PRIME Minister David Cameron said yesterday that Britain will “never forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice” as UK troops brought their campaign in Helmand province to an end.
UK forces handed Camp Bastion over to Afghan officials yesterday, concluding their part in the 13-year conflict with a poignant ceremony.
British and American troops stood side by side as the Union flag and the Stars and Stripes were lowered at the base for the last time.
The Prime Minister tweeted: “I made a commitment that I would get our armed forces out of Afghanistan by 2015 and today sees the end of combat operations in the country.
“We will always remember the courage of those who served in Afghanistan on our behalf and never forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the campaign had given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a stable future, but later admitted that there was “no guarantee” it would remain safe.
He said: “We have denied Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorism and terrorist atrocities that could take place in Britain and western Europe. To that extent the mission has been accomplished in Afghanistan but there is no guarantee that Afghanistan is going to be stable and safe.
“What we are saying to you is that 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.”
The UK is preparing to withdraw combat personnel entirely from Afghanistan by the end of the year and its next move is expected to be the handover of a base in Kandahar, the country’s second largest city.
Several hundred military advisers and trainers will remain in the capital Kabul after the end of the year, but Mr Fallon insisted that under no circumstances will British combat troops be deployed in Afghanistan again.
Looking back on Britain’s campaign there, which began October 2001 when troops were deployed as part of the Nato response to the 11 September terrorist attacks in the US, Mr Fallon admitted that “mistakes” had been made.
He said: “I think the generals have been clear that mistakes were made. Mistakes were made militarily and mistakes were made by the politicians at the time.
“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 didn’t exist ten years ago.”
Commenting on the handover, Helmand’s provincial governor Naim Baluch said “the UK’s armed forces and their allies have helped to improve security in Helmand”.
“We are very grateful for the courage and commitment of your soldiers and we are ready to deliver security ourselves,” he added.
However, the head of the British Army, General Sir Nick Carter, has said that security remains “difficult”.
This year, Taleban offensives to reclaim towns such as Sangin and Nowzad, once held by British forces, have inflicted heavy casualties on Afghan forces.
Despite these difficulties, the senior UK officer in Helmand, Brigadier Rob Thomson, criticised “erroneous” comparisons between the critical situation in Iraq and what may happen in Afghanistan.
“Iraq and Afghanistan are very different in terms of the environment here, whether that is the geography, the culture, their societal structures and so on,” he said.
“The way we are ending the mission is very different. We are transitioning now for the next two years. There will be continued support in the ministry of defence and the ministry of interior to people there to train, assist and advise missions through parts of the country. It is not a cliff edge end here.
“It is going to be a transition and I think that is really important. We have not seen any evidence of Isis in Helmand at all.”
The vast majority of the UK’s 453 casualties lost their lives in the fight against the Taleban insurgency in Helmand, with Camp Bastion used as the British centre of operations.
When the campaign in the southern province began in 2006, the government said that UK forces would be there only to protect reconstruction. But they quickly got caught up in an struggle against a Taleban uprising and the sprawling base, surrounded by desert, grew to have a perimeter of 22 miles.
At the peak of the Afghan conflict there were 10,000 British personnel in Helmand together with 20,000 US Marines, Danes, Estonians and other nationalities at 180 bases and checkpoints.
Now Bastion’s runway – at one point the fifth busiest UK-operated airstrip – is expected to handle commercial flights.
In recent months, hundreds of military vehicles and shipping containers with kit have been brought back to the UK.