Toxic battle of Noah's ark: The bizarre sideshow to the Afghan horror

The toxic battle of Noah’s ark: It’s a bizarre sideshow to the Afghan horror – an ex-marine fighting to evacuate pets in a rescue linked to PM’s wife Carrie… versus the Defence Secretary who has savaged the operation. So whose side are you on?

Last night Pen Farthing said his convoy of 200 shelter animals and 68 staff was targeted with gunfire after getting access to the airport.

On their way to board a chartered plane, a gunman opened fire in an incident which saw the group’s driver narrowly avoid being shot in the head and the convoy forced to turn back.

Earlier yesterday the charity director pleaded with the Taliban on Twitter to ‘facilitate safe passage’. 

Plans to board a privately-funded plane had been derailed due to security fears.

Mr Farthing’s supporter Dominic Dyer, an animal welfare activist, said a plane is waiting in a ‘neighbouring country’ but cannot land in Kabul until Mr Farthing is in the airport, which the group now hopes will happen today. Here Guy Adams looks at how the saga unfolded.

The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, is a former Captain in the Scots Guards who now finds himself overseeing one of the most dangerous and challenging military evacuations since Vietnam.

Yet at lunchtime yesterday, the 51-year-old minister found the time to break off from directing proceedings in Kabul to put out seven spectacularly angry tweets.

They were designed to ‘get some facts out there’, as he put it, about his attitude towards Operation Ark, an attempt to evacuate roughly 200 cats and dogs from Afghanistan in the hold of a charter jet that will also carry the staff of a UK-run charity named Nowzad.

In recent days Mr Wallace and his team have been accused of seeking to obstruct the daring animal rescue mission, firstly by failing to help secure permission for the plane to land and secondly by refusing to assist the evacuees (human, canine and feline) in their endeavours to reach the airport.

Supporters of the charity, which is run by a former Royal Marine named Paul ‘Pen’ Farthing, have mounted a highly personal lobbying campaign via social media. This appears to have got under the Defence Secretary’s skin.

‘The bullying, falsehoods and threatening behaviour by some towards our MoD personnel and advisers is unacceptable and a shameful way to treat people trying to help the evacuation,’ he wrote.

Supporters of the charity, which is run by a former Royal Marine named Paul ‘Pen’ Farthing, have mounted a highly personal lobbying campaign via social media

Elsewhere, Mr Wallace denied reports that he’d ever sought to ‘block’ a flight, claiming: ‘This is a total myth and is being peddled around as if that is why the pet evacuation hasn’t taken place.’ 

He also stated, somewhat provocatively, that in the coming days his ‘priority will be people not pets’. As the hostile tone of these remarks suggest, Operation Ark is now at the centre of an ugly and at times utterly surreal political dispute.

While aspects of it might seem entirely frivolous – the fate of 200 cats and dogs obviously pales in comparison to that of thousands of Afghans attempting to flee Kabul – the row may also raise serious questions about the way in which Boris Johnson’s Government conducts its business.

For the campaign against Mr Wallace has been led by Dominic Dyer, an animal rights activist with close links to the Prime Minister’s spouse Carrie. She even has a picture of him on her Twitter profile.

Dyer has spent the last three days bombarding the Defence Secretary with no fewer than 53 hostile tweets, including one which read ‘F*** this whole sh**** government and their unelected Spads and cronies,’ and others which dubbed Wallace ‘an arrogant, stupid fool of a man’, and a ‘total disgrace’. He has also attacked Mr Wallace’s special adviser, Peter Quentin, accusing him of ‘dirty tricks’. Yet while launching this attack on a Government minister, Mr Dyer also claims to have enlisted his friend Mrs Johnson to Operation Ark’s cause.

The campaign against Mr Wallace has been led by Dominic Dyer, an animal rights activist with close links to the Prime Minister’s spouse Carrie, pictured

In interviews, he has said that she ‘most certainly’ intervened to persuade the PM to order Mr Wallace to ‘seek a slot’ for the rescue flight. Although the PM yesterday claimed he ‘had absolutely no influence’ over policy towards the evacuation, it has been reported that Trudy Harrison, his parliamentary private secretary who is seen as a close ally of Mrs Johnson and shares her keen interest in animal rights, did intervene on Operation Ark’s behalf to raise the issue with Defra officials.

It is, all told, a curious affair. And to truly understand it all we must wind the clock back to the summer of 2006 when the aforementioned Royal Marine Pen Farthing arrived in Helmand province with the men of 42 Commando Royal Marines.

During the peacekeeping tour, he was befriended by a horribly mutilated dog that had been used by Afghans in dog fights. Moved by its ‘big, sad eyes’ he took the animal back to the UK. 

It became the first of around 1,700 dogs that Mr Farthing rescued, setting up Nowzad – named after the town he’d been stationed in – to give them new lives, often in the West where many became companions of retired soldiers who had served in Afghanistan, helping address post-traumatic stress.

The thoroughly inspiring charity won a string of humanitarian awards and made great strides in educating Afghans about animal welfare and eliminating rabies from Kabul, where the disease is a major public health risk. Staff at its rescue centre in the capital included some of the country’s first female vets.

