Mother jones is reporting that on the morning of August 29, just over 24 hours before the United States military completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan, an Army veteran named Tom Amenta took to Twitter to make a major announcement.
“Good morning, Operation Hercules,” he said. “We have an airplane.”
The announcement was the latest breathless update in a frenetic campaign that had swept social media in the days leading up to the withdrawal.
Kabul Small Animal Rescue was desperately trying to get dozens of dogs out of Afghanistan before the US abandoned the country to Taliban rule. Its founder, an American named Charlotte Maxwell-Jones, drew a flood of media attention after making several appeals for help, claiming that the shelter would be under immediate threat because it was run by a woman and because the Taliban reportedly views dogs as unclean.
As the US military withdrew from Afghanistan, Kabul Small Animal Rescue was not the only shelter left to fend for itself. However, as news of pets left stranded in Kabul flooded the media, and a small army of organizations and advocates took to social media, donations poured in.
Within a few days, three key charities had raised nearly $2 million in total. More than 14,000 people are listed as donors on KSAR’s main GoFundMe page, which is just one of several online fundraisers the organization has run.
However, as the frantic fundraising campaign exceeded Maxwell-Jones’ wildest expectations, important questions remained unanswered.
Who, after all, was this haphazard coalition of animal lovers, vets, and volunteers? What happened to the money? And what if their plan fell through? What would happen to the animals—and all those donations?
As a reporter covering the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was difficult to ignore the online outrage over animals left behind in Kabul.
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However, when sources I knew in the nonprofit and charity world expressed concerns, I felt compelled to investigate further.
“How can you expect you’re going to get dogs out when we can’t even get Americans out?” said an employee at one of the groups involved in the evacuation effort.
Maxwell-Jones’ first indication that he needed assistance came in July. That month, she collaborated with the charity SPCA International to launch a fundraising campaign to help her animals be evacuated. “Every dollar given will be matched by the SPCAI, and every penny will go to the transport fees of our dogs,” she wrote.
The campaign raised $10,235, exceeding Maxwell-Jones’ goal but only scratching the surface of what future fundraising appeals would bring in. It also established a formal relationship with SPCAI, which is frequently confused with the ASPCA (of Sarah McLachlan commercial fame).
In fact, SPCA International was founded as a private offshoot of a Montreal charity, and it has its own strange and contentious history. Unlike most charities, which use the majority of their donations for charitable purposes, SPCAI has diverted nearly half of its revenue to fundraising firms managed by a family with close ties to SPCAI’s founder.
Despite its tumultuous history, SPCAI has increased its grant-making in recent years. Maxwell-Jones stated last week that the first SPCAI grant was used to evacuate dozens of dogs, which she said they did until flights were full and they ran out of time. A federal ban on importing dogs from Afghanistan and other countries went into effect on July 14, effectively halting the evacuation effort.
Maxwell-Jones had only recently assumed a position of leadership in the field of animal welfare. On LinkedIn, she still refers to herself as a “independent research consultant,” and her organization, Kabul Small Animal Rescue, which was founded in 2018, was only recently registered as a nonprofit with the IRS.
She has previously run small fundraising campaigns for Nowzad, an Afghan animal shelter whose founder, a former British soldier named Pen Farthing, conducted his own highly publicized evacuation operation, in 2013 and 2016.
After the Taliban took control of the country in late August, Maxwell-Jones began tweeting at journalists, pleading for “awareness” and financial assistance.
The Tweet no longer exists, but it said:
We are Americans & Afghans (led by women) ON THE GROUND in Kabul taking in dogs & cats left behind as people flee. We need awareness &financial help so we can evacuate with these 150+ animals. We cant leave them. @andersoncooper @LesterHoltNBC @RobinRoberts
— Kabul Small Animal Rescue (@KSAnimalRescue)August 20, 2021
Her story drew sympathetic coverage from media outlets such as Stars and Stripes and NBC News, and other charities soon offered her money and a larger platform to spread her message.
But there was no actual plan. Maxwell-Jones said she relied on US-based organizations like SPCAI and Puppy Rescue Mission to contact brokers and coordinate flights while she was in Kabul and struggling with a consistently bad wifi connection.
Not all of these organizations had relevant experience; for example, SPCAI had run a program rescuing pets from Syria and Iraq but not from Afghanistan.
And it was difficult, if not impossible, to tell who was talking to whom. Consider the Veteran Sheepdogs of America, a veterans organization based in Colorado.
