Two stories on the Afghan evacuation today combine to leave me full of bewildered rage.
The first, from the Times:
“'Britain may have to leave 1,000 Afghan support staff behindUp to 1,100 Afghan citizens entitled to come to the UK are likely to be left behind as British forces withdraw from Afghanistan in the next 48 hours.The RAF was expected last night to complete the evacuation of 15,000 Afghan and British citizens from Kabul airport despite the terrorist attacks. The military will have pulled out by the end of the weekend.Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said that between 800 and 1,100 Afghan interpreters and other support staff were unlikely to make it out. Up to 150 Britons are also likely to be left behind.'
The second, from the BBC:
“'Afghanistan: Pen Farthing through Kabul airport security with animalsAn animal charity's founder has made it through Kabul airport's security, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.Paul "Pen" Farthing was trying to get his staff and rescue animals out of Afghanistan when they became caught up in Thursday's airport bomb blasts.On Friday evening the MoD said Mr Farthing and his animals were assisted by the UK Armed Forces.It added: "They are currently being supported while he awaits transportation."'
This is not a piece about the Whitehall processes around Pen Farthing’s charter flight, though I don’t think it takes much to listen to either Defence Secretary Ben Wallace or General Sir Nick Carter talk about this and infer that they’re uncomfortable with the time and resources they’ve had to devote to getting cats and dogs out of Kabul.
Nor is it a piece about the logistics around Farthing and his plane, its hold and the rest of it.
It’s about choices, and the allocation of time and effort. The first thing children studying economics are taught is the concept of opportunity cost. Every time you chose to allocate time, effort or resource to something, you decide that those things cannot be used on something else. A pound spent on apples cannot be spent on oranges. An hour spent watching TV cannot be used to study.
So go back to that MoD quote about supporting Pen Farthing in his efforts to transport animals. Now consider three simple facts.
- The British state has finite resources. It is bound by opportunity cost.
- 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.
- The British state will leave in Afghanistan around 1,000 human beings who have worked, at risk of their lives, furthering British policies and British interests. Those people want to leave Afghanistan because they fear that if they do not do so, they will be persecuted or killed.
There are doubtless many words for this situation, but the only one I can think of one: shameful.
Since this piece was published, an MoD source has been in touch to take issue with it. That source says that any UK resources used to support Farthing and his charter flight were not diverted from operational work getting Afghan personnel out of Kabul – in essence, if UK resource had not been used on Farthing, it would not have made any difference to the number of Afghans the UK could remove from Kabul.
The source also notes that Farthing was not given RAF flights for his animals and was literally the last in the queue for a take-off slot from the airport. In short, that source says that the piece you’ve read could give a misleading impression of the consequences of UK activity with regard to Pen Farthing.
Not least because I have a lot of respect for this particular MoD source, I’m very happy to note those points here.
This also gives me a chance to clarify a point that might not have been clear enough in a brief, hasty piece. I’m not making any criticism of the UK personnel involved in directing, planning and delivering the evacuation. I think those personnel, in Afghanistan and the UK, have been put in an awful position as a result of decisions other people have made. That includes decisions made by supporters of Pen Farthing, who have chosen in the midst of a highly complex and challenging military and diplomatic operation to whip up an angry populist mob demanding action on behalf of animals rather than people. I’m also angry about the decision of a lot of members of the public to endorse that nasty, stupid narrative.
And in that sense, I stand by my central argument. The hue and cry in favour of Pen Farthing and his animals has diverted the resources of Britain as a whole: political capital, public sympathy, intellectual energy – all have been diverted to this issue, diminishing the time we collectively spent on the human beings who matter much more. Our leaders, commanders and decision-makers shouldn’t have had to spend a single minute of their time considering the plight of some cats and dogs. But they did, because this is a democracy and that means public opinion and public demands register in our politics and government, and affect the allocation of the nation’s resources.
Would the outcomes for Afghan humans have been a bit different if those leaders hadn’t had to spend time and thought on Afghan animals? I think that’s a question worth asking.
Instead, we are a nation that thinks ‘are animals as important as people?’ is a question worthy of debate rather than dismissal. And that is what should shame us here.