada stopped accepting new applications to its special immigration program, a move that advocates say amounts to the abandoning of Afghans desperate to come to this country.

Macdonald hopes the federal government reconsiders its approach and commits to welcoming every Afghan who helped the government into Canada.

“A year ago, we were panicking to get as many people out as possible,” Macdonald said.

“We all thought — as veterans and other interpreters — that that window had closed, that the people we didn’t get out were stuck in Afghanistan.

“But what we’ve learned over the last year is we can still move them out. It’s at a snail’s pace. It’s not as many people as we’d like. But we are still grinding away every day, moving people out of Afghanistan.  And we’re just going to keep doing that until we get as many people out as we possibly can.”

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Maritime veterans working to bring Afghans to Canada – CTV News Atlantic

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John Monaghan’s connection to Afghanistan has withstood the 13 years since his tour there.

The Nova Scotia man and his family keep in constant contact — daily — with a man he met there, who worked with the Canadian military. A man he refers to as “Mr. Jones,” to keep his identity hidden from the Taliban.

The Monaghan’s have been lobbying and fundraising to bring Mr. Jones, his wife, his four older siblings and their large families to Nova Scotia.

But he says, at this point, one year after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, they’re still in limbo.

“You can tell that he’s worried, he’s definitely worried about everything that’s going on,” Monaghan said. “It’s just really frustrating. They need to move these people out of danger and here to Canada, to safety.”

Aman Lara — Pashto for “Sheltered Path” — is an organization that was born after the takeover a year ago, to try and bring as many Afghan interpreters to Canada as possible.

Its executive director is New Brunswicker Brian Macdonald, who also served in Afghanistan. Macdonald says it’s become an urgent passion project for many veterans across the country.

“A year ago, we saw those terrible scenes of people getting crushed trying to leave Kabul. At that time, we thought the window had closed, we weren’t going to be able to get any more people out. But in that year, we’ve doubled down, and we’ve now got 3,000 people out of Afghanistan,” he said.

He says they’ve been working with teams in many different locations, but the bureaucracy in several countries — including Canada — is high.

Their focus is on securing the safety of another 3,000 people, and believe the work will take years to complete.

“There’s some people on our team who still haven’t gotten their families out. We work with these interpreters very closely, they’re here in Canada but their families are still stuck in Afghanistan. So there’s a lot left to do for sure,” he said.

Macdonald believes there are about 8,000 people in Afghanistan right now, who’ve been approved to travel to Canada. But there are thousands more who are eligible, but have yet to be accepted.

“For the Government of Canada, we want them to extend the special immigration measures program, and that will allow us to get everyone that served Canada out of Afghanistan,” he said. “So we don’t think there should be a cap on that in terms of numbers, and we don’t think there should be a timeline on that. Let’s take as long as it takes to get everyone who helped Canada out of Afghanistan.”

On Monday’s difficult anniversary, Monaghan hopes Canadians take a moment to think about the people of Afghanistan.

“Mostly, I would like people to think about how comfortable and happy and safe they are and then in comparison think about the lives that these families are living in Kabul, in terror, where they are afraid for their lives.”

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Public hearings in Emergencies Act inquiry to start in September

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OTTAWA — The inquiry into Ottawa’s unprecedented use of the Emergencies Act during protests in February will start its public hearings next month.

The Public Order Emergency Commission announced today that it expects the hearings to run from Sept. 19 until Oct. 28 at Library and Archives Canada in downtown Ottawa.

Commissioner Paul Rouleau said in a statement that he intends to hold the government to account and wants the inquiry to be as “open and transparent” as possible.

Hearings will be livestreamed online and members of the public will have opportunities to share their views, with a final report expected early next year.

Parties to the inquiry including “Freedom Convoy” organizers, police forces and all three levels of government are expected to testify and contribute documentary evidence on the invocation of the act in February.

The federal Liberals made the move amid border blockades and the occupation of downtown Ottawa by protesters demonstrating against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 15, 2022.

 

The Canadian Press

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