Then came the Taliban’s takeover, which threatened not only Mr Farthing’s staff (deemed to be at risk of reprisals for having worked for a Western agency) but also his animals: in the 1990s the Taliban forbade the keeping of pets on the grounds that they are regarded as unclean under the organisation’s extremist interpretation of Islam.

Mr Farthing managed to evacuate his Norwegian wife, Kaisa Markhus, and a pregnant American friend. He then vowed to remain in Kabul to secure the safe evacuation of his staff members with their immediate families (who have been given visas to travel to the UK), plus the animals in Nowzad’s care. In a few days, supporters raised roughly £200,000 to charter planes to take them first to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, roughly 45 minutes from Kabul, and then to Britain.

At this stage, however, problems emerged: amid the chaos of the evacuation, Mr Farthing found himself unable to secure permission for the airplane to land at Kabul. By the start of this week, he and his staff were also still holed up at their HQ, several miles from the airport, which was by then difficult to access.

There followed a dispute with UK authorities which played out via interviews and Twitter posts.

It began on Tuesday, when Mr Farthing tweeted: ‘Have been left to fend for myself in Kabul. 

Cut off from my MoD [Ministry of Defence] support line by the special adviser to Ben Wallace. 22-year marine left behind lines. Neither my staff nor animals will now get out. Cheers.’ In a TV interview he added: ‘We’ve got a privately-funded plane that can take 250 passengers out, 69 of them would be me and the staff, but we’ve got an empty cargo hold. I don’t understand the problems here, I’m not asking the MoD to give me a plane I just need to have a call sign.’

Hours later, Wallace responded on LBC Radio: ‘I have some really desperate people in that queue who are really under threat of life and death, and if we don’t get them out their future is very, very bleak. I simply have to prioritise those people over pets.’

In a second interview, Wallace criticised Mr Farthing’s supporters, saying: ‘Some of the campaigners have latched onto the fact they’ve chartered a plane as if this is somehow the magic wand. The magic wand is whether people can get through Kabul, through the checkpoint, and then through the 3,000-plus people waiting.’

Repeating his provocative soundbite, he added: ‘I am not prepared to prioritise pets over people.’

The remarks met with huge anger from Mr Dyer and his allies, who include a TV vet named Mark Abraham, who helped Mrs Johnson source her pet dog Dilyn. Mr Dyer, a former campaigner against badger culls (an issue on which he has persuaded Mrs Johnson to lobby the PM on) uploaded furious messages to Twitter, urging supporters to ‘get on to Ben Wallace’s Twitter feed… reflect your views’.

Mr Dyer also called the Defence Secretary a ‘bully boy incompetence [sic] fool who is playing politics with the lives of Pen Farthing, his team and animals in Kabul. This man is a total disgrace.’ 

Replies by his supporters contained Mr Wallace’s office telephone number, which was bombarded with angry calls. Fast forward a few hours, and Mr Wallace announced an effective U-turn. 

At 1.33am on Wednesday he uploaded a statement to Twitter saying: ‘Pen Farthing’s staff have been cleared to come forward… I have authorised MoD to facilitate their processing alongside all other eligible personnel at (Kabul airport).

In recent days Mr Wallace and his team have been accused of seeking to obstruct the daring animal rescue mission, firstly by failing to help secure permission for the plane to land and secondly by refusing to assist the evacuees (human, canine and feline) in their endeavours to reach the airport 

‘At that stage, if he arrives with his animals we will seek a slot for his plane. If he does not have his animals with him he and his staff can board an RAF flight.’

Mr Dyer responded by posting gleeful videos to Twitter saying that Wallace had ‘had his hands slapped’ and ‘his legs pulled from under him’. He then claimed the change of policy had been ordered by Mr Johnson, possibly at the behest of his wife.

That in turn prompted the by now somewhat frazzled Defence Secretary to tell Tory MPs that his involvement in the ongoing battle over Operation Ark was affecting his ability to oversee the rest of the evacuation. ‘What I can tell you, and it is a bit upsetting, is that I have soldiers on the ground who have been diverted from saving those people because of inaccurate stories, inaccurate lobbying that have diverted that resource,’ he wrote to them at 4.30pm on Wednesday. ‘And that is not something I would be proud of.’

Whitehall insiders appear to agree. ‘Wallace shouldn’t really have got involved, but everyone is getting fractious and having to get by on very little sleep, and that’s affecting their judgment,’ one says. 

‘He’s also been anxious, rightly, to protect his Spad Peter Quentin from abuse. But the way he’s chosen to do it has at times been clumsy and tweeting in the middle of the night and whatnot is never going to be a good look.’

As for Mr Farthing, his employees and their cats and dogs, yesterday morning they were in vehicles baking in the hot sun at Kabul airport. With the animals starting to struggle with thirst, he used Twitter to lobby another influential figure for help: Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman.

‘Dear Sir, my team and my animals are stuck at airport circle. We have a flight waiting. Can you please facilitate safe passage into the airport for our convoy? We are an NGO who will come back to Afghanistan but right now I want to get everyone out safely,’ he wrote. 

‘We have been here for 10 hours after being assured that we would have safe passage.’

Around tea time, news came that they had secured access to the airport. However it was later reported that Mr Farthing had been forced to leave after their vehicle was targeted by a gunman. They intend to return today, so with a following wind, the Operation Ark evacuees get a happy ending. But however this plays out, the political fallout may take far longer to resolve.


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