Q: Did the U.S. abandon its military dogs during its withdrawal from Afghanistan?
A: The Department of Defense maintains that none of its military service dogs were left behind. But animal welfare groups say some contract working dogs — which did not belong to the U.S., though some may have been contracted by the military — were left at the Kabul airport.
Did the U.S. military abandon their service dogs in Afghanistan?
As the U.S.’s 20-year war in Afghanistan came to a chaotic end — with Americans and Afghans attempting to flee the country, some unsuccessfully — viral posts on social media turned their attention to the fate of the dogs that worked with the military.
In an Aug. 30 Instagram post liked more than 259,000 times, Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn shared an image of dog carriers in front of a damaged helicopter, which he indicated was at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. “Photo of our American service dogs left behind in the airport,” Cawthorn claimed.
Similarly, on Facebook, another post of the same photo was captioned, “Not a great day for America’s service dogs that are still in the airport.” And Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that the Biden administration “even abandoned hard-working service dogs!!! WTF.”
Some went further. In an Aug. 30 tweet, former Navy SEAL Jonathan Gilliam dubiously claimed that the Department of Defense “ordered ALL military working dogs to be left behind in #Afghanistan.”
But the Department of Defense rejected the claim that the viral images showed U.S. military dogs left behind: A DOD official told us there were no military working dogs left in Afghanistan.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby also wrote on Twitter that, to “correct erroneous reports, the U.S. Military did not leave any dogs in cages at Hamid Karzai International Airport, including the reported military working dogs.”
“Photos circulating online were animals under the care of the Kabul Small Animal Rescue, not dogs under our care,” he said.
But animal welfare groups say some contract working dogs — as in those not owned by the U.S. military — were left behind.
On Sept. 1, Cawthorn updated his caption on Instagram to account for this distinction, changing it to say, “Contract service dogs left behind.”
Contract Working Dogs
The group American Humane in an Aug. 30 statement said that the “American government is pulling out of Kabul and leaving behind brave U.S. military contract working dogs to be tortured and killed at the hand of our enemies.”
Laura Sheehan, a spokeswoman for American Humane, told us in an phone interview that the “statement was based on reports we were getting from military personnel over the weekend,” in addition to reports from contractors who owned some of the dogs and were forced to leave them at the airport.
Sheehan recognized that military working dogs had indeed been evacuated, but said many contract working dogs — which she said “do everything that military working dogs do to help keep U.S. troops safe,” such as security and detecting explosive devices — were not. “Contract working dogs should be afforded the same rights and privileges as military working dogs,” she argued.
The reports from military personnel and contractors indicated that “dogs were on site at the airport and that the military was denying them access to cargo storage,” and that private charter planes for evacuating dogs were also denied access to the airport by the military, Sheehan said.
The DOD official disputed the claim that the U.S. military didn’t allow private charter planes to land to rescue the dogs, calling it “untrue,” and said questions on whether contract working dogs were left behind should be posed to the contract companies responsible for them.
Sheehan said American Humane was aware of reports of an estimated 50 contract working dogs at the airport — and said it was her group’s understanding that the “contract working dogs were there in support of the military,” though she did not know the specific contractors. The group was not sure what happened to them after the last U.S. plane departed.
“We know they were left behind,” she said. “I don’t know what’s happened to them since that time.”
Nikki Rohrig, president of a nonprofit group called the Military Working Dog Team Support Association that assists active-duty military working dog teams, told us that the “military is responsible for the transport and care of their military working dogs and every military working dog returns home with their handler after a deployment to a global combat zone.”
Rohrig said in an email that the military working dog teams with which her organization works had been “evacuated from [Hamid Karzai International Airport] last week.”
“Contract working dogs are the responsibility of the contracting company and it is up to that company to transport those CWDs back home,” Rohrig said. “I think this is where the confusion lies: CWDs versus MWDs.”
Kabul Small Animal Rescue
The Kabul Small Animal Rescue — whose dogs the DOD says are shown in the carriers in the viral photos — was started in 2018 by Charlotte Maxwell-Jones, an American. She acknowledged in a recent interview with the outlet Stars and Stripes that evacuating the rescue’s dogs and staff was a daunting mission, noting that among the logistical challenges was getting permission for a private charter plane to land at the airport.
