There is a time and a place for animal rescue. That time and place isn’t Kabul, Afghanistan, in August 2021.
In the capital of a failed state, citizens of Western countries — as well as the Afghans who worked with them and likely face severe retribution at the hands of the Taliban — are trying to flee the country the only way they can: through Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The airport has seen one terror attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and at least 169 Afghans, according to The Associated Press. A drone strike that U.S. authorities say prevented another suicide bombing at the airport on Sunday has claimed the lives of numerous innocent civilians in Kabul, CNN reported, including at least six children.
Amid all this, a former British Royal Marine who ran an animal shelter in Afghanistan organized an effort to have his animals airlifted out of the country with the assistance of the U.K. military, which got the rescued pets through the airport in Kabul on Friday, according to the BBC.
Paul “Pen” Farthing, the Royal Marine behind the effort, arrived back at London’s Heathrow Airport on Sunday with 90 to 100 dogs and 60 to 70 cats. The effort was dubbed “Operation Ark” and was initially intended to airlift the shelter’s staff and their families — along with 140 dogs and 60 cats — out of Kabul.
Farthing called Operation Ark a “partial success” in a tweet.
That “partial success” didn’t include airlifting the staff out of Kabul; Farthing’s charity confirmed it had to leave Afghanistan without them. Dr. Iain McGill, a veterinarian who traveled back on the plane chartered by Farthing, said the former Royal Marine was “very concerned for his staff and for all the other people suffering in Afghanistan.”
Farthing’s charity said it was a “devastating blow” their “wonderful team” was forced to remain in Afghanistan.
Yes, one might say so.
Farthing’s defenders, including comedian Ricky Gervais, argued the animals traveled in the plane’s cargo hold and therefore didn’t take up any space that would have been used to transport those fleeing the Taliban, according to Bloomberg Quint.
However, the controversy isn’t so much where Farthing’s rescue animals were carried so much as it is one of British resource usage.
According to The Guardian, British Defense Minister Ben Wallace told members of Parliament during a Wednesday conference call that Operation Ark had “diverted” the military’s focus somewhat from saving human lives, adding that the affair was “not something I would be proud of.”
While supporters of Farthing’s charity privately chartered an Airbus A330 to make the flight, Wallace said this wasn’t a “magic wand,” given the logistical difficulties involved with getting people into and through Hamid Karzai International Airport. This call, mind you, took place two days before the suicide bomb attack on the airport complicated things significantly.
Instead, Wallace said the A330 would “block the airfield” and “sit there empty” as the evacuation of people was prioritized.
“What I was not prepared to do is prioritize pets over people. I’m afraid you may dislike me for that but that’s my view. There are some very, very desperate people under threat,” he said.
The BBC also reported Wallace had complained Farthing’s supporters had “taken up too much time of my senior commanders dealing with this issue when they should be focused on dealing with the humanitarian crisis.”
Early on Wednesday, Wallace tweeted that “if [Farthing] arrives with his animals we will seek a slot for his plane … I have been consistent all along, ensuring those most at risk are processed first and that the limiting factor has been flow THROUGH to airside NOT airplane capacity. No one has the right in this humanitarian crisis to jump the queue.”
British Army head Maj. Gen. Nick Carter also didn’t express unalloyed support for the mission to airlift animals out of Afghanistan when grilled about it on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday morning.
“Our priority has been to evacuate human beings,” Carter said, according to Bloomberg Quint. “We obviously worry about everything that needs to be evacuated, but of course these are very difficult times, and there are very difficult judgments to be made.”
However, in an interview with LBC Radio on Saturday, Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, was a bit more blunt.
“The difficulty is getting people into and out of the airport, and we’ve just used a lot of troops to bring in 200 dogs, meanwhile my interpreter’s family are likely to be killed,” said Tugendhat, according to the BBC.
“As one interpreter asked me a few days ago, ‘Why is my 5-year-old worth less than your dog?’”
However, is Farthing the one to blame? Sam Ashworth-Hayes, writing in the conservative British publication The Spectator, doesn’t think so. Instead, in a piece published Sunday, he said the issue was a government too willing to give into Farthing’s cause instead of focusing on evacuating Britons.
“We can try to spin this as a heart-warming effort as much as we like. I’m sure some politicians will. But the job of government is to make difficult decisions, and ours caved in under pressure from an animal-loving mob,” he wrote.
“If you asked the public tomorrow if the government should set up a National Veterinary Service with a budget equal to the NHS, you would be laughed out of town. Basing policy on what people say in the heat of the moment rather than trying to understand their long-term preferences is a terrible idea. But weak leadership means that we spend far too much time worrying about cute animals on the front pages.
“We’ve left behind 150 Britons and a thousand Afghan support staff. Now consider that for some paratroopers ‘the last thing they do before leaving themselves is putting Pen Farthing’s cats and dogs on a plane,’ and tell me this was still a heroic and noble act.”
But at least there’s a happy ending for the dogs and cats, right? “As you can imagine they’re not short of homes for these animals,” McGill told the BBC.