Camp Bastion: British soldiers leave Helmand Province handing base over to Afghan forces

It brings to an end a costly chapter in the 13-year campaign, which resulted in the deaths of 453 British troops

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The Independent Online

The last UK base in Helmand Province was handed over to Afghan forces this morning, bringing British combat operations to an end after 13 years.

During the handover at Camp Bastion, British and American soldiers stood side by side as the Union flag and the Stars and Stripes were lowered at the same time and the two countries’ national anthems were played.

The ceremony marked the withdrawal of British forces from the frontline, although a few hundred military advisers will remain until the end of the year to advise the Afghan army.

British soldiers arrived in Afghanistan in October 2001, shortly after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, as part of an international mission to oust the Taliban from power.

The Taliban was toppled within weeks, but western forces have faced a prolonged and often bloody insurrection, with 453 British soldiers killed and thousands injured during the conflict. Most died in the southern province of Helmand where UK troops have been based for the last eight years.

Ten thousand British personnel were stationed in Helmand at the height of the conflict, although the presence has been steadily scaled back as responsibility for security was handed to the Afghans.

Military vehicles and equipment has been sent back to Britain for several months from Camp Bastion, which is due to be turned into a commercial airstrip.

A British officer walking on deserted ground inside Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on the exact spot where the very first tents were erected in 2006 as the base was built

The remaining British troops at the base are due to return home this week, which is slightly ahead of the original schedule.

Those few hundred British troops remaining at the camp will begin to make their way home in the next few days ahead of schedule after handing over to the Afghan forces.

Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, acknowledged there was “no guarantee” Afghanistan would be “stable and safe” following the departure of western fighting forces.

A U.S. Marine is pictured before withdrawal from the base, at Camp Bastion in Helmand province

“What we are saying to you is we have given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a safer future, primarily through the sacrifice of our own troops and other Nato troops in building up the Afghan army itself,” he told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.

The Defence Secretary confirmed that Britain would not be sending combat forces back into Afghanistan “under any circumstances”, including a large scale insurrection in Helmand or Kabul.

He admitted mistakes had been made during the lengthy campaign.

“The general have been clear mistakes were made. Mistakes were made militarily and mistakes were made by the politicians at the time.

File photo dated 25/10/14 of deserted roads and compounds at Camp Bastion, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, as the British base becomes devoid of soldiers

“Clearly the numbers weren’t there at the beginning, the equipment wasn't quite good enough at the beginning, and we have learnt an awful lot from the campaign.

“But don’t let’s ignore what has been achieved. We have now some six million people in school in Afghanistan, three million of them girls.

“There is access in Helmand to healthcare and to education in that province that simply did not exist ten years ago.”