As thousands of people were evacuated from Kabul ahead of the final withdrawal of Western troops, the attempted rescue of dozens of veterinary staff and hundreds of animals from a British animal rescue charity in Afghanistan caught the attention of the media and led to a heated dispute between the charity and the British government.
Pen Farthing, founder of the Nowzad Dogs animal sanctuary in Kabul, was a British Royal Marine for 22 years and fought the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2006.
He set up Nowzad — named after the first dog he rescued — in 2007, and the charity rapidly expanded, employing a local staff of 25, including three of Afghanistan’s first female veterinarians.
Describing their emotions when the Taliban seized the capital on August 15, Farthing said, “The three young women I have that work for us, the first-ever female vets in Afghanistan, they are absolutely terrified. There may be reprisals, because, you know, obviously we're a foreign organization. We've helped soldier rescues in the past, so, soldier rescue dogs.”
“And as I said about the women, what's going to happen to them? Are they going to be forced — all of our young women are single —- so are they going to be forced to marry some Taliban fighter and just live at home, having his children? I dread to think,” Farthing told Reuters.
The former marine initially refused to leave Afghanistan without his staff and the hundreds of animals under his care — a mission he named Operation Ark. His cause was followed closely in the British media as a dispute erupted between the charity and the government. Farthing accused Britain of abandoning him, his staff and the animals.
British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told Farthing that as a British citizen, he should board an evacuation flight himself and that his staff and animals could be rescued later.
“Once the evacuation is over, I genuinely believe that his workforce — and if he wants to repatriate the pets that he looks after and the strays — I genuinely believe that they will be allowed to move forward ... at a later date when that airport opens. But frankly, I have to prioritize people at the moment over pets,” Wallace told Sky News on August 24.
In later Twitter posts, Wallace said, “The bullying, falsehoods and threatening behavior by some towards our MOD personnel and advisers is unacceptable and a shameful way to treat people trying to help the evacuation. They do their cause no good.”
An expletive-laden phone message sent by Farthing to Wallace’s adviser, Peter Quentin, in which Farthing said he would “destroy” Quentin if he did not arrange the evacuation, was leaked to the media. Farthing has since apologized and said he was speaking under stress.
Nowzad chartered its own plane, thanks to a donation from a U.S.-based investor. After several days, the British government finally authorized the plane to land in Britain and approved the evacuation of 68 Nowzad staffers and their dependents, and the animals.
But the Taliban refused to let them through the airport gate, as they did not have British visas stamped in their passports.
Wildlife campaigner Dominic Dyer, who has been assisting the campaign from Britain, blamed the British government.
“What Pen had was a letter from Downing Street effectively guaranteeing entry for these 68 people. And the Taliban said, ‘Well, we don’t care what Boris Johnson thinks. We care what [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden has decided, and he has said no visas, no entry. And you’re not coming in with your people.’”
“It was the delays with the [UK] Ministry of Defense to get the flight authorization that led to that problem, because if we’d gotten people to that gate three or four days earlier with the list we needed to authorize entry, with the flight authorization to land the aircraft, we wouldn’t have hit that buffer of a change of American rules that basically stopped him getting his people through,” Dyer told VOA.
The Ministry of Defense did not respond to VOA’s requests for comment.
Farthing chose to leave the airport perimeter and escort his staff away from the airport back through the streets of Kabul to safety. He appealed directly to Taliban leaders via Twitter to allow the group into the airport. On Saturday, Farthing and the rescued animals were allowed into the airport — but without his staff. U.S. soldiers helped load the animal crates onto the chartered plane.
Farthing said he appealed to the British government to fill the empty seats with Afghan citizens awaiting evacuation but was told that none were available to board the plane. He and the animals arrived in Britain Sunday morning.
Farthing has since reunited with his wife, who was evacuated from Afghanistan to her home country of Norway.
With the Taliban now in full control, the fate of the Nowzad staff and their families remains uncertain. The 140 dogs and 60 cats evacuated from Kabul are now in quarantine in Britain. Nowzad said there have been many offers of new homes for the animals.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.