While Afghans Tried to Flee, Boris Johnson… Saved Dogs?

While Afghans Tried to Flee, Boris Johnson… Saved Dogs?

While Afghans Tried to Flee, Boris Johnson… Saved Dogs?

Leaked e-mails suggest the British PM OK’d the evacuation of rescue pets from Afghanistan last August—and they speak volumes about the occupation.


Five months after Western forces fled Afghanistan, the images of their chaotic departure are still with us: of families huddled outside Hamid Karzai International Airport, civilians shuddering past Taliban checkpoints, men and women chasing departing US military planes—all in a last-ditch bid to flee the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate.

Now, leaked e-mails suggest that while hundreds of desperate Afghan men, women, and children lined up outside the British embassy, the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, authorized the evacuation of at least 150 animals out of Afghanistan. The humans in danger would have to wait.

The e-mail, sent between officials in the Foreign Office, reads: “Charity Nowzad, run by an ex-Royal Marine, has received a lot of publicity and the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated.”

When the chartered plane took off on August 28, the only ones on board were Paul “Pen” Farthing, a former Royal Marine, and more than 100 dogs and cats. Not a single Afghan was on that plane, one of the last ones to leave before the Western occupation came to an official end on August 31. Farthing later claimed that the workers were turned away at the gates of the airport because they did not possess foreign passports, in line with a condition set by US officials in the final days of the evacuations.

Eventually, in mid-September, the Afghan staffers were sent to safety in Pakistan, but the entire fiasco, including the rhetoric spouted by the Nowzad shelter (named for a district in the Southern province of Helmand), speaks volumes about the occupation and how the forces and governments behind it viewed the people of Afghanistan.

For years, the shelter was funded by animal lovers around the world and billed itself as being committed to “winning the war for animals.”

It was a ridiculous notion, no matter what you think about animal rights. The war that was supposed to bring democracy—as if it had never existed in Afghanistan before—and advancement had led to the deaths of 1,659 civilians in the first six months of 2021 alone.

Maybe the animal war was being won, but the human one, which was particularly gruesome in places like the district of Nowzad, certainly was not.

Farthing, however, was undeterred. The charity’s website describes its origin story like this:

In November 2006 the men of Kilo Company of 42 Commando Royal Marines arrived in the war torn town of ‘Now Zad’ in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Their mission; provide stability for the local people during a period of ever decreasing security.

The Royal Marines soon realised that it wasn’t only the local people that needed their help. Many of the stray dogs that roamed the town of ‘Now Zad’ now had a guardian for the first time in their lives; in the form of Royal Marine Sergeant ‘Pen’ Farthing.

Yes, now even the stray dogs of Afghanistan had white saviors.

According to the shelter’s website, Farthing and his compatriots “reunited over 1,700 soldiers with the dogs and cats that they rescued and bonded with on the front lines of Afghanistan.” Never mind the fact that “stray” dogs exist all over the world, and that by definition they wouldn’t have a “guardian” no matter where they were on the map; any Afghan who knows what it would take to bring an animal to a foreign country would be offended by the hubris of the do-gooding espoused by Farthing.

Remember, each one of those animals would have required travel documents, including passports, airplane tickets, and visas to arrive in the UK, all of which were incredibly difficult for Afghan civilians to obtain throughout the 20-year occupation of the country. That’s not to mention, the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, it would have cost to secure each animal’s exit from a country where the people still faced the daily possibility of attack from the Taliban, the so-called Islamic State, and local strongmen.

Johnson has spent several months denying his direct involvement in the evacuation of Farthing and his dogs and cats—what Farthing dubbed “Operation Ark.” But testimony presented by Raphael Marshall, the Foreign Office official who also supplied the leaked e-mails, suggest a different story. In his testimony, he wrote that the Foreign Office had received “an instruction from the Prime Minister to use considerable capacity to transport Nowzad’s animals.” This, despite the fact that Marshall said other states were focusing on helping people who were at risk of physical violence or death at the hands of the Taliban.

Marshall’s testimony, which is part of a parliamentary investigation into the Johnson-led government’s handling of the entire evacuation process, further revealed that the Permanent Joint Headquarters had already assessed “that there was no reason to believe the Taliban would target animal rights charities. There was therefore no justification for concluding that Nowzad’s staff were at significant risk. By contrast many others would inevitably be left behind who were at risk of murder.”

In the August 25 e-mail chain, Foreign Office officials can be seen arguing about whether the Afghan veterinarians working at another clinic would have qualified as “extremely vulnerable individuals.” But there was no question in their minds, apparently, that the Nowaz animals should have been evacuated on a specially chartered plane at a time when Afghans, including those who had served foreign militaries, were still struggling to get out of a country that had just fallen back into the hands of the Taliban.

To those of us who were forced to leave and who still follow the news in the emirate, the facts revealed by the e-mails leaked last week are particularly infuriating. At least four young Afghan girls, one only 13, have been missing for more than 10 days now.

On the evening of January 19, one of the girls, Tamana Zaryab Paryani, released a frantic online video saying the Taliban were at the door of the Kabul apartment she lived in with her three sisters.

“Help! Please, the Taliban have come to my house, my sisters are at home,” were the last words anyone has heard from the 25-year-old in more than 10 days. When asked about the allegations, the Taliban denied arresting the girls and said they were among a group of young women “trying to make a case and say they are under threat in Afghanistan in order to get asylum and refuge.”

Yes, in the same week that the Taliban claimed that a handful of young women, including a teenager, were staging their own nighttime arrests in order to gain asylum abroad, it comes out that the British prime minister appears to have authorized the evacuation of dozens of dogs and cats only 10 days after the Taliban takeover.

It also comes only four months after the British Home Office determined that there would be “no real risk of harm” if Afghan asylum seekers were to be deported back to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. The guidance went on to say that if Afghan asylum seekers wish to stay in the UK, they must be able to demonstrate “specific reasons over and above simply being a civilian for being affected by the indiscriminate violence.”

Though there are no official records of any Afghan having been sent back, the fact that the issue has been raised so soon after the Taliban takeover is troubling, particularly given how many Afghans had their asylum cases rejected when the Taliban were taking district after district early last summer.

The UK has a history of deporting Afghan refugees. Between 2007 and ’16, it deported more than 2,800 Afghan asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children. According to a 2017 Amnesty International report, 75 percent of Afghan asylum seekers had their claims rejected the previous year.

Johnson continues to deny his role in the animal evacuations. Last month, he called the accusations “complete nonsense” and touted the fact that at least 15,000 people had been evacuated from the country by the August 31 withdrawal of foreign forces. After last week’s e-mail leak, his spokesperson said: “At no point did the Prime Minister instruct staff to take any particular course of action on Nowzad.”

Whatever the prime minister’s precise role turns out to be, the fundamental facts of the story are disturbing. Animals were flown out of the country as hundreds of people continued to line up outside the British embassy, even after the foreign withdrawal. The animals were flown to safety after a 20-year occupation during which UK forces faced hundreds of allegations of torture, abuse, and execution of Afghan civilians.

Meanwhile, more than 20 million Afghans will face hunger over the coming year, in part because foreign governments and international organizations have locked up more than $9.5 billion in assets and cut back on aid because they do not trust the Taliban leaders, many of whom remain on international terrorist lists.

And all of this comes as the Afghan people know that their former president Ashraf Ghani ran off on his own plane on August 15 and that, hours later, the Taliban walked into a Kabul abandoned by the republic the UK had backed, financially and militarily, for 20 years. Now the latest e-mail leak leaves them to wonder whether their lives are worth less to Britain than the lives of dogs.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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