CAMP BASTION-LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan – British forces on Sunday, October 26, handed over formal control of their last base in Afghanistan to Afghan troops, ending combat operations in the country after 13 years which cost hundreds of lives.
The handover was hailed by British Prime Minister David Cameron but the southern Helmand province that foreign troops are leaving behind still confronts a resilient Taliban insurgency and remains a hub for opium production.
All NATO combat troops will depart Afghanistan by December, leaving Afghan troops and police to battle Taliban insurgents on their own.
In a ceremony Sunday the Afghans took formal control of the base, despite already being present in a portion of it. The British and US flags were lowered, leaving only Afghanistan’s national flag to flutter in the breeze.
Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron later tweeted: “As flag lowers at Camp Bastion, our Armed Forces can return with their heads held high – proud of all they have achieved to keep us safe.”
A total of 453 British troops and 2,349 Americans were killed.
General Sayed Malook, who leads the Afghan forces in the region and has now established his quarters in the base, said the camp would become a military training centre and house 1,800 soldiers.
“I’m certain we can maintain the security,” he said Sunday. Asked about the departure of the NATO troops, he said: “I’m happy and sad. I’m happy because they are going to their home, I’m sad because they are friends.”
Not everyone shared his optimism.
Atiqullah Amarkhail, a former high-ranking general turned analyst said the British mission in particular was a failure.
“You see that the British are leaving a broken Helmand, where the Taliban insurgency is at its highest, and government forces are struggling to hold territories, and the province is producing almost fifty percent of the world’s opium,” he said.
There are now about 40,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, down from their 2011 peak of around 140,000.
A residual force of around 12,000 soldiers including 9,800 Americans and 500 Britons will remain after December as part of a security pact signed by new president Ashraf Ghani.
Their role will be training Afghan troops and counter-terrorism.