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Leaked letter suggests Boris Johnson backed dog and cat airlift from Kabul as Afghans sought refuge

Pen Farthing's high-profile social media campaign succeeded in getting his nonprofit's animals evacuated from Afghanistan. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he did not intervene in the matter. (Alessandro Rota/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday called allegations that he had intervened to help airlift nearly 200 dogs and cats from Kabul during the Afghanistan withdrawal crisis “complete nonsense.”

But the same day, a senior opposition lawmaker produced a letter from a top Johnson aide that “authorized” the animal evacuation. Chris Bryant, the lawmaker, also accused Downing Street of “covering up” the prime minister’s role in that operation, which took place as thousands of vulnerable Afghans scrambled to flee Taliban rule.

At the height of the crisis, Paul “Pen” Farthing, a former British Royal Marine who operated the Nowzad animal charity, pushed a high-profile social media campaign to get British and Taliban officials to give his staff and animals safe passage to the Kabul airport. Farthing eventually arrived in London on Aug. 29 on a privately chartered flight with his animals, but no staff. (Nowzad personnel later managed to flee, Farthing said.)

Those social media efforts drew a sharp rebuke from British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who complained they had “taken up too much time” in the middle of a humanitarian crisis and promised to prioritize people over pets. Johnson has denied intervening in the case — but the letter from a Conservative lawmaker who is also a top aide to the prime minister indicates he may have played some role.

In the Aug. 25 correspondence to Farthing, lawmaker Trudy Harrison wrote that she had received confirmation from various British government agencies that Farthing, his staff, their dependents and animals would be allowed to enter the airport and to leave on planes, according to Labour lawmaker Bryant, who read out the letter in Parliament. Animals would be evacuated on a separate flight that Britain’s Defense Ministry would give a departure slot to, the letter said.

“The prime minister’s fingers are all over this, aren’t they? And you’re just trying — I’m hesitant to use the words ‘cover up’ — but that’s what it feels like,” Bryant told officials.

Downing Street did not immediately return a request for comment. A spokesperson for Johnson told the Guardian that Harrison, who has been promoted to another role, was not acting in her capacity as an aide to the prime minister when she wrote the letter.

Britain withdrew some 15,000 people from Afghanistan during a major U.S.-led airlift in the two weeks after the Taliban seized Kabul in mid-August. London has since said that it would help resettle thousands more, prioritizing vulnerable groups such as women and LGBTQ people.

But the animals were withdrawn even as tens of thousands of Afghans and their families who might have been eligible for resettlement were left behind, according to testimony provided to Parliament by a whistleblower.

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

Raphael Marshall, who worked in the Foreign Office during the Taliban takeover, suggested in written testimony that the British evacuation effort was marked by disorganization similar to the United States’ chaotic departure from Afghanistan.

Marshall claimed that thousands of emails from Afghans potentially eligible for flights out went unread by the Foreign Office and that the animals were prioritized over people in an airlift. Johnson had sent a request “to use considerable capacity to transport Nowzad’s animals,” Marshall said, and although the charity supplied its own plane, there was a “limited number of soldiers available to bring eligible people into the airport and limited capacity within the airport.”

Farthing has accused the whistleblower of lying and said on Twitter that British soldiers did not help him or the Nowzad animals get to the airport.

The uproar over animal evacuations is the latest in a string of controversies to dog the British prime minister, who is facing allegations in the local media that there was a staff party held at 10 Downing Street on Dec. 18 last year, when such gatherings were banned because of distancing measures to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The speaker of the House of Commons has also called in police to investigate reports that drug use is “rife” in the British Parliament — just as Johnson is promoting a tough new anti-drug strategy for the country. A lawmaker close to Johnson was also found to have broken rules on lobbying, prompting a debate about the levels of “sleaze” in British public life.