The organization and its leader, a Marine Corps veteran named Joshua Hosler, began fundraising for what they claimed was a plan to fly Maxwell-Jones’ pets to Ramstein, Germany. (Earlier this year, a group called “Veteran Sheepdogs of Colorado” registered as a nonprofit with the IRS, but no financial information is available.) When asked about Hosler and his group, Maxwell-Jones seemed unaware, despite mentioning them by name in one of her press releases.
“I might have spoken to him,” she said, “but I’m honestly not sure.”
Meanwhile, it was unclear what operational role Amenta—the Army vet whose constant Twitter updates received thousands of retweets and likes—was playing. His video updates were shared by SPCAI and other organizations, but he did not appear to be employed by any charity.
According to his LinkedIn profile, he is the marketing director for a security firm in Omaha, Nebraska. Several people involved in the evacuation effort said they hadn’t heard of him until 72 hours before the withdrawal. Given their friendly Twitter exchanges, one would assume they were close friends, but Hosler stated that they had never met.
Some of Amenta’s information about the operation was quickly debunked. For example, he referred to the pets on Twitter as “MWDs,” or military working dogs, but the Pentagon and State Department later denied this. Maxwell-Jones told me that some of the pets in her care belonged to a contractor, a claim that was later echoed by SPCA International in a tweet.
Amenta finally tweeted confirmation on August 29 that the pets had a flight out of Kabul, after days of drawing attention to the cause through his videos. “It will land tonight,” he predicted.
Several charities had raised enormous sums of money for the evacuation effort by that point. Since June, Maxwell-Jones and her organization have launched at least five separate fundraising campaigns, totaling more than $1.3 million as of early September. An SPCAI spokesperson stated that at least $270,000 had been collected, and Puppy Rescue Mission, one of the US charities working with Maxwell-Jones, stated that they had raised more than $50,000. In an interview, Hosler claimed to have raised $1.4 million to evacuate the animals from Kabul, but this week revealed that the actual figure is closer to $750,000 due to the withdrawal of a prospective donor.
These organizations raised more money in a few hours than many animal charities do in months, if not years. Then everything fell apart.
“I’m sorry,I’m so sorry,” Amenta said in a series of videos posted to Twitter on the afternoon of August 30. “We tried.”Operation Hercules had failed. That result may be one of the only indisputable moments in an evacuation effort whose details are still being debated online.
— Tommy Amenta (@TommyAmenta) August 30, 2021
Officials in the United States claim that a plane never arrived for the dogs in the first place, and Amenta refuses to answer questions about what went wrong. On August 30, he declared in one of his final posts about the campaign that he would be doing “ZERO & I mean ZERO press,” except to promote his upcoming book about the war.
The charity blamed the incident on the Defense Department in an update posted to Kabul Small Animal Rescue’s Twitter account, saying, “The military forcibly released all the rescue dogs” at the airport as the last of several US flights was departing. According to a lengthy post by SPCA International, which came after the organization said it received a “debriefing” from Maxwell-Jones, “the dogs and their caretakers were explicitly NOT allowed to board military aircraft, and numerous private charter aircraft were not granted access to the airport either.”
But the US military says that’s wrong.
In a written response to questions posed by PETA, one of the charities drawing attention to the attempted evacuation, an Army spokesperson wrote that “Kabul Small Animal Rescue claimed to have arranged a chartered plane to rescue the animals,” but “that plane did not arrive, leaving no options to evacuate the dogs.”
US troops moved more than 150 dogs to a “former Afghan National Army compound on the airport grounds with appropriate supplies of food and water,” the statement said.
Meanwhile, it remains unclear how Maxwell-Jones’ supporters could have been so certain they had secured a “landing permit” when this was not the case.
The CDC ban on importing dogs from Afghanistan was a stumbling block they should have anticipated, according to SPCA International, which said it “applied for an Emergency Exemption so that Charlotte and the dogs could get out on our chartered flight this week,” but did not receive one. Payments were made for two flights, according to Louise Hastie, the operations director at an Iraqi animal shelter that assisted with the evacuation effort. The first was denied a landing permit, and the second fell apart for reasons that “we are still trying to figure out.”
Later, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby tweeted that the military “did not leave any dogs in cages at Hamid Karzai International Airport, including the reported military working dogs.” In a statement to Defense One, the State Department added that none of its dogs were left behind. In fact, some of the animals appeared to belong to GardaWorld, a Canadian military contractor that told Military Times that some of its dogs were still in Kabul.
On September 2, SPCA International tweeted that Maxwell-Jones and Kabul Small Animal Rescue “are in the midst of carrying out plans to recover the rescue dogs and contract working dogs from the airport.” But the charity added, due to the “safety and security” of the people involved, it “cannot share specific details at this time.”