And while the group had raised significant money to fund private flights, Stars and Stripes reported, the “biggest hurdle is finding a third country that will allow a plane carrying animals to land” in order to allow Afghan staffers to be vetted before entering the U.S.
Michelle Smith, executive director of a Texas nonprofit called Puppy Rescue Mission — which fundraises to transport animals from conflict zones for service members — told us in a phone interview that it was her understanding that an estimated 45 working dogs under Maxwell-Jones’ care had been bomb-sniffing dogs for various locations in Afghanistan.
The rest of the estimated 130 dogs that KSAR had taken to the airport were non-working dogs, including personal pets, she said. Smith said she has been in regular contact with Maxwell-Jones and assisted KSAR’s evacuation efforts.
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International, citing communications with Maxwell-Jones as of Aug. 30, reported that day that Maxwell-Jones had left the airport, staying in Kabul, and “the status of KSAR’s 130 dogs is much less clear, despite our constant efforts to confirm their whereabouts.” It noted that in her care were “46 working dogs” — later clarifying that the working dogs referenced “are not working dogs owned by the U.S. military, they are contract working dogs that are owned and trained by private companies and are contracted for work that can include military and other operations.”
Maxwell-Jones later told Stars and Stripes that military personnel released the dogs from cages in an enclosed area at the airport.
“The fate of the animals, about 50 of which Maxwell-Jones described as working dogs abandoned by contractors who supported the U.S. mission, remains unknown,” Stars and Stripes reported Sept. 1.
Ultimately, Smith said in a follow-up email, “while the DOD evacuated military dogs, i.e. dogs the DOD owns, it left behind the dogs owned by military contractors.”
Smith said that “many service members at the airport went out of the way to help, including giving the dogs food and water.” She asserted that “the DOD would not let the animals on because of the over broad, unnecessary and unwarranted CDC ban on importing dogs from high-risk rabies countries.” (SPCAI also called that CDC policy an “impediment.”)
It’s true that this summer the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a temporary suspension of the importation of dogs from countries with high risk for dog rabies, a list that includes Afghanistan. The agency notes that dogs “from high-risk countries may be imported only with CDC’s advance written approval (CDC Dog Import Permit).”
We asked DOD whether the CDC policy played any role in contract working dogs not being evacuated, but didn’t hear back. We’ll update this story if we do.
Citing health factors during the evacuation, a CDC spokesperson told us that — while the agency considers permit applications for personal pets with proper documentation — the “CDC will not issue permits for shelter or street dogs from Afghanistan to allow these dogs to enter the U.S.”
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“American Humane Condemns Death Sentence Delivered to Contract Working Dogs Left Behind in Kabul, Afghanistan.” Press release, American Humane. 30 Aug 2021.
González, Belsie. Spokesperson, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Email to FactCheck.org. 1 Sep 2021.
“High-Risk Countries for Dog Rabies.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Updated 14 Jul 2021.
Kirby, John (@PentagonPressSec). “To correct erroneous reports, the U.S. Military did not leave any dogs in cages at Hamid Karzai International Airport, including the reported military working dogs. Photos circulating online were animals under the care of the Kabul Small Animal Rescue, not dogs under our care.” Twitter. 31 Aug 2021.
“Notice of Temporary Suspension of Dogs Entering the United States from Countries Classified as High Risk for Dog Rabies.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 16 Jul 2021.
Rohrig, Nikki. President, Military Working Dog Team Support Association. Email to FactCheck.org. 31 Aug 2021.
Sheehan, Laura. Vice president of communications and legislative affairs, American Humane. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 31 Aug 2021.
Smith, Michelle. Executive director, Puppy Rescue Mission. Phone interview with FactCheck.org. 1 Sep 2021.
“URGENT UPDATE AND ACTION PLAN FROM CHARLOTTE & KABUL SMALL ANIMAL RESCUE (KSAR).” SPCA International. 30 Aug 2021.
Walter Wellman, Phillip. “US Woman Under Taliban’s Watch Won’t Leave Kabul Without Her Staff and Hundreds of Rescue Animals.” Stars and Stripes. 25 Aug 2021.
Walter Wellman, Phillip. “American rescue clinic founder stays in Afghanistan to pursue evacuation for staff and animals left behind.” Stars and Stripes. 1 Sep 2021.