Might the animal airlift from Kabul Airport have been the right, humane thing to do? It does not seem to be such as simple issue as assumed by many accusations framing this as prioritizing ‘people over animals’. It was the right thing to do, and it was done in the right way.
Most importantly, it was not an either or situation: people versus animals was a false dilemma. The charity, Nowzad, and its leader, a UK citizen, ex-Royal Marine, Pen Farthing, and those who funded the airlift worked hard to organise this airlift in an ethical way. As an animal rescue charity leader, Dominic Dyer, explained how they organised private funding through Operation Arc for a privately chartered aircraft to get the Nowzad staff (65 men, women, and their children) and the animals out. They did not take up space on military aircraft allotted to people. Even in the private charter aircraft, animals were in the hold, not an area for passengers. It was not putting ‘pets before people’. Nowzad and the organizers were well organised, funded, received the required documentation to travel, and were among the last in line to take off from the runway.
How did the story get so garbled as if they had prioritised animals before people?
It appears leaks from a whistleblower in the UK Foreign Office were misleading in suggesting that Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave authorization for a charity to evacuate some of the animals it had rescued from the Kabul airport during the mad rush to get people out of Afghanistan. Many journalists, politicians, and enemies of the PM had used this contested – probably misleading – information to add more accusations to the so-called ‘partygate’ scandal over the PM attending social gatherings during lockdowns related to COVID-19 restrictions. This generated assertions that the PM or administration chose to save animals over people, even though the PM says this is “entirely untrue” (Hughes 2022: 2), “total rhubarb” that he did not authorize this airlift. I accept his account which has been supported by the Permanent Undersecretary of the Foreign Office (Weaver 2022).
It seems the facts got caught up in the politics of “partygate”, which blinded partisans, or prevented politicians and journalists from getting to the actual facts of the case. Also, there was miscommunication across the multiple departments and agencies involved in the evacuation (Weaver 2022). Airlifting the staff and animals via a private charter was a humane and courageous action. It is more than a lack of clarity, but real misinformation and misleading assumptions made about the airlift. Partygate was part of this context that falsely framed this incident as a moral either-or dilemma.
It also misses the big picture. The major blame for the failure to get endangered people out of Afghanistan must fall on the chaotic, catastrophe of how the US retreated from Afghanistan. Speaking as an American, let’s not forget that this might go down as one of the worst debacles in US military and diplomatic history. The degree that responsibility for this debacle rests with US President Joe Biden and his and the previous Trump administration will be judged over time, but the consequences of this sudden retreat was that thousands of members of the Afghanistan population who had worked with or helped the US, UK, and other allied forces were left stranded in Afghanistan and among the mob trying to exit from the Kabul airport. The Foreign Office was said to have received 75,000-150,000 evacuation applications, with fewer than 5 percent getting any assistance (Hughes 2022:2). Generally, in hindsight, most observers were amazed that even 5 percent were able to escape under these crazy circumstances. No fault of animals.
Pen Farthing, Nowzad, and all the volunteers involved with Operation Arc, and those who funded this airlift are true heroes. They deserve to be recognized for their courage and inspiration in working for the staff and voiceless animals they rescued. Shame on those who have vilified this humane and brave effort.
Hughes, L. (2022), PM approved animal airlift from Kabul, emails suggest’, Financial Times, 27 January: 2.