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Published: Monday 27th October 2014 by The News Editor
David Cameron has said Britain will “never forget those who made the ultimate sacrifice” as UK combat troops brought their campaign in Afghanistan to an end.
UK forces handed Camp Bastion in Helmand province over to Afghan officials, concluding their bloodiest chapter 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.”
But former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott, who was in the Cabinet that sent British troops to Afghanistan, questioned whether the results “justified the heavy loss of lives”.
Writing in the Daily Mirror, he said he “gratefully welcomed” the return home of service personnel.
“Their bravery, determination and grace under fire cannot be underestimated. It came at too heavy a cost – 453 servicemen and women losing their lives,” the peer wrote.
“I respect the thousands of gallant men and women who went to Afghanistan and Iraq to save lives and restore peace. But they teach us that being the world’s policeman carries a heavy price and does not justify the heavy loss of lives.”
And ex-foreign secretary Jack Straw admitted he regretted the mission to destroy the country’s opium trade, which has risen to produce around 90% of the world’s supply.
He told the Times: “I do regret that. it was very much a diversion. You have got to make a choice about which front you fight on.
“We had no option but to take military action in the autumn of 2001. It was a war of necessity. Although as with any other military action things didn’t work out quite as planned or as intended and we have been caught up in the fog of war, but Afghanistan is a better place on many metrics, including education of women.”
Earlier, Labour leader Ed Miliband tweeted: “The handover of Camp Bastion is a time to remember those who have served Britain so courageously in Afghanistan over the last decade.”
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” that it would remain safe.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, 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 is next expected to hand over 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 in October 2001 when troops were deployed as part of the Nato response to the September 11 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 health care and to education in that province that simply didn’t exist 10 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.
But the head of the British Army, General Sir Nick Carter, has admitted that security remains “difficult”.
This year, Taliban 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, blasted “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 will be 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 Taliban insurgency in Helmand, with 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 a struggle against the Taliban 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.
One battalion of troops, believed to be Americans, are expected to be the only foreign forces to remain.
Published: Monday 27th October 2014 by The News Editor