British Soldier’s Afghan Pet Rescue Sparks Row Over Defense Role

British Soldier’s Afghan Pet Rescue Sparks Row Over Defense Role

As the operation to airlift out Afghans desperate to flee Taliban rule enters its waning hours, a row has erupted over the evacuation of hundreds of cats and dogs by a former British serviceman.

Amid the scenes of chaos at Kabul airport, Pen Farthing, a former member of the U.K.’s Royal Marines, managed to secure the help of British forces for his plan to fly out 200 rescue animals on a plane chartered for the purpose. The animals may get out, but the Afghan staff of his Nowzad charity group will be left behind. 

While many supported the effort, which Farthing dubbed Operation Ark, others were angered that with only hours remaining before the end of U.K. evacuation operation, time and resources were being spent on getting animals, rather than people, out of the country. 

Major General Nick Carter, the head of the British Army, faced tough questions on the BBC’s Radio 4 morning show Saturday about the government’s decision to support Operation Ark. Carter was asked whether he was frustrated at having his staff working to bring out animals.

“Our priority has been to evacuate human beings,” said Carter. “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.”

Farthing had garnered huge publicity after using Twitter to raise the plight of his animals and his staff’s attempt to leave Afghanistan via a non-military, charter flight. In a message four days ago Farthing wrote that: “I have been left to fend for myself in Kabul. Cut off from my #MOD [Ministry of Defence] support line by the special adviser to @benwallacemp [the U.K. Defence Secretary] 22 year Marine left behind lines.. neither my staff or animals will now get out - cheers.”

Among the high-profile supporters of Farthing was British actor and comedian Ricky Gervais who Tweeted that because the animals were being transported in the plane’s hold they were not taking up space that could otherwise have been taken by Afghans and others trying to escape the mayhem that has followed the Taliban takeover of the country.

Wallace himself entered the fray on Thursday, using his personal Twitter account to send a series of posts defending his department’s position and describing the claim that he had blocked Farthing’s flight as a “total myth.” “I never said I would not facilitate. I said no one would get to queue jump,” wrote Wallace. The defense secretary accused Farthing’s supporters of engaging in “bullying, falsehoods and threatening behavior” toward Defense Ministry staff trying to help with the evacuation operation. 

Following criticism of the government’s stance, Farthing and his animals were eventually given permission Friday to leave. The ministry said Wallace had personally intervened to get clearance for the rescue flight to take off from Kabul. Farthing’s Afghan’s staff had been granted visas to leave, but were unable to get past Taliban checkpoints to enter the airport compound, Farthing told the Telegraph newspaper.

As of Saturday afternoon U.K. time, Farthing and his animals were still in Kabul. Sky News reporter Tamara Cohen tweeted that the plane chartered for the evacuation had arrived at the airport. 

Diverting scarce resources in the final days of the Afghan rescue mission to rescue pets has not proved universally popular. An article in the right-of-center U.K. magazine The Spectator slammed the move. “The British state has chosen to devote some of its resources to help with the removal of animals from Afghanistan. Those resources cannot be used on other things,” wrote James Kirkup, the director of the Social Market Foundation think-tank.

“There are doubtless many words for this situation, but the only one I can think of one [sic]: shameful.”

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