The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Royal Marine rescued animals from Afghanistan in a mission dubbed ‘Operation Ark.’ His staff was left behind.

Pen Farthing, who runs the British charity Nowzad, an animal shelter, stands in front of a cage on the outskirts of Kabul on May 1, 2012. Farthing's push to get his animals rescued from Afghanistan has been criticized by some British leaders. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
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Paul “Pen” Farthing was so desperate to get out of Afghanistan with his charity’s staff — and dozens of dogs and cats he vowed to rescue — that he appealed to a Taliban leader.

“Dear Sir; my team [and] my animals are stuck at airport circle,” Farthing, a former British Royal Marine who runs the Nowzad animal charity in Afghanistan, tweeted to Taliban spokesman and negotiator Suhail Shaheen. “We have a flight waiting. Can you please facilitate safe passage into the airport for our convoy?”

The days-long evacuation mission, dubbed “Operation Ark,” ended on Sunday in what Farthing called a “partial success.” He arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport on a privately chartered flight with his animals, but no staff.

“We have just unloaded the last of our dogs and cats at their temporary lodgings, following a long and difficult journey from Afghanistan,” the Nowzad team posted on Sunday, adding, “The Operation Ark mission is still ongoing and we are working tirelessly to ensure that we reach a positive conclusion for our staff.”

The high-profile evacuation that unfolded on social media left Farthing clashing with senior U.K. officials. The former Royal Marine said his government abandoned him following the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan after he refused to leave without his staff and animals.

But some British leaders said Farthing was pulling precious resources from the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Kabul, where tens of thousands of people have fought to get onto evacuation flights. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace had refused to airlift animals on Royal Air Force aircraft, pledging to prioritize people over pets. Wallace also told the LBC that Farthing’s supporters had “taken up too much time of my senior commanders.”

In an audio recording leaked to the Sunday Times, Farthing can be heard leaving an expletive-filled message for Wallace’s special adviser.

“Get me out of Afghanistan with my staff and my animals,” Farthing said in the recording. “I served for 22 years in the Royal Marine commandos. I am not taking this … from people like you who are blocking me. You’ve got ’til tomorrow morning.”

Farthing began lobbying British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in mid-August to stop plans to pull troops out of Afghanistan. When it became clear the Taliban was closing in on Kabul, Nowzad began a “Rescue the Animal Rescuers” campaign to get veterinarians, nurses, animal care staff and their families out of Afghanistan writing, “We cannot leave these brave and compassionate people behind.”

Comedian Ricky Gervais and actor Dame Judi Dench were among the celebrities who shared their support for the rescue effort.

As the Taliban swept into Afghanistan’s capital, Farthing pleaded with viewers on social media to contact members of the British government to help get his team out of the country.

“We have screwed up their country,” he said of Western governments. ” … Message them on all angles.”

They made it out of Afghanistan. But their path ahead is uncertain.

Wallace tweeted last week that British authorities would “seek a slot for his plane” if Farthing and his staff arrived at the airport in Kabul with their animals. Farthing said he and his team were later caught in the chaos outside the airport when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest there on Thursday, killing 13 U.S. service members.

He told the BBC that he and his team, along with their animals, were about a mile from the explosion.

“[We] had Taliban there firing into the air,” Farthing said, according to the BBC. “One let off a full magazine on automatic from his AK-47 right next to the window of our bus where we had women and children.”

That’s when Farthing appealed to the Taliban negotiator, but his effort was not successful. Animal welfare campaigner Dominic Dyer, who has acted as a spokesman for Farthing, told the Associated Press that Taliban guards would not let Nowzad’s Afghan staff members enter the airport “even though they had papers permitting them to come to Britain.”

After Farthing’s plane landed at Heathrow, Dyer told the AP that Nowzad is committed to getting the rest of its team out of Afghanistan.

The animals that are now in Britain were being examined, according to Farthing’s charity, and placed into quarantine.

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