What a story to tell the world: Britain values dogs more than Afghan people

As the gates of hell closed on Kabul, they were among the last to make it out. They landed in the early hours of Sunday morning, to a hero’s welcome from some, and shamed silence from others. For this was a planeload not of human souls – those desperate Afghans who had huddled knee-deep in sewage for days outside the airport in hopes of being saved – but of cats and dogs.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed, through audibly gritted teeth, that the private plane chartered to bring back former soldier turned animal rescuer Paul “Pen” Farthing and his menagerie of strays had been “assisted” through the airport by British troops in the final shambolic hours of the retreat from Kabul – even as human beings who had put their trust in the western forces they worked alongside were being abandoned to their fate.

As Tom Tugendhat, the Tory MP and ex-serviceman who has been struggling to get his old army interpreter into the UK, put it: “We’ve just used a lot of troops to get in 200 dogs; meanwhile my interpreter’s family is likely to be killed. When one interpreter asked me a few days ago, ‘Why is my five-year-old worth less than a dog?’ I didn’t have an answer.”

What a story to tell the world about ourselves, amid the chaos of our leaving. What a gift to extremist movements across the Middle East and beyond, who draw their power from the idea that the west holds foreign lives contemptuously cheap; that cats of no conceivable interest to the Taliban can be airlifted out but not human beings at risk of being hunted down and executed. Even Farthing’s Afghan staff, whom he had insisted he would get out, were left behind in the end, after their paperwork was rejected at the airport.

The catastrophe unfolding in Kabul is, of course, hardly Farthing’s fault. A cynic might even argue that the row over his rescue mission has been a useful distraction for a government rightly on the rack over this fumbled, catastrophic end to a 20-year occupation. But real anger and frustration have been reported in military circles, not only with Farthing but with some of his vocal band of British supporters, who bombarded ministers and MPs with angry tweets and emails demanding that something be done for the animals at a time when every second counted.

For veterans struggling to come to terms with a defeat that reopens deep mental wounds, it hurts to feel that some of the public will lobby harder for cats and dogs than for the people they served alongside. No wonder, then, that someone leaked the contents of an embarrassingly bombastic call Farthing made to a senior Ministry of Defence aide, threatening to “fucking destroy you” in the media if he didn’t get clearance for his mission.

Yet political score-settling does nothing for those still in desperate need and danger, which is why serving and former soldiers in the forefront of efforts to rescue their old comrades over the past few weeks are now regrouping around the one thing that, as the former veterans minister Johnny Mercer points out, we can all still do: welcoming those who do make it out.

More than 8,000 evacuated Afghan refugees now desperately need not just immediate practical help – the gifts of coats and shoes, toiletries and children’s toys, which are already pouring in from the public – but long-term support to settle in a country whose hostility to new migrants seems to be hardening by the year.

The prime minister swears the evacuees will be received with “open arms”; even Priti Patel, the notoriously hardline home secretary, talked of wanting to hug the children coming off the plane when she met evacuation flights at Heathrow. The Home Office is meanwhile organising something called Operation Warm Welcome, involving free English lessons for those who worked with British forces. But once the media circus moves on, and Nigel Farage is back to complaining about boatloads of asylum seekers washing up on the shores of Kent, how long will that spirit of generosity last?

The real test isn’t just how Britain treats the lucky ones airlifted out in the past few days but the thousands who will undoubtedly follow. From those Afghans granted visas but left behind in the chaos (for whom the west has promised somehow to try to negotiate safe routes out) to the 20,000 refugees that ministers have agreed to resettle in Britain over the next five years, and the untold thousands who will seek to make it out in future by any means possible.

For years to come, desperate Afghans are going to be handing their life savings to people smugglers, clambering on boats and stowing away on lorries – just as some have been doing for years, but this time with a far greater moral claim on the countries where they will try to seek asylum.

Britain is, in other words, about to learn the hard way that the trouble with trying to retreat from the world is that sooner or later the world comes to you. We will deservedly be judged on how we respond.

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