British troops have handed Camp Bastion over to Afghan forces, bringing to an end their bloody campaign in Helmand province.
The poignant handover ceremony saw British and American troops stand side by side as the Union flag and the Stars and Stripes were lowered at the base for the last time.
It brings to an end a costly chapter in the 13-year campaign, with the vast majority of the UK’s 453 casualties losing their lives in the fight against the Taliban insurgency in Helmand.
Several hundred military advisers and trainers are expected to remain in the Afghan capital Kabul after the end of the year, but ministers insist they will not fight.
Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon said: “It is with pride that we announce the end of UK combat operations in Helmand having given Afghanistan the best possible chance of a stable future.
“Our Armed Forces’ tremendous sacrifice laid the foundations for a strong Afghan Security Force, set the security context that enabled the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history, and stopped it being a launch pad for terrorist attacks in the UK.
“Although we are ending a significant chapter in our shared history, the UK’s commitment to support Afghanistan will continue through institutional development, the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, and development aid.”
- War on Islamist fanatics will last a generation, David Cameron tells troops in Afghanistan
- Invictus Games: Ex-soldier reveals how he recovered from a Taliban bomb blast to lead team
- Army officer’s mother makes journey to Afghanistan to ‘see what he died for’
- Coalition is not leaving a crisis in Afghanistan, says brigadier
Bastion has been the centre of British operations in the country since UK troops were sent to Helmand in 2006.
The Government said at the time that UK forces would be there only to protect reconstruction, but they quickly got caught up in the struggle against the Taliban insurgency.
At the peak of the Afghan conflict there were 10,000 British personnel in there together with 20,000 US Marines, Danes, Estonians and other nationalities at 180 bases and checkpoints.
Bastion, surrounded by desert, grew into a sprawling base and its largest had a perimeter of 22 miles.
Now its 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.
Commenting on the handover, Helmand’s Provincial Governor Naim Baluch said that “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, Chief of the General Staff General Sir Nick Carter has admitted that security in Helmand remains “difficult”.
This year, Taliban operations 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, Deputy Commander, Regional Command South West, blasted “erroneous” comparisons between the critical situation in Iraq and what may happen in Afghanistan.
Brigadier Thompson paid tribute to those who had fallen in Helmand, saying: “We will never forget the 453 soldiers, sailors and airmen who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”