Sam Ashworth-Hayes

What the Afghan animal airlift says about Britain

What the Afghan animal airlift says about Britain
An animal clinic in Kabul. (Photo by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images.)
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The evacuation of Pen Farthing and his pets from Afghanistan this week is not a ‘feel-good’ story. It is not a charmingly eccentric rescue mission. It’s a moral abomination that shames Britain. While American soldiers lifted their dead for their final flight home, British soldiers were carrying dogs onto a plane. When time was running out to get people who served with us out alive, ministers were sponsoring clearance for his charter flight and senior commanders were dealing with his supporters.

Before we go any further, I’d like to be clear about one thing: I don’t particularly blame Pen. I’d probably want to get my pets out of a warzone too. I blame the government for going along with it, and for that I blame the British public too. This one is on us. 

Put yourself, for the briefest moment, in the shoes of one of the Afghans left behind. Jamal Barak worked as an interpreter for British soldiers in Afghanistan. He fled to Britain after being shot twice. His brother has been murdered, his cousin kidnapped, and now his father – who worked as a gardener for those same forces – has been abandoned by them. When he asks why ‘animals are somewhere safe but human beings are being left behind in hell’, how exactly are we meant to answer him? Sorry, we know your family served us loyally at great personal risk, but…

Or listen to Tom Tugendhat describing the situation at Kabul airport. ‘The difficulty is getting people into and out of the airport and we’ve just used a lot of troops to get in 200 dogs, meanwhile my interpreter’s family are likely to be killed… as one interpreter asked me a few days ago, why is my five-year-old worth less than your dog… I didn’t have an answer. What would your answer be?'

The Ministry of Defence believes that no resources were diverted from operational work getting Afghan personnel out of Kabul. The Defence Secretary, meanwhile, claimed the exact opposite a few days ago when he said that the campaign had been a distraction from the main evacuation effort. At the very least, soldiers were directed to assist the animals through the airport, and senior staff and politicians had to spend time discussing what to do with the convoy.

We can try to spin this as a heart-warming effort as much as we like. I’m sure some politicians will. But the job of government is to make difficult decisions, and ours caved in under pressure from an animal-loving mob. 

If you asked the public tomorrow if the government should set up a National Veterinary Service with a budget equal to the NHS, you would be laughed out of town. Basing policy on what people say in the heat of the moment rather than trying to understand their long-term preferences is a terrible idea. But weak leadership means that we spend far too much time worrying about cute animals on the front pages. As one morose SpAd told me, the No. 10 briefing document on the alpaca was the most comprehensive they’d ever seen.

We’ve left behind 150 Britons and a thousand Afghan support staff. Now consider that for some paratroopers ‘the last thing they do before leaving themselves is putting Pen Farthing’s cats and dogs on a plane’, and tell me this was still a heroic and noble act.

Even setting morality to one side, it’s bad politics. It’s a perfect example of esoteric domestic western priorities being put ahead of the people we were supposedly there to help, the sort of behaviour that dooms our efforts overseas and alienates the rest of the world. Consider that many Muslims consider dogs to be impure. Now imagine how it must look for us to airlift them out ahead of our human allies. 

What do you think will happen the next time we put boots on the ground somewhere and try to recruit interpreters and guards for the occupation? ‘Oh, yeah, the benefits are great. Just a word of warning though, you’re first on the list for evacuation if we leave unless there’s a puppy with big sad eyes on the front page of a paper. Then you’re getting beheaded.’ It will be enough for many people to seriously consider the relative merits of western civilisation and the Taliban.

Sentimentality unchecked can cause people to behave in deeply evil ways. You don’t need to be an effective altruist who lives their life carefully maximising the total good they do in the world. I know I’m not. But there’s surely a middle ground between optimising for human lives saved in every decision, and refusing to place any weight at all on that in a time-pressured evacuation where people who worked for you are going to be killed. Some opportunity costs are far sharper than others; buying a coffee means I don’t spend that money on a malaria net, but I can always donate tomorrow. Directing resources to evacuate dogs means people will be murdered. It’s hard to undo that. 

Remember Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who washed up dead on a Turkish shoreline? For all the sad conversations about borders and refugees, when we were confronted with a situation where the airlift of children from desperate plight was needed, what did our deeply empathetic public spend its time on? 

This week time and attention – and, yes, resources – were spent on Farthing’s animals instead of getting people out alive. Britain chose the picture of the sad puppy over people fearing for their